Back to the story of Mary Shelley and Washington Irving ...
Of course, Payne had well prepared Irving for what he was going to read; it was no surprise to the American that Mary was interested in him. But now, in the correspondence, he was learning some details. I try to imagine what he was thinking as he read those letters—letters that Mary surely knew (hoped?) Payne would share with Irving. Was he shocked? Worried? Horrified? Flattered? All of the above?
The only thing we know for certain is that he was not “interested”—not in the way Mary clearly was. And why not? Mary Shelley—to my mind—was one of the most interesting women I’ve ever read about. Brilliant (think about Frankenstein—published when she was only twenty years old!), attractive (from all accounts), diligent, a wonderful mother (her only living son, Percy, adored her), a loyal friend, and on and on. What’s not to like?
Well, for Irving, one thing was surely her reputation. Her elopement with the married Bysshe Shelley when she was just sixteen, her well-known friendship with the notorious Lord Byron, her controversial parents (Godwin and Wollstonecraft—also publicly reviled for their social and political beliefs and behavior)—all of these were factors that would cause a cautious man to hesitate.
And, naturally, there’s really nothing too rational about the attractions between the sexes. You can’t talk yourself into desire. It’s there or it isn’t. Mary clearly felt it; Irving clearly did not.
But there’s another possibility that has occurred to some—including a few of his biographers. Was Washington Irving gay? A couple of recent biographers have dealt more or less directly with it. In his The Original Knickerbocker: The Life of Washington Irving (2007), Andrew Burstein is less explicit. For so long indefinite in his stated attractions, he writes, the self-conscious bachelor did not express hunger for women; rather, he sought innocent perfection from them.
Bryan J. Jones—in his Washington Irving: An American Original (2008)—is more direct: Irving’s possible homosexuality must also be considered. … Once Matilda [Hoffman, his early love] died, however, Irving [just about to turn 26], the gay bachelor—perhaps literally—was off the hook for the rest of his life. He could simply claim, as sentimental biographers did for decades, that Matilda’s death had so scarred him that it was impossible for him to ever marry another.
There’s been some speculation online, as well (Google it!), and one site shows that 67% of those voting said that Irving was gay. Of course, the only thing scientific about this finding is that it uses a number; the rest? Worthless.