Valentine’s Week Musings: Broken-Hearted Washington Irving

February 2019 Heritage Tea

The City of Irving’s Heritage Society 2019 Valentine Tea. Photo by Tracy Hoffman



Wednesday, February 13, 2019

On this Valentine’s Eve, I’m thinking about Irving’s young, innocent female characters and also his heart-broken widows in The Sketch Book and Tales of a Traveller. These female characters contrast greatly with nagging Dame Van Winkle and miserly Mrs. Tom Walker.

Stories of innocent love, in particular, are fresh on my mind because my American Lit classes are reading some of these sappy stories this week. On Monday, I also briefly lectured about Irving’s love interests: Matilda Hoffman, Emily Foster, Mary Shelley.

Though I sometimes teach A Tour on the Prairies and the full Sketch Book, I typically spend three classes on a handful of Irving sketches: one day on “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” one day on the Christmas stories, and the last day, I experiment with other sketches. Because I also teach Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative, Irving’s romantic depictions of Native Americans, namely “Philip of Pokanoket” and “Traits of Indian Character” from The Sketch Book, offset Rowlandson’s depictions of Amerindians.

Since our Irving readings this semester fall on Valentine’s week, I opted to assign “The Wife,” “The Broken Heart” and “The Specter Bridegroom” in place of “Philip of Pokanoket” and “Traits of Indian Character.”

Believe it or not, many of the men in my class told me “The Wife” and “The Broken Heart” were their favorite reads thus far this semester.  Students also distinguished Leslie’s wife and the remarried widow from “The Broken Heart” with our previously discussed coquette Katrina Van Tassel and nag Dame Van Winkle.

Ironically, this morning, as I scrolled the Irving Society Twitter feed in honor of “Washington Irving Wednesday,” I was reminded of Irving’s most quoted passages, many of which come from these sentimental tales. We scholars sometimes forget: what we consider kitschy is often loved by the masses. Sadly, most Twitter posts don’t cite the texts, so I’ll throw out a few with the sources.

From “The Wife,” we get: “There is in every true woman’s heart a spark of heavenly fire, which lies dormant in the broad daylight of prosperity, but which kindles up, and beams and blazes in the dark hour of adversity.”

In “The Widow and Her Son,” Irving writes: “Oh! There is an enduring tenderness in the love of a mother to her son that transcends all other affections of the heart. It is neither to be chilled by selfishness, nor daunted by danger, nor weakened by worthlessness, nor stifled by ingratitude. She will sacrifice every comfort to his convenience, she will surrender every pleasure to his enjoyment, she will glory in his fame and exult in his prosperity; and, if misfortune overtake him, he will be the dearer to her from misfortune; and if disgrace settle upon his name, she will still love and cherish him in spite of his disgrace; and if all the world beside cast him off, she will be all the world to him.”

Because I’ve been blogging about “The Devil and Tom Walker,” which comes from Tales of a Traveller, I’ve also been thinking about the innocent young woman, wearing white, who is raped in the section about the Italian banditti. We sometimes say killing off Dame Van Winkle is like killing off the mother land of England. I can’t help but think Irving might be killing off the innocent female, much like his beloved Matilda Hoffman, as a way of killing off his past, of healing his broken heart.

At the time of its publication, reviewers thought Tales of a Traveller obscene because of this rape episode, among other troubling stories, but maybe Irving needed to write such a scene, whether conscious of it or not. Something to consider…

Until next week, please feel free to add to the conversation wherever you like: Twitter, Facebook, on this page. Comments are very much welcomed. Also feel free to message me at I try to respond to all correspondence on Wednesdays, and also update the WIS page.

By the way, this past Sunday, February 10, the Irving Heritage Society of Irving, Texas, hosted yet another wonderful Valentine’s Tea. If you’re ever in the Dallas-Fort Worth area on Valentine’s Sunday, be sure to drop by, as the tea is an annual event. Here’s a link:

Published in: on February 14, 2019 at 12:41 am  Leave a Comment  

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