“John Bull”: John Bull is the humorously caricatured figure that the British use to symbolize their national character. Crayon believes that this caricature sometimes has negative effects in that people use their John Bullishness to excuse their less desirable characteristics. In this way, they convince themselves that their faults are their merits, all in the name of John Bull.
John Bull is a plain, matter-of-fact person with little of art or romance about him but a lot of natural feeling. He is good-hearted and good-natured deep down, but he has a strong propensity for being in the middle of contention and often making it worse. He is generous and likes having many dependents, but because of this, he has much difficulty paying his bills every month. Crayon wishes for John Bull’s sake that he would stop worrying so much about his neighbors and dependents, instead focusing on improving his own situation so that he can have a long and peaceful old age.
“The Pride of the Village”: While traveling through a remote county of England, Crayon comes upon a very isolated village. Its inhabitants have an air of primitive simplicity that he likes, so he decides to stay there for the night. He explores the village and ends up at the church, where he sits in the graveyard and muses. He sees a funeral procession coming, and from the flowers and other symbolic signs, he can tell that it is the funeral of a young, unmarried female.
Later, at the inn, he learns that she was the only daughter of a rather successful farmer, the beauty and pride of the village, loved by everyone because of her wonderful kindness. One May, a young officer stationed nearby came to the village, attracted by their old-fashioned May Day festivities, and saw the beautiful young woman. He was quite taken with her and began to slowly and subtly court her.
She fell innocently in love with him, not even realizing it. The officer had started his courtship of her much less innocently, however, thinking that he needed a “village conquest” in order to prove his manliness to his peers. He realized, however, that he actually had fallen in love with her, but he did not know what to do, for her lower class and his dependence on a prejudiced father meant that marrying her would be impossible.
After he learned that his regiment must leave, he could not bear to tell her until the night before he must go. As he told her, she burst into tears and he kissed her. Incapable of imagining being apart from her, he asked her to leave with him and be his companion—but not his wife. At first, she did not understand the implication of this arrangement, but when she did, she recoiled in anguish and ran away.
The young officer felt guilty and sad at first, but in the bustle of setting up a new officer’s life, he mostly forgot about her and about his guilt. The woman’s world, however, is left in melancholy disarray. She avoids society and focuses only on religion and her own brooding, and she seems to be wasting away.
She feels herself dying. She writes a letter to the young officer to tell him she is dying and to tell him that she does not want to die without giving him her forgiveness. Her strength continues to decline so much that eventually she can no longer leave her parents’ cottage, and her only activity is sitting in the window and watching the countryside.
One day, she hears a horse coming, and it is the young officer. He embraces her. She smiles at him tenderly, then dies.
“The Angler”: After reading a book about fishing, Crayon and some of his friends in America are desperate to try it, so they go on a fishing trip. They first try a mountain brook in the highlands of the Hudson, which turns out not to be the best place for a sport designed on the quiet riverbanks of England. Crayon quickly realizes that the fiction is much better than the reality, and that angling is not for him. After about thirty minutes of trying, he gives up and instead sits by the brook and reads about it.
His friends, however, do not give up the dream so quickly. After trying all day, they have no success. Then, an urchin comes along with shabby equipment and proceeds to quickly catch more fish than they have had nibbles all day.
More recently, while strolling along the banks of a little stream in Wales, Crayon comes upon a veteran fisher and two students learning from him. The old man has a wooden leg and a happy, take-life-as-it-comes demeanor, which attracts Crayon. He goes over and gets into conversation with the old man, and he is so entertained by it that he ends up spending the whole day with him under the pretence of receiving a fishing lesson.
The man had lost his leg to a cannonball in the navy, which had turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to him because it earned him a nice pension that allowed him to spend the rest of his life mastering fishing. He had many troubles in his youth, in many different countries, but he managed to focus only on the good. He has kind things to say about every place he has visited.
In this last section, Crayon moves away from the themes of history and returns to some of the other themes in the collection. In “John Bull,” Crayon turns again to the theme of the national character of the British and touches on the danger of having too much national pride. Although he commends the British for their ability to caricature and make fun of themselves, he shows that doing so has resulted in them excusing their own faults as being part of their John Bullishness.
They are thus letting their love for their national caricature, and their desire to be thoroughly British, mean that they are not trying to become any better than what they are. Traditions, it is clear, are not good in themselves; the traditions must express positive values and virtues. This is another angle on the theme of choosing fiction over reality—here, the British people, according to Crayon, are letting themselves and their reality be shaped by fiction, to their detriment.
“John Bull” also seems to carry a geopolitical allegory. Crayon says that he wishes John Bull would stop worrying so much about his dependents and instead take better care of himself, so that he can have a peaceful and quiet retirement. This seems to be a recommendation for England to stop overextending itself with its empire, instead focusing on England itself. This point is consistent with his attention to the rural and personal and romantic rather than the contemporary political hubbub of politics and geopolitics.
“The Pride of the Village” is another mythic tale about love and loss. Again, this tale demonstrates gender inequality in love relationships. The young woman in this story is beautiful and very virtuous, but when she falls in love with someone who leaves her, she has nothing to distract her from this heartbreak, so she pines away until she is dead.
The young man, on the other hand, though very sad to leave her, is distracted by the process of moving with his regiment, and once moved by all the things he must do as part of his regiment, he has little trouble getting over what has happened. This romantic tale is probably not meant to be normative but, more likely, as in “Rip Van Winkle,” is meant to encourage men to be more thoughtful and respectful about women and to encourage women to have more than just love for a man as the center of their lives. More generally, this is the common story of the military man who, far from home, loses his moral bearings and is willing to manipulate a woman into thinking he loves her so that he can find romantic satisfaction before he moves on. Sometimes, as here, the man actually falls in love, but like many a tragedy, he comes back too late.
This story also reflects once more on the importance of class in England. Though she is beautiful, virtuous, intelligent and kind, she is from a fairly poor, rural family, so he absolutely cannot marry her if he wants to maintain his status in his own family. In addition, in America it is harder to see the rationale for proving one’s cosmopolitan manliness by making a rural conquest.
Finally, “The Angler” returns to the theme of fiction versus reality. Crayon becomes extremely excited about fishing after reading a book about it, but once he actually tries the reality he only lasts for about half an hour before he goes back to simply reading about it. The child with experience knows what to do, while the men who have read a book about what to do are utter failures when they try it. Practice, in matters of the practical, trumps theory. Likewise, if you want to be a good writer, do not just read Crayon’s tales, but do your own writing. And if you want to be a good historian, do not just steal pieces of others’ histories, but go out and travel and learn the stories for yourself. Indeed, when Crayon next returns to fishing, it is simply to hear the stories of an old fisherman. But do not be a mere collector of curiosities or fashions, symbolically figured as someone who catches one fish at a time. Merge all the pieces together, Irving appears to tell us, to enjoy an integrated life, with respect for both imagination and the reality that makes us who we are.