An American in Lansdowne House

If Tom Moore was Anacreon, Washington Irving (1783 – 1859) was the “upstart American who dared to write English well.”

It is difficult to coax a Brutus from a receding hairline, but he has a lovely mouth.

Irving had initially sailed to England to bail out his family’s business in the aftermath of the War of 1812.  The conflict had been ruinous for American merchants and despite their son’s best efforts, the Irving clan’s cross-Atlantic enterprise was forced to declare bankruptcy.

Over his family’s protests, Irving remained in England to pursue a writing career.  His Sketch Book became a great success and soon Irving was fast friends with the Scottish bard, Sir Walter Scott, as well as the Irish one.  Sketch Book was really a series of installments first published in American and then in London.  The short stories it contained, like Rip Van Winkle and Legend of Sleepy Hollow, gained Irving admission into the highest circles of the ton and into the best houses of London, particularly Lansdowne.

Like many authors of new-found success, Irving was almost immediately a victim of literary piracy.  His publication in America was hastily copied and distributed in England without any compensation to him, there being no international copyright law at the time.  Eventually he acquired a more reputable (!) publisher and from then on his works were released concurrently on both sides of the Atlantic, to protect his copyright.

His presence in Lansdowne House was frequently noted.  There, Irving was:

“modest, shy and retiring…not the man to shine in large companies of perfect strangers.  Moore laughingly said of him that he was ‘not strong as a lion, but delightful as a domestic animal.’ “

Irving was also victim to that other scourge of authors–writer’s block.  He went to the Continent in search of new material, spending some time in Germany where he was well-received by the royal family.  There he made a frustrated attempt to woo a fellow American, Emily Foster, then living with her mother in Dresden.  Disappointed when she rejected him, he left for Spain to seek inspiration for new writings on the history of Christopher Columbus and that frontier of medieval conquest–Grenada.  He made popular the new genre of historical fiction, called romantic history at the time.

Eventually, after an absence of seventeen years, Irving returned to America to continue his writings.  This was briefly interrupted with a stint as U. S. Minister to Spain, a difficult position since he had to deal with warring factions vying for control over the twelve-year-old Queen Isabella II.

He died at Sunnyside, his beloved cottage in Tarrytown, NY.

Sunnyside Cottage--a long way from Lansdowne House, but just as charming.

It is no surprise that Lansdowne House should desire to have the First American Man of Letters, the first to earn his living by the pen in that new nation, to be one of its brightest luminaries.

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Laughing Gas at Lansdowne House

The third Marquess of Lansdowne was no stranger to the rich and famous that came to the great London house.  His father had hosted Benjamin Franklin (1706 – 1790) when the latter came to negotiate the terms for American independence.  One who was credited with the discovery of oxygen, Joseph Priestley (1733 – 1804) ran tame at Lansdowne House as well, living off the largess of the first marquess when he was still Lord Shelburne.

Sir Humphry Davy

But the parade of important persons during the Regency period, when our Lord Lansdowne was master there, is impressive indeed. There was a reason for this.  Unlike other patrons of artists and persons of science, the third marquess welcomed these to his home as equals:

“No trace of such distinctions ever checked the talk at Bowood or Lansdowne House.  If help was needed, it was freely given.” —  The Gentlemen’s Magazine and Historical Review, MDCCC LXIII, by Sylvanus Urban

The greatest scientist of the Regency was no stranger to Lansdowne House. Sir Humphry Davy (1778 – 1829) was a pioneer in chemistry, having discovered important earth elements and inventing the Davy lamp used by miners to detect dangerous gases.

But enough of the science.  I declare, the stuff makes me bilious.

Truth to tell, Sir Davy put on exhibitions of his experiments that were not only explosive but made all the females swoon.  He was a very good public speaker, endowed with considerable charisma and the elusive ability to impart science in an understandable manner.  Note the cartoon and its display of Davy’s large female following.

I cannot deny he is rather attractive.  Is it the neckcloth or is it just me?

File:Royal Institution - Humphry Davy.jpg

Spectators were particularly drawn to his experiments depicting the effects of nitrous oxide.  He once said that laughing gas bestows all the benefits of alcohol and none of its flaws.

I’ll have what she’s having.