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Two portraits of Washington Irving







Washington Irving was born in 1783 in New York City, the youngest of a family of eleven children. His father was a stern Presbyterian, his mother a genial Englishwoman. Being the youngest and a somewhat sickly child, he was treated indulgently and excused a college education, though he made fitful attempts to study law and fell in love with Matilda Hoffman, in whose father's law firm he worked. 

When he was about twenty he toured Canada for the good of his health and in 1804 - 06 made an extensive tour of Europe. On his return he sat the bar exams and set up as a lawyer. But his heart was never in the law. As a teenager he had written a number of satirical essays and he now continued to spend much of his time writing. Then, in 1809 he was grief-stricken by the sudden, premature death of Matilda Hoffman, to whom he had become engaged. This was a personal tragedy from which he never fully recovered; he never married and later wrote to a friend that he dreamt of Matilda every night. He moved to Washington DC where he worked as a lobbyist for the family firm before leaving in 1815 on a 17-year tour of Europe.

Much of his time in Europe was spent in Birmingham staying with his sister. During the tour he met a number of British writers, including Mary Shelley, Oliver Goldsmith and Sir Walter Scott,  who encouraged him in his writing, but the most significant event in his entire literary career occurred in Birmingham in 1818. A conversation with his brother in law, Henry Van Wart, led to him writing at his sister's home the two stories which were to make him famous and establish his reputation as 'the first American man of letters'. These stories, Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, were published in 1819, along with other essays on his impressions of England, in The Sketch Book, which he wrote under the pseudonym Geoffrey Crayon. The Sketch Book was a huge success on both sides of the Atlantic, making him the first American author to achieve international fame. From that time on he would, for the most part, earn his living as a writer.

In 1822 he published a sequel to The Sketchbook, Bracebridge Hall, the inspiration  for which was provided by a visit to Aston Hall in Birmingham, which had recently been leased from Adam Bracebridge by the son of the famous inventor James Watt, with whom the Van Warts were friendly. 

After that he travelled to Dresden, Paris and Madrid, before returning to Birmingham in 1829, where he wrote Alhambra, which dealt with the legends and history of Moorish Spain. From 1829 until 1832, when he returned to America, he spent most of his time at his sister's home in Birmingham. 

Apart from a spell as US ambassador to Spain from 1842 - 45, Irving spent the rest of his time in America and devoted it to writing. He died, world weary, in 1859 at the age of 73.




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The Legend of Sleepy Hollow



'I am always at a loss to know how much to believe of my own stories.'

Of the death of Matilda Hoffman: 'For years I could not talk on the subject of this hopeless regret; I could not even mention her name; but her image was continually before me, and I dreamt of her incessantly.'

Aged 62, from Spain: 'My heart yearns for home ... my remaining years are growing scanty in number, I begrudge every one that I am obliged to spend separated from my cottage and my kindred.'

On retiring to his bed for the last time: 'Well, I must arrange my pillows for another weary night. If only this could end!'

2001 Bob Miles