Cryptic, opaque, and disturbing, the first salvo in Irving’s “Stories by a Nervous Gentleman” is also, sadly, one of his most underappreciated and maligned masterpieces. The story is regularly derided for its seemingly anticlimactic ending and has been called everything from a waggish Gothic farce to an artless literary miscarriage. The first time I read “Tales of a Traveller,” however, none of the stories left me as chilled as the first – it seemed pregnant with hidden meaning, and struck me as more sinister than even “The German Student.”
Telescopic in narration (the story is told by Crayon by way of the nervous gentleman, by way of the man with the haunted head, by way of his uncle, and then by way of the little marquis), it prefigures the best ghost stories of M. R. James, renowned for sucking their readers down a narrative rabbit hole. Used to present the thesis of the Nervous Gentleman’s anthology, it introduces the reader to a topsy-turvy world of Shakespearean anarchy where mourning widows are fiercer than lurking thieves; dancing furniture is a more believable explanation for a ruckus than fornicating youths; wedding beds are interchangeable with funeral biers; and every room can accurately claim to be haunted so long as it is slept in by a man with imagination.
Before we begin, a brief historical note is in order: the identity of the ghost whom the narrator’s uncle encounters is said to be that of Princess Anne Geneviève de Bourbon, Duchess de Longueville. This was a historical figure, and an important one in French history. Remembered for her great beauty and intelligence, the duchess was also as a rebellious humanist, whose progressive politics, adventurous love life, and mysticism made her an early feminist icon. Anne was a brilliant luminary, ahead her time, earning the nickname of “Goddess of Peace and Concord” for her role in charming the German delegation during the Westphalia peace talks. Considered the “soul” of the Fronde civil wars – a struggle between the absolute power of the King of France and idealistic nobles (who, like England’s Parliamentarians, sought to check royal power with increased democracy) – she was forced to flee France when the resistance collapsed.
Like so many of the historical figures that Irving admired, she was an unsuccessful visionary – a romantic failure – who was unappreciated during her lifetime and resisted by a corrupt and unimaginative elite. This was the same way that Irving saw tragic historical figures like Stuyvesant and Boabdil. Like them, she was a genius ahead of her time, and her failures could be blamed on her perfidious betrayal by the conservative French establishment. The story that follows is a vicious – even scandalous – indictment of power-holders everywhere: accused of the unspeakable violation of human genius, progress, and hope.
The story is the first in the “Strange Stories By a Nervous Gentleman” section of Irving’s Tales of a Traveller. It is doubly framed: Irving’s ubiquitous, roving alter ego, Geoffrey Crayon, relates a series of stories told to him by the same “nervous gentleman” who was a character in his earlier Bracebridge Hall. The nervous man describes a weekend where he and a troop of restless bachelors had been invited to a mutual friend’s manor for hunting. Horrible weather drives them inside and they share ghost stories to pass the time, each man having some ghost story or other – some comical (“The Adventure of My Grandfather”), some haunting (“The Story of the Young Italian”), and some downright ghoulish (“The Adventure of the German Student”), but each one having a strange twist at the end (often calling into question its supernatural nature), along with some subtle philosophical, political, or social theme.
The very first tale comes from an elderly bachelor with a “ruined head,” one half of which is paralyzed (perhaps by a stroke) which the nervous gentleman compares to “the wing of a house, shut up and haunted.” He describes a ghost story that involved his uncle and took place several decades prior in France. His uncle was a wealthy Englishman who was travelling in France during the peaceful lull of the 1760s, and – very significantly – well before the purges of the French Revolution. The narrator speaks of it in nostalgic terms as a time when tourists came abroad for pleasure and their hosts graciously milked them for money. In the present age, however, he notes that Englishmen tend to travel to France to escape inflation at home, and their interactions with the French are soured by politics and bad memories of war. He paints a gloomy picture of a sunny past haunted by doomed naivete and dreamy ignorance.
The story begins on a wet, winter afternoon in Normandy, as his uncle’s coach rumbled through the Pays de Caux within sight of a distant chateau, whose towers look sharp against the darkening sky. With evening and bad weather coming on, the Uncle learns from one of the coachmen that the property belongs to a friend of his – a little marquis belonging to a well-established family of French nobles – whom he had met in Paris. The marquis had often pressured the Uncle to visit him, and – troubled by the thought of an evening spent in a drafty Norman inn – the Uncle decides to spontaneously see if the offer still stands.
Although the chateau was famous for its kitchen and wine cellar, the Uncle is struck by the aura of sadness, isolation, and decay:
“This was one of the oldest [chateaux in the country]; standing naked and alone, in the midst of a desert of gravel walks and cold stone terraces; with a cold-looking formal garden, cut into angles and rhomboids; and a cold leafless park, divided geometrically by straight alleys; and two or three noseless, cold-looking statues without any clothing; and fountains spouting cold water enough to make one’s teeth chatter.”
And yet, the marquis receives him with great warmth: he is “enchanted” by the visit, and ushers him into the family mansion in which he dwells alone with his servants. He eagerly gives the Englishman a tour of the battlements which, he notes, were badly roughed up during the French Civil Wars of Religion. As proof of its role in French history, the marquis shows off hallways lavishly decorated with war trophies. The petite marquis seems to be an unlikely descendent of these ferocious warriors (though the Uncle notes that he clearly has inherited their fighting spirit) and looks ludicrous when, at one point, he tries on a huge helmet and barely manages to wield a two-handed broadsword, eyes gleaming with delight.
Here the narrator apologizes for lingering on the marquis, but notes that his Uncle always spoke warmly of him, but with sadness for his brutal death – he was one of those massacred at the Tuileries Palace alongside Louis XVI’s Swiss Guard. But the narrator notes that he honored his ancestors by dying bravely in battle: while fighting off the mob with a puny dress sword, he was “pinned to the wall like a butterfly” by a rebel’s pike…
When night falls, the marquis escorts his friend to the oldest chamber in the oldest tower in the chateau – a room which had once served as its dungeon. It wasn’t the most comfortable room in the house, but it was the most storied, and the marquis had it prepared knowing that the Uncle was an antiquarian. Indeed, several famous figures in French, English, and Scottish history had spent the night (or a prison term) there, and the marquis lists them happily.
After he leaves, a servant comes to ready the space, however, the man behaves nervously, and hurries out as soon as he is done, wishing him a “suspicious”-sounding “good night.” The room is unquestionably ancient, with a “wild, crazy look” about it that makes the unimaginative Uncle think of the episodes from its violent history. Meanwhile, the winter wind causes restless drafts that stir uncomfortably around the room “as if some dubious ghost were balancing in its mind whether to come in or not.” Undaunted, the old gentleman gets into bed and falls asleep…
He is woken by the sound of an “dismal” antique clock striking midnight (though he is almost sure that it struck thirteen) and notices that the great fire has burned down to a few strangely-hued blue and white tongues of flame. Before he can return to sleep, he is startled by the sound of footsteps in the hallway, and further shocked when his door opens for a tall, pale woman in a white dress.
In the eerie blue light he is able to discern her features: she is beautiful, but “saddened by care and anxiety,” and her voluminous gown dates from the previous century. In spite of her weary face, the Uncle believes that she seems to be “one accustomed to trouble, but of one whom trouble could not cast down nor subdue; for there was still the predominating air of proud, unconquerable resolution.”
The woman glides to the fireplace where she struggles to find warmth, holding her hands and feet to the pale flames without finding satisfaction. Troubled by this, she gently turned around, panning the room with a “glassy look” (completely mortifying the Uncle when she briefly makes eye contact with him), wrings her hands, and “glide[s] slowly out of the room.” The stunned Uncle shivers in his bed until exhaustion brought him a shallow sleep.
In the morning, he asks the nervous servant if a woman of this description was a maid on staff, but the man denies knowing such a woman and – with a “whimsical grimace” – tries to end the conversation by making a sexual innuendo about "les braves fortunes of Monsieur."
Later that day, while walking through the chateau’s portrait gallery (whose walls are populated with pictures of famous family members and guests), the Uncle predictably finds the counterpart of his night visitor on one of the canvases. Without telling his story, he asks the marquis who she was, and the little man replies that she was Princess Anne Genevieve de Bourbon, the Duchesse de Loungeville – an intellectual, activist, and famed beauty who died nearly 100 years prior.
Being no student of French history, the Uncle asks if the Duchesse was famous for anything, causing the marquis to rhapsodize about her famous adventures, her lovers, her brilliance, and her disastrous role in the reformist Fronde revolt which ultimately led to her disgrace – a humiliation compounded by a loveless marriage and her betrayal by her lover, the author La Rochefoucauld. She was an inspired progressive whose sincere efforts to reform the Ancien Régime were treacherously hamstrung by her fellow nobles, and the failure of the Fronde revolt all but ensured the savage horrors of the Revolution in the following century – a tidal wave of blood which would eventually sweep even the little marquis away in its furious wake.
Noteworthy as she was, the marquis’ manic story-telling overwhelms the Uncle, who almost regrets his question when things suddenly take a turn for the intriguing as the marquis explains how her portrait came to hang on his chateau wall...
He tells how, after the failure of the Fronde rebellion, she escaped from a castle, evaded capture, and –after barely surviving drowning and a torturous journey on horseback – arrived at the Pays de Caux chateau in search of protection from the elements and her pursuers one tempest-tossed night. As it so happened – the marquis proudly remarks – she was a distant relative of the family, and they warmly invited her inside. Her servants were given quarters and she was invited to stay in the very room where the Uncle had passed the night for – in those days – it was much grander apartment.
The weather was horrible, even for that time of year (and here the marquis realizes that last night had been the anniversary of her visit) and the entire house was animated with a restless energy. He goes into detail of the electric nervousness of the entire household: how her bodyguard’s shadow was thrown eerily against the wall, how the wind moaned, and how everything seemed to be building up to some significant moment. He continues:
‘”…it was a night not to be forgotten by our house. There is a singular tradition concerning it in our family.” Here the Marquis hesitated, and a cloud seemed to gather about his bushy eyebrows. “There is a tradition—that a strange occurrence took place that night—a strange, mysterious, inexplicable occurrence…”’
It is evident that the usually loquacious host is suddenly overcome by a heavy emotion; whether it is embarrassment, fear, confusion, anger, guilt, or a combination is unclear, but he pauses his story despite the Uncle’s eager prodding to relate the legend. At first he yields – “It was just past midnight … when the whole chateau…” – but he cannot finish:
‘“Excuse me,” said the Marquis—a slight blush streaking his sullen visage. “There are some circumstances connected with our family history which I do not like to relate. That was a rude period. A time of great crimes among great men: for you know high blood, when it runs wrong, will not run tamely like blood of the [common folk]—poor lady!—But I have a little family pride, that—excuse me—we will change the subject if you please.”’
The Uncle feels that it is his duty as a tourist to probe, but is unable to make the marquis relent. Then he changes tactics, explaining that the reason he inquired after the portrait was because he saw the very same woman in his room the night prior. The marquis is initially alarmed, but collects himself, thoughtfully takes a pinch of snuff, seems to repress his horror at the news, then exclaims a dismissive “Bah!”, and strolls off to the end of the gallery.
What terrible story the chateau had hidden in its history remained with the marquis, and died with him when he was skewered on the peasant’s pike, for the Uncle never learned it, and it was forgotten to time…
Many detractors of this story have found its vague ending annoying or artless – kinder reviewers have called it a literary joke, comparing it to Saki’s “The Open Window” and Irving’s own “Sleepy Hollow.” In my estimation, however, this is like stumbling upon the carnage of a murder scene, pointing to the strewn body parts, and calling it littering. In fact, I would say that in Irving’s day the story probably attracted nearly as much censure and disapproval as the frequently banned “Adventure of the German Student.” Why? Because this is a story about betrayal, sin, and a shameful outrage – perhaps even rape – carried out by a member (or members) of a noble family. Much of the misunderstanding of this chilling tale comes from its readers’ lack of historical information: the story, up until the point where the marquis’ courage fails him, is absolutely true.
It is true that after being imprisoned in 1650, Princess Anne-Geneviève de Bourbon, Duchess de Longueville, escaped through an unlocked back door, walked six miles to the sea, tried to sail away in high winds, fell into the water, was saved from drowning, was convinced to stay the night in Normandy, and rode off with her attendants to a castle in the Pays de Caux. One biography describes the uneventful night in the following terms: “in the middle of the night they reached the house of a gentleman of the Pays de Caux, who hid them and entertained them hospitably. The following day a messenger was despatched to inquire for the ship which was waiting for Madame de Longueville.”
So we can tell that Irving is not alluding to a historical violation – rather, it is a fictional device used to illustrate his feelings about the complicity of the French aristocracy in the failure of a visionary genius. The nobles at the Pays de Caux did not betray, rape, or murder her (as I at first suspected before I researched the duchess’ life): she left the castle in one piece the next morning before embarking for Holland and exile. But in Irving’s universe something happened that night that has kept the “Goddess of Peace and Concord’s” spirit imprisoned in a room where she spent a mere six or seven hours during her illustrious lifetime.
While unenthusiastic critics have glibly criticized the story for ending without explaining the meaning of the ghost’s appearance, I think Irving showed more than enough for us to understand, without slandering the reputation of either the duchess whom he admired or the historical nobles who – in real life – offered her only hospitality and protection. In fact, Irving is almost explicit about what he suggests the marquis’ kinsman did:
“Excuse me,” said the Marquis—a slight blush streaking his sullen visage. “There are some circumstances connected with our family history which I do not like to relate. That was a rude period. A time of great crimes among great men: for you know high blood, when it runs wrong, will not run tamely like blood of the canaille—poor lady!—But I have a little family pride, that—excuse me—we will change the subject if you please.”
It is easy to interpret this as a shameful admission to some sort of dreadful violation of civility and trust. Since we know that the duchess was not betrayed or killed that night, and since the marquis alludes to such sinister things as “a rude [i.e. brutal] period,” “great crimes among great men,” and “high blood … run[ning] wrong,” it is difficult to avoid interpreting this heinous insinuation without sensing a sexual allusion. The marquis bathes in his history, but hardly resembles his warlike ancestors: he is called “little,” feminized by his behavior, and dandified by his wig. Yet his walls are festooned with armor, weaponry, and emblems of his thuggish family history.
Irving sadly relates his fate – impaled on the end of a peasant’s pike while impotently flailing a dress sword during the French Revolution – and we get a sense that the marquis is a symbol of fading glory, the growing weakness of the inbred elites, and the dwindling aristocracy declawed by human progress. His very demise – so pathetic and even silly – is an illustration of how corrupt, inefficient, and redundant his class had become by the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.
And as pitiful as Irving makes him, there is a sense that his brutal fate is payback for what his family did to the progressive, freedom-fighting Duchesse de Loungeville. Her spirit wanders the room where she was restrained and violated by a morally bankrupt member of the social elite, just as her visionary ideals were restrained and violated by the morally bankrupt members of the social elite. Philosophically, she was violated and abused by a callous establishment, and in Irving’s story, the metaphorical abuse is given a physical extension.
Disappointed readers may also cite the lack of details, but I can’t imagine Irving wanting to specify what he suggests happened, because – like the marquis says – it is not a pleasant or prideful thing to reflect on. A beautiful, intelligent, forward-thinking, woman was shamefully mistreated at the hands of her own peers, and who specifically did it, in what fashion, and for what reasons is entirely unimportant (especially since – and I can’t be clear enough on this – historically she appears to have been treated with the utmost hospitality at the Pays de Caux).
I will add one more clue to unlocking this strange tale: “The Adventure of My Uncle” serves as the counterpoint to the later “Adventure of the German Student.” The two stories bookend the ghost stories told in the frame narrative. The stories start off with this indictment of negligent conservatism, but end with “The German Student” and its attack on iconoclastic radicalism. The second story is a caustic assault on political radicals, once again using French history as the backdrop for Irving’s diatribe. In that tale he critiques the overly intellectual, unemotional way that radicals can justify human misery (“it’s for the Cause, after all”). The purpose of “My Uncle,” however, is to use an equally depressing episode of French history – the Fronde civil wars and their failed mission to curb royal absolutism – to remind its readers of how self-protecting power elites can become truly vulgar and abusive when they are threatened with progress.
Irving compares the establishment’s unwillingness to publicly support the duchess’ democratic principles with an implied rape, and casts the ghost of one of 17th century Europe’s most visionary women as a prisoner to a damp castle in the Norman moorlands. A woman of her stature should be haunting Versailles or the grand salons of Paris or the chateaux where she held parties and talked politics. Instead, it is shackled to a strange room where she spent one night during her lifetime – a night where Irving implies she was sexually violated by a representative of the same conservative social class that was responsible for manhandling her ideals.
The following morning she would depart for Holland, sealing the fate of her mission to bring liberty to the French people. It would be another 140 years before freedom would come to France, and by that time it had been so suppressed and bottled up that the explosive nature of its surge would lead to a new kind of tyranny: power would be grabbed from small-minded conservative fundamentalists and wielded by small-minded radical fundamentalists. Since the narrator’s uncle saw the vision during the marquis’ lifetime – and thus before the Revolution – we cannot be sure if the fall of the Bastille liberated the duchess’ spirit from its Norman prison. I would like to think so, but I doubt if it could have: one form of tyrannical oppression had merely been replaced by another.