On the main street of the small town of Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, stands a state historical marker commemorating Irving Female College, locally known simply as Irving College. Founded in 1856, it was a liberal arts college for women, and it closed in 1929, one of its buildings eventually becoming the town’s hospital. The college’s name honored Washington Irving, one of the most famous American authors of the nineteenth century. If he is remembered at all these days, it is for his short stories, “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”
Irving (1783-1859) wrote eighteen books, including a five-volume biography of George Washington and a three-volume biography of Christopher Columbus. Irving made sure facts never spoiled a good story. For example, his Columbus “proved” that someone could not sail off the edge of the Earth. Never mind that medieval people, having studied ancient authors, knew that the world was round.
Irving’s interest in Columbus was part of a larger fascination with Spanish history. From 1826 to 1829 Irving served in the American embassy in Spain, and by that time he had made his name as a writer and was well-connected within Democratic politics, especially in his native New York. In 1829 he got permission to spend some time in the Alhambra, and then he published a collection of stories and essays based on his days there.
Strategically perched on a hill in Granada, the Alhambra began as a fortress in the late 800s, so about 170 years after the Muslim conquest of Spain. By the early fourteenth century, it reached its current proportions. A vast palace in grand Moorish style, it rambles with courtyards and fountains, arches and towers.
By Irving’s day, Spain had been a Catholic kingdom again for more than three hundred years, and it was recovering from the Peninsular War to liberate it from Napoleon’s occupation. For all his admiration of Spain, Irving brought to it the expectations of a male Protestant from a young republic. Smugly content, he liked to sit on the balcony of the Alhambra’s Hall of Ambassadors and, using a pocket telescope, watch the world go by.
One day while he looked about with his spyglass, he “beheld the procession of a novice about to take the veil,” and he saw “several circumstances which excited the strongest sympathy in the fate of the youthful being thus about to be consigned to a living tomb.” He noticed “that she was beautiful; and, from the paleness of her cheek, that she was a victim, rather than a votary. She was arrayed in bridal garments, and decked with a chaplet of white flowers, but her heart evidently revolted at this mockery of a spiritual union, and yearned after its earthly loves.”
Irving then saw that “a tall, stern-looking man walked near her in the procession; it was, of course, the tyrannical father, who, from some bigoted or sordid motive, had compelled this sacrifice.” Also in the group “was a dark handsome youth, in Andalusian garb, who seemed to fix on her an eye of agony.” Irving took him for “the secret lover from whom she was forever to be separated.”
“My indignation rose,” Irving wrote, “as I noted the malignant expression painted on the countenances of the attendant monks and friars.” Irving watched as “the procession arrived at the chapel of the convent,” where, he assumed, “the sun gleamed for the last time upon the chaplet of the poor novice, as she crossed the fatal threshold, and disappeared within the building.”
He further envisioned “the scene passing within; the poor novice despoiled of her transient finery, and clothed in the conventual garb; the bridal chaplet taken from her brow, and her beautiful head shorn of its long silken tresses.” He imagined hearing “her murmur the irrevocable vow,” as she “extended on a bier: the death-pall spread over her, the funeral service performed that proclaimed her dead to the world; her sighs were drowned in the deep tones of the organ, and the plaintive requiem of the nuns; the father looked on, unmoved, without a tear; the lover—no—my imagination refused to portray the anguish of the lover—there the picture remained a blank.”
Eventually he saw the people leaving the chapel, all but one. “My eye afterwards was frequently turned to that convent with painful interest,” he confessed. “I remarked late at night a solitary light twinkling from a remote lattice of one of its towers. ‘There,’ said I, ‘the unhappy nun sits weeping in her cell, while perhaps her lover paces the street below in unavailing anguish’.”
However, Irving had as his assistant a Spanish man in his mid-thirties, “my gossiping squire, Mateo Ximenes,” who daily confounded Irving’s fabricated stories about the locals with reports more accurate and mundane. In the case of the unhappy, unwilling nun, Ximenes “interrupted my meditations and destroyed in an instant the cobweb tissue of my fancy,” because “with his usual zeal he had gathered facts concerning the scene, which put my fictions all to flight.” Namely, much to Irving’s discomfiture, “The heroine of my romance was neither young nor handsome; she had no lover; she had entered the convent of her own free will, as a respectable asylum, and was one of the most cheerful residents within its walls.”
Irving’s romantic illusion being shattered, he brooded on the nun’s unwitting betrayal of him. “It was some little while,” he said, “before I could forgive the wrong done me by the nun in being thus happy in her cell, in contradiction to all the rules of romance; I diverted my spleen, however, by watching, for a day or two, the pretty coquetries of a dark-eyed brunette, who, from the covert of a balcony shrouded with flowering shrubs and a silken awning, was carrying on a mysterious correspondence with a handsome, dark, well-whiskered cavalier, who lurked frequently in the street beneath her window.”
Along with encountering Irving the voyeur, we see Irving the provincial, unable to comprehend that someone would freely enter a monastery. Irving on that balcony represents anyone, of whatever faith, who sees consecrated life as evidence of some sinister plot to control others, or as a way for immature people to run away from responsibility. Doubtless those bygone young ladies of Irving College would have understood someone willingly and cheerfully following a daringly unusual path.
A version of this essay appeared in Eloquentia (December, 2016), pp. 12-13.