murder mystery, crime, & detective fiction



Originally Published:

Est. Read Time: 0 mins

In the last decades of the eighteenth century, England had been purged, mentally and socially, by strong draughts of French ideas, and literature was turbulent with romanticism. Thus, at the beginning of the new era, there was more to think of than manners and morals. Novel writers were experimenting in every direction. There was the political, social, or educational novel of Godwin and his group, the Gothic romance, the historical novel, the novel of sensibility.
Table of Contents

According to the Scotch story, the best sermon is not more than twenty minutes long. When Mrs. Hannah More expanded the moral narrative to many pages, she broke the rule, and was supported by the flare-up of English virtue against the atheism and profligacy of the conquering French. But in the magazines, miscellanies, and collections of the English generation contemporary with the Napoleonic period, morality is no longer so completely fashionable.

Current short stories usually leave out the sermon altogether, and the frequent advertisements of "moral tales for children" indicate that Johnsonian narrative had been handed down to girls and boys.

This is not surprising, for, in the last decades of the eighteenth century, England had been purged, mentally and socially, by strong draughts of French ideas, and literature was turbulent with romanticism. Thus, at the beginning of the new era, there was more to think of than manners and morals.

Novel writers were experimenting in every direction. There was the political, social, or educational novel of Godwin and his group, the Gothic romance, the historical novel, the novel of sensibility. And, although, down to a little after 1800, magazines and all recueils and depositing-places of the short narrative seem to be content with the old apologue, these also began to yield to the change of taste, and present a new, and usually a very bad, short story. ; Bad, because, after the decline of the moral apologue of the eighteenth century, in which short-story writers were free of com-) petition from the novel, came, for a while, only contemptible, vest-pocket versions of Gothic, or historical/ or philosophical novels, and then a flood of feeble experiments in pathos and terror, until Poe gave the new material form. Says the editor of The Lady's Monthly Museum, under his acknowledgments for July, 1798:

"We presume not to dictate to our friends, but Novels, Tales, or Romances, so calculated as not to engage more than three or four pages, will be most acceptable."

"Our friends," responding with narratives atrociously compressed into the required pages, gave examples of a new romantic short story minus the structure which alone could make it successful.

Naturally, the moral story of the previous age did not expire with the year 1800. The aforesaid Lady's Monthly Museum, from its long life and expensive colored fashion-plates evidently popular and typical, presents its readers with instances well on into the century. As late as 1812, one reads On the Divine Wisdom. A tale, which, except for some unnecessary horror, and a lack of art, might have come from a deist of the mid-eighteenth century.

The works of Maria Edgeworth supply nobler examples of this enduring tendency. One thinks of their author, and rightly, as a novelist. Unlike the puny fry of the magazines, she is in close touch with the thought of the day. Her stories of Irish landholders, of young lady sentimentalists, of every variety of human experience which could illustrate the value of a right education, move with a sweep, a humor, a naturalness, alien to the restricted art of the essayists. Her Popular Tales (1804), Tales of Fashionable Life (1809-1812), even the early Moral Tales (1801), are usually short novels, or novelettes — novelettes, a contemporary writer called such efforts. Yet, as one reads The Prussian Vase, told to illustrate the dangers of autocracy, or To-Morrow, where the fault of putting-off ruins the hero (even his story was to have been finished tomorrow!), it is evident that here is the moral apologue still persisting, though stretched to meet new conditions and a more thoroughgoing portrayal of life.

The resemblance to the eighteenth century apologue goes no further, however, than a general unifying of a comparatively short narrative for the sake of a moral. Tone, thought, style are all different. Miss Edgeworth has learned of the novelists, and does not think twice of a hypothetical essay on le_s moeurs_ for once of the story. She takes space to realize her characters; the plots reach a climax, and the subjects are enormously various. With her, moral narrative has enfranchised itself, expanded into the novel, or half-way there; lost its form and structure, while retaining its moral obsession.

Her tales may be regarded as the dissolution of the moral apologue due to a too great admixture of life and personality in the beaker. The elements have recompounded into something very excellent indeed — but we must look into far weaker, and far more incoherent narrative for the beginning of the next type of English short story.

This beginning, in English, was almost inconsiderable. It is to be found in little magazine tales which are very horrible, very sentimental, very pathetic — anything so that the favorite adverb of the romantic movement, very, may be joined to an adjective which would appeal to a person of sensibility. They reflect the state of mind which the Gothic romancers, and Coleridge, Scott, Byron, Keats, had helped to make for England.

Signs, not of its strength, but of its weakness, they are only casual experiment in the short tale by those who usually dealt in the long. Fathers die upon the graves of ruined daughters, brother kills brother, sons are drowned in the arms of their forbidden sweethearts. It was at such romantic nonsense that Peacock laughed in Nightmare Abbey (1818), with its ridiculous Coleridge and absurd Shelley. And before 1818, this emotional tale had grown flagrant enough to be parodied in the very magazines which gave it place. But bad as these stories were, they bore the earmarks of the time, and out of them, and not from the outgrown didactic story, the new development was to come.

Back to Top


The mawkishly romantic story of the first decades of the century was the prelude to a performance very extensive and very melancholy for the lover of good short stories. One's state of mind, after reading widely in the magazines and "the accursed annual" of the years that followed, is like that gloom of the spirit which accompanies a particularly bad comic opera. If ever flower bloomed from the dung-heap, it was the exquisite tale of Irving which we have shortly to consider.

The writers of short narratives in this age had, usually, but one of three ends in view. Pathos is the deity of "the average contributor," and the stories in this mood are nearly all mawkish. Horror was increasingly prized, yet seldom wrought successfully into a short story until Poe, in the next period, achieved the art which it required. Mystery accompanies most of the tales, but was effective only when Irving blended with it a little of the humor which was so strangely lacking in other contemporaries of the prime humorists, Lamb, Hook, and Hood.

The "average contributor," of course, is the one who best represents the onward flow of the narrative fashion of the times, but he printed stories so numerous, and, by modern standards, so abominably written, that a thorough discussion would be mere tediousness. In the magazines, there was Leigh Hunt, who is mentioned in histories of fiction because A Tale for a Chimney Corner, in his Indicator of December 15, 1819, begins with an explanation of how to write one of the popular "grim stories." The tale that follows is a poor ghost story, and he does better in the other popular vein, the pathetic.

Blackwood's became famous in the third and fourth decades of the century for its "tales of effect," as Poe called them, although longer narratives seem to have been preferred. One finds some stories of De Quincey's, such as The Avenger (1838), where, to the popular note of horror, the charm of a beautiful style is added, and only the force which comes with intensity and constructive power is wanting. The old London Magazine, too, will yield typical examples of the story of the period, in addition to Lamb's half-narrative essays of Elia which belong to a different genre.

But it is the gift-books, or annuals, that present most plentifully, and most typically, the short narrative of this period. The English annual was a combination of the idea of the English special edition in leather for the holiday trade, and the German annual, which latter seems to have had original contributions and blank sheets for memorandums.

It began in England about 1823 and reached the height of its popularity in the thirties, when, at the proper season, every lady's table contained some highly-colored Amaranth or Forget-me-not in stamped leather, full of embellishments and contributions in prose and verse by people well known either as litterateurs or as persons of quality.

Since the prose was nearly all narrative, and, necessarily, short narrative, the opportunity thus offered to the writers of short stories was only equalled by the development of our more modern fiction-magazines. Mrs. Shelley, Miss Landon (L. E. L.), Emma Roberts, the Banim brothers, were representative contributors to the story list of the annuals. A few words about their stories will serve for all except those of the greater names which we shall reserve for last.

Mrs. Shelley, in spite of the reputation for horror which Frankenstein had left her, deals mainly in pathos. Pitiable Italian girls lose their bandit lovers, unfortunate females, sentimentally guilty of parricide, mourn themselves into a decline, and plunge their lovers and friends into agonized melancholy. Emma Roberts is the paragon of all the defects of the school. Read The Dream in Friendship's Offering of 1826, which ends, "He turned a hurried glance to the greensward — the grave was full."

Miss Landon, whom Lamb would have locked in her room and prevented from writing poetry, mingles the mysterious in her cup of pathos, and sails away on wings of rhetoric which recall the flights of Poe. The mysterious immortal of The Enchantress, in Heath's Book of Beauty, 1833, who inhabits, for a time, the body of the Sicilian's bride, almost thrills you — a rare achievement; but no matter where this literary lady soars, the gulfs of sentimentality are always just beneath. The Banims, who had done such good work in their novelettes of Ireland, The O'Hara Tales, fall into pathos too.

One particularly sentimental story, The Half-Brothers, a lachrymose tale of a deserted mother in The Keepsake for 1829, illustrates, in an exaggerated fashion, the constructive weakness of these dabblers in pathos. After three pages of narrative, "The scene must now be very abruptly changed to the reader, with a breach of the three unities — Twelve years after" — and the story proceeds!

One finds little better, and a little worse, in America. N. P. Willis mingles a saving sprightliness in his sentimental stories. Occasionally there is a tale of emigration, of Indian warfare, of the social conditions of the new world, which is refreshingly real, and refreshingly new in setting; but the English trinity, pathos, horror, mystery, were equally supreme on this side of the water. Not even Hawthorne's early stories lift the representative American annual, The Token, above the level of its English originals.

It is unnecessary to dilate further upon the nature of the average story of this period. The preceding paragraph, hurried summary that it is, will not be wasted if it indicates the quantity and quality of the tales of the annuals and magazines which Poe and Hawthorne were reading when their career began. But we are not yet through with the twenties and early thirties. So far we have discussed only the average contributor. A few exceptional writers mastered their materials and one made classic short stories from the fabric woven by Mrs. Shelley and Emma Roberts with such futility.

Sir Walter Scott's big gun boomed only three times for the short story, but we must bring him into the discussion, if only because his poems and novels were the inspiration of so much romantic short narrative. Two of his three worthy short stories are to be found in The Keepsake for 1829. Another is inserted in his novel, Red Gauntlet, published in 1824. This last, Wandering Willie's Tale, is easily the best story outside of Irving to be found in its decade. It is a grim tale, but not a mawkish one, and, save for a considerable delay at the beginning, has little that is not excellent about it. "Forth, pilgrim, forth," you say to the lovable Steenie who is to play the bagpipes in hell, "be started, man, on thy adventure if thou are to take thy reader with thee! "

If, in this good story, there, is an error in proportions, it is no wonder that, in the contemporary tales of the annuals, one skips ruthlessly to the third page in hopes to find the beginning of the plot!

My Aunt Margaret's Mirror, the first of The Keepsake stories and a moderately good tale of mystery, begins to move with the twelfth page only! The Tapestried Chamber, a far better one, in which the novelist's great power finds what vent it can in a few pages, rambles sadly at the beginning. The master hand must show its cunning, but Scott's careless methods are deplorably visible in the short story. Yet one must not make the criticism personal.

Sir Walter, even in such narrow quarters, spins a good grim tale, and escapes all mawkishness. What he does not escape is the other fault common to writers for the annuals — a blindness to proportion, emphasis, what we call form in the short story. His few short tales are an interesting episode, but of no historical importance.

Our Village, by Miss Mitford, was another interesting episode. It is a series of sketches which, appearing in many magazines and annuals, were published afterwards (1824-1832) in collected form, and took a permanent place in our libraries. Her little articles are sometimes descriptions, sometimes mere narratives, occasionally character studies, and less often stories. They were all inspired by a lovable village in southern England, and told in a sympathetic style, which is sometimes stilted, but more often responds to the pleasant, slightly humorous tastes and affections of the writer. These studies are rich in characters, like the village beau, Joel Brent, or the two old-fashioned ladies who had known Richardson; they are rich in local circumstance, and in faithful portraiture.

"Mr. Geoffrey Crayon," says Miss Mitford in Bramley Maying, "has, in his delightful but somewhat fanciful writings, brought into general view many old sports and customs."

It is of the Irving of The Sketch Book and Bracebridge Hall that these sketches, with their pleasant antiquarianism, their quaintly humorous descriptions, and gentle pathos, are reminiscent. One notes that Geoffrey Crayon was too fanciful! Miss Mitford, in truth, is a realist, though no stern one. She was in sympathy, as she says, with Jane Austen; out of sympathy, as one sees, with the brood of romantic story-tellers into whose hands the short story had fallen.

As one looks over the annuals, her cool, quiet sentences, her life-like pictures, with only the romance of an already passing life to warm them, are refreshing after the livid intensities of other contributors. But it required more technique than Miss Mitford, or any contemporary, was master of, to make good short stories, valuable for their narrative mainly, from realistic studies of dove-colored life.

So far as Miss Mitford was a story-teller at all, she stood aside from the romantic development which was leading towards the achievement of technique.

In this romantic development, Washington Irving is the chief master of all this group of short-story writers. There is no prose short story in this period which does not reveal inferiority, and often an abysmal inferiority, when tried by the touchstone of Rip Van Winkle, or The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Miss Mitford was never a born narrator; Scott, the well-head of English romantic fiction, could do "the great bow-wow," but not, in such perfection, these shorter sketches.

As for the tribe of the annuals, in substance only do they reveal themselves of the same age; in manner they are canaille to an aristocrat of letters. Amidst all the welter of pathetico-mystico slush which filled the periodicals of these years, an obscure American suddenly elevates the popular kind of short story into masterpieces which belong to our permanent literature.

The critical problem is a nice one. First, just what did Irving accomplish when he wrote the best of his stories; next, how did he accomplish it; and, finally, what is the place of his achievement in the evolution we are tracing? The materials are in The Sketch Book (1819- 20), The Tales of a Traveller (1824), and The Alhambra (1832), in which three works his most noteworthy contributions to the short story were contained. The dates, as well as the contents, show how closely his chief work fits into this period.

Back to Top

The Simple, Unemphatic Tale – No Whit Inferior to the Highly Artificial Mechanism

To begin with, just what was it that Irving did accomplish? There is a disposition, in contemporary criticism, to disparage the first American writer who became "classic." The tendency shows itself by implication, rather than in the open, and seems to result from the sudden rush to appreciate the modern short story. Irving certainly did not achieve the "short story," or short-story, or Short Story, as the modern product has been variously written down.

Professor Baldwin has aptly suggested in this connection, that if Rip Van Winkle should be retold today it would be a very different narrative. The return of old Rip to his village would be the situation chosen for emphasis by the narrator; the Catskill episodes would sink to mere foothills of antecedent action; the confusion of the returned hunter would rise to the heights of climax. Indeed, it is true that the technique which has put so many hitherto unconsidered situations into literature, and the short-story form, was not in Irving's grasp, or, better, was unknown to him.

Yet, since nothing could be more different in artistic purpose than these idyllic tales of the Hudson River Dutch and the stories of Poe, Harte, or Kipling, nothing is more useless than to compare their technique to the detriment of either. Intensity, emphasis, excerption of a single situation is the aim of the more modern storytellers; breadth within limits, balance of parts, an easy telling of several related incidents, the accomplishment of the first American master of the tale.

When successful, the simple, unemphatic, but well-balanced tale is no whit inferior to the highly artificial mechanism of The Cask of Amontillado or They — it is merely different. The simpler structure was less sure of success in a few pages; witness the many good plots spoiled in these early decades. But Irving mastered this simplicity and made it successful; restrained pathos, mystery, and sentiment with humor; balanced the fashionable introduction with the requisite weight of story; carried fluency and restraint to the end. He may be said to have discharged his debt to the rhetorician; and, though he did not achieve the modern short story, it is not impossible that his particular success, the proportioning of the simple tale, may belong to a more durable variety of art.

The second question, What made him so successful with the simple tale while his contemporaries were crowding the periodicals with failures? is not so easily answered. Perhaps humor was the talisman which saved Irving from contagion; that gentle, urbane humor which smiles from behind Ichabod Crane and Rip. It must have been a sense of humor that restrained him from the excesses of the average contributor.

Supply a theme which, lending itself to sentiment, forbade the humorous, and he stopped just short of the common complaint of the annuals. The Pride of the Village in The Sketch Book, The Young Italian of The Tales of a Traveller, are unhumorous — and on the brink.

Perhaps we know his better stories too well, and the current narrative of the period too little, for a full appreciation of the value, in such a time, and amidst such work, of Irving's quality of humor. If so, an indirect illustration will bring the moral home. In Friendship's Offering for 1826, there are two anonymous tales, The Laughing Horseman, and Reichter and his Staghounds; hearty tales, with a jolly mystery, a setting that makes you visualize it, and a style full of vigor and beauty.

Irving's, you guess instantly, for you think you feel his characteristic touch, and are impressed by the infinite superiority to everything else in the collection. But the next number (1827) tells the secret.

Here is a better story still, Der Kugelspieler, in the same spirit, style, and vein, and by the author of The Chronicles of London Bridge. This was Richard Thomson, the librarian and antiquary, who pretty certainly wrote the first two stories, since the editor of the 1826 annual had promised that certain anonymities should be revealed in the next issue. Now this forgotten author has written the very best stories in the English annuals, let Scott's (barring Wandering Willie's Tale) or any be compared with them. Der Kugelspieler will serve for an example.

It deals with the sardonic goblin, Forster der Wilder, and how upon the ghastly kugelplatz of ancient Barbarossa he outbowled the student of Prague. There is no lack of mystery, no lack of the marvelous when, for an instant, the court of the great red-beard look down from their misty, ruined towers upon the match. And yet a humorous point of view acts, in this narrative, as an antiseptic against the absurd, and a preservative of verisimilitude in the story.

Rip Van Winkle, the tale which it most resembles in English, is a classic; Der Kugelspieler is buried with its unworthy companions in a forgotten annual. Thus we may see with unbiassed eye what a mighty difference came about when one of these romanticists of the second generation compounded his pathos, his horror, or his mystery, with the aid of a sense of humor. Humor saved Richard Thomson, at least from artistic nullity; and humor saved Irving from the quagmire in which his contemporaries floundered, as Kipling hopes it will save all of us Americans in the end.

But there is another reason for the success of the American writer in the exquisitely simple, perfectly balanced tale, a reason which regards the structure as much as the contents of the story. It must be set forth in order to relate his work to the development of the short story, as well as to complete the explanation of his triumph. This reason is to be found in the nature of the models upon which he formed his style.

The question, Where did Irving learn his art? may be answered, to the degree in which answer is possible, with ease and rapidity. The bent of his genius is in exact conformity with his age. He is a late romantic, he belongs to the generation after the Gothic romance, the generation of the historical romance, and the pathetic, ghastly, mysterious tale. His subjects are those of his times.

But his method, his style, his view-point differ, as has been somewhat extensively indicated, from those of his contemporaries. This difference must certainly be ascribed in part to his well-known fondness for the literature of the early eighteenth century. No argument is needed to prove a general influence.

The form of The Sketch Book is reminiscent of The Spectator, and Bracebridge Hall was evidently inspired by Sir Roger de Coverley; Irving's style is Addisonian; his humor has an Augustan urbanity; he is inclined to study manners in a very eighteenth century fashion. If his interests stamp him romanticist, his manner as certainly marks him a student and often an imitator of the age of Pope, Steele, and Addison.

But, to these obvious debts, I would add one more. The resemblance between the periodical narrative of the eighteenth century and these perfectly balanced tales of Irving has been noticed only as far as their characters, Will Wimble and Rip, the squire of Bracebridge Hall and Sir Roger, betray evidences of kinship. It goes much deeper. We will not presume to say that Irving learned his proportioning sense of humor from The Spectator or The Tatler, although doubtless he was not uninfluenced by the Queen Anne temperament.

But it is notable and significant that one finds the balance, the restraint, the exact adaptation of means to end, precisely what the short stories of the romanticists lacked, precisely what Irving attained, in the periodical narratives of the early eighteenth century which were his early and revered reading.

Put the question this way. How would a close student and admirer of the narratives of The Spectator, or The Rambler, treat a romantic story of pathetic love, a mysterious legend, or any example of the narratives most cherished in Irving's day? Would he be mawkish in the telling, extravagant, grossly improbable?

Could he be, with such models!

A theoretical application of an eighteenth century manner to the romantic tale of Miss Roberts in the annual before me, gives, to the assertion that he could not, a pragmatic value. Most certainly Irving was a romanticist, but, quite as certainly, he learned order, restraint, and symmetry from the masters of the short story in the eighteenth century.

This criticism, so far, may seem to be a narrow one.

It has been based upon only two stories, the Dutch tales of The Sketch Book. But these are the best as well as the earliest of Irving's successful narratives. He never afterwards reached their level. He often fell far below it. In The Tales of a Traveller, the reader sometimes finds the author descending to the merely pathetic or only mysterious of his contemporaries; in the excellent legends of The Alhambra, the virtues above recorded are repeated in a more romantic medium, but, on the whole, with less complete success.

Irving's popularity as a story-teller began in 1820. His success was as great in England as in America. After 1820, therefore, one expects more examples of well-balanced tales of mystery or pathos in either country, but, in the first decade, looks almost vainly. William Austin's Peter Rugg (1824) is a striking exception, perhaps the only notable instance in America before 1830. In England, there is John Sterling, whose allegorical, half-mystical, and sometimes altogether beautiful tales, are of a far different kind of romanticism, and will come up for discussion later; Scott, who only experimented; and Richard Thomson, for whom it is probably too late to get a due need of praise.

Romanticism of an advanced and rather unhealthy kind befogged all but this handful of short-story tellers and kept down the average of achievement. It was not the German romanticism of Tieck, Fouque, and their compatriots. This had scarcely arrived as yet. Indeed, Carlyle's preface to his 1827 translations from these writers shows that he thought himself to be the introducer of a new genre into English literature. And he was — for very few examples seem to have appeared in English before this time of the romantic story with an idea behind it so characteristic of German romanticism.

On the contrary, the romance in the stories of the native annuals and magazines of this early period was a blend of three distinctly English elements. One of these was gross, one substantial, one exquisite. The Gothic romance of Mrs. Radcliffe, Monk Lewis, and their followers, supplied much of the coarser terror, the extravagance, and the unreality of the "average contributor," whose innumerable tales we endeavored just now to dispose of in a single paragraph.

Scott, as novelist, is the substantial element, but, except in the historical anecdote, it is surprising to see how unavailing were his healthy methods to save the little fellows among his contemporaries from the banal in their stories.

The third element is the most intangible, perhaps the most important. It came from the romanticism of the great poets who, stirred on by the same romantic movement, had been building up throughout this period a new era in English verse. Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, Byron, Hood, to a far less degree Wordsworth, are indirectly responsible for some of the mawkish sentimentality, pathos, unrestrained horror, and sensibility of these short stories.

The exquisitely sentimental tales of Keats, the weird narratives of Coleridge, the morbidly pathetic romances of Byron, all belong to the years preceding or included in the period just chronicled. A pure flame of romance kindled such sparks from the fine minds of the poets; in contact with grosser spirits, this flame, intensified by the poetry through which it passed, threw down a precipitate of ridiculously overstrained prose narrative. Of the few worthy writers mentioned, Miss Mitford was saved from this disaster by her leanings towards rural realism, John Sterling because he was a poet himself, Scott by his own sane genius, Irving by his eighteenth century clarity, composure, and humor. He alone was able so to blend these many influences as to make a really great short story in such a time, and only one disciple seems to have followed successfully after him.

Yet evil may lead to good. It was the extravagance rather than the restraint of this tumultuous period which gave an opportunity to the next great American story-teller.

~ The End ~

Back to Top

You may also enjoy reading …

Liquid error (product-recommendations line 5): internal