Today on Project Gutenberg #37

Today on Project Gutenberg, we have…

Bracebridge Hall by Washington Irving

“How appropriately spooky for late October!” you might say. After all, Irving was the author of “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” two of the spookiest short stories out there. But this isn’t quite the Irving that pop culture has made you familiar with.

To understand the origin of Bracebridge Hall, we have to go back to Irving’s previous work, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. This is a collection of short stories published in installments from June 1819 to September 1820. The fifth installment, published in January 1820, is the one we’re most concerned with currently. In those five stories, Geoffrey Crayon — Irving’s pseudonym/literary persona — spends Christmas with the eccentric, aristocratic Bracebridge family at their home in Yorkshire. Bracebridge Hall, published in 1822, is a sequel to this set of stories. Crayon/Irving visits the family again, this time to attend the wedding of Squire Bracebridge’s son. What follows is an unusual kind of story, for as Crayon/Irving tell us, it’s hardly a story at all.

While sojourning in this stronghold of old fashions, it is my intention to make occasional sketches of the scenes and characters before me. I would have it understood, however, that I am not writing a novel, and have nothing of intricate plot, or marvellous adventure, to promise the reader. The Hall of which I treat has, for aught I know, neither trap-door, nor sliding-panel, nor donjon-keep: and indeed appears to have no mystery about it. The family is a worthy, well-meaning family, that, in all probability, will eat and drink, and go to bed, and get up regularly, from one end of my work to the other; and the squire is so kind-hearted an old gentleman, that I see no likelihood of his throwing any kind of distress in the way of the approaching nuptials. In a word, I cannot foresee a single extraordinary event that is likely to occur in the whole term of my sojourn at the Hall.

I tell this honestly to the reader, lest when he find me dallying along, through every-day English scenes, he may hurry ahead, in hopes of meeting with some marvellous adventure farther on. I invite him, on the contrary, to ramble gently on with me, as he would saunter out into the fields, stopping occasionally to gather a flower, or listen to a bird, or admire a prospect, without any anxiety to arrive at the end of his career. Should I, however, in the course of my loiterings about this old mansion, see or hear anything curious, that might serve to vary the monotony of this every-day life, I shall not fail to report it for the reader’s entertainment.

And curious things, as it turns out, can be found in abundance at Bracebridge Hall. As the wedding approaches, Crayon/Irving recounts the episodic misadventures of the family, their servants, the nearby villagers and several other colorful figures. From romance to riding accidents to sheep-stealing and a giant May Day brawl, there’s rarely a dull moment to be found. It feels a lot like Irving was trying to write a pastoral rom-com in the vein of Jane Austen, except with an ensemble cast.

The cast, you see, is the heart and soul of the book. What we have here is a series of character sketches, in which Irving establishes these larger-than-life figures before tossing them into weird situations. And what an impression they make! Here’s an excerpt from the chapter on Lady Lillycraft, the squire’s elderly sister and one of the first major characters introduced.

She dresses in rich silks, with long waist; she rouges considerably, and her hair, which is nearly white, is frizzled out, and put up with pins. Her face is pitted with the small-pox, but the delicacy of her features shows that she may once have been beautiful; and she has a very fair and well-shaped hand and arm, of which, if I mistake not, the good lady is still a little vain.

I have had the curiosity to gather a few particulars concerning her. She was a great belle in town between thirty and forty years since, and reigned for two seasons with all the insolence of beauty, refusing several excellent offers; when, unfortunately, she was robbed of her charms and her lovers by an attack of the small-pox. She retired immediately into the country, where she some time after inherited an estate, and married a baronet, a former admirer, whose passion had suddenly revived; “having,” as he said, “always loved her mind rather than her person.”

The baronet did not enjoy her mind and fortune above six months, and had scarcely grown very tired of her, when he broke his neck in a fox-chase and left her free, rich, and disconsolate. She has remained on her estate in the country ever since, and has never shown any desire to return to town, and revisit the scene of her early triumphs and fatal malady. All her favourite recollections, however, revert to that short period of her youthful beauty. She has no idea of town but as it was at that time; and continually forgets that the place and people must have changed materially in the course of nearly half a century. She will often speak of the toasts of those days as if still reigning; and, until very recently, used to talk with delight of the royal family, and the beauty of the young princes and princesses. She cannot be brought to think of the present king otherwise than as an elegant young man, rather wild, but who danced a minuet divinely; and before he came to the crown, would often mention him as the “sweet young prince.”

She talks also of the walks in Kensington Gardens, where the gentlemen appeared in gold-laced coats and cocked hats, and the ladies in hoops, and swept so proudly along the grassy avenues; and she thinks the ladies let themselves sadly down in their dignity, when they gave up cushioned head-dresses and high-heeled shoes. She has much to say too of the officers who were in the train of her admirers; and speaks familiarly of many wild young blades that are now, perhaps, hobbling about watering-places with crutches and gouty shoes.

Whether the taste the good lady had of matrimony discouraged her or not, I cannot say; but, though her merits and her riches have attracted many suitors, she has never been tempted to venture again into the happy state. This is singular too, for she seems of a most soft and susceptible heart: is always talking of love and connubial felicity; and is a great stickler for old-fashioned gallantry, devoted attentions, and eternal constancy, on the part of the gentlemen. She lives, however, after her own taste. Her house, I am told, must have been built and furnished about the time of Sir Charles Grandison: everything about it is somewhat formal and stately; but has been softened down into a degree of voluptuousness, characteristic of an old lady very tender-hearted and romantic, and that loves her ease. The cushions of the great arm-chairs, and wide sofas, almost bury you when you sit down on them. Flowers of the most rare and delicate kind are placed about the rooms and on little japanned stands; and sweet bags lie about the tables and mantelpieces. The house is full of pet dogs, Angola cats, and singing birds, who are as carefully waited upon as she is herself.

I’ve always believed that a weak narrative can be made compelling by interesting, fleshed-out characters. Whether or not Irving believed the same, he clearly had a talent for describing people. His paragraphs don’t just create a physical image of the character in your mind, they give you a strong sense of who they are and how they became that person. It’s great fun to read.

The edition of Bracebridge Hall found on Project Gutenberg comes with another charming surprise. The text is taken from an 1877 publication of the book that featured illustrations by Randolph Caldecott, and those illustrations are included here as well. Caldecott was a prolific Victorian children’s book illustrator and the namesake for the Caldecott Medal, one of the most prestigious awards for children’s books. Caldecott’s illustrations for Bracebridge Hall are charming and quirky, easily capturing the vibe of each character.

I’m glad I discovered this! There are a few chapters and plotlines that aren’t very PC, but most of it is cute and clever. It’s also a great exercise in character and setting description. If you’re not super familiar with the work of Washington Irving or just want to explore more besides the most famous stuff, you should absolutely check this out.

And that’s what we found today on Project Gutenberg! See you next time!

— Dana

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