By way of the Netherlands he reached London in October and remained in England till January. The attraction in London seems to have been the theatre, where he saw John Kemble, Cooke, and Mrs. Siddons. Kemble’s acting seemed to him too studied and over-labored; he had the disadvantage of a voice lacking rich, base tones. Whatever he did was judiciously conceived and perfectly executed; it satisfied the head, but rarely touched the heart. Only in the part of Zanga was the young critic completely overpowered by his acting,—Kemble seemed to have forgotten himself. Cooke, who had less range than Kemble, completely satisfied Irving as Iago. Of Mrs. Siddons, who was then old, he scarcely dares to give his impressions lest he should be thought extravagant. “Her looks,” he says, “her voice, her gestures, delighted me. She penetrated in a moment to my heart. She froze and melted it by turns; a glance of her eye, a start, an exclamation, thrilled through my whole frame. The more I see her the more I admire her. I hardly breathe while she is on the stage. She works up my feelings till I am like a mere child.” Some years later, after the publication of the “Sketch-Book,” in a London assembly Irving was presented to the tragedy queen, who had left the stage, but had not laid aside its stately manner. She looked at him a moment, and then in a deep-toned voice slowly enunciated, “You’ve made me weep.” The author was so disconcerted that he said not a word, and retreated in confusion. After the publication of “Bracebridge Hall” he met her in company again, and was persuaded to go through the ordeal of another presentation. The stately woman fixed her eyes on him as before, and slowly said, “You’ve made me weep again.” This time the bashful author acquitted himself with more honor.
This first sojourn abroad was not immediately fruitful in a literary way, and need not further detain us. It was the irresolute pilgrimage of a man who had not yet received his vocation. Everywhere he was received in the best society, and the charm of his manner and his ingenuous nature made him everywhere a favorite. He carried that indefinable passport which society recognizes and which needs no vise. He saw the people who were famous, the women whose recognition is a social reputation; he made many valuable friends; he frequented the theatre, he indulged his passion for the opera; he learned how to dine, and to appreciate the delights of a brilliant salon; he was picking up languages; he was observing nature and men, and especially women. That he profited by his loitering experience is plain enough afterward, but thus far there is little to prophesy that Irving would be anything more in life than a charming flaneur.