Crabbe – Tale 9: Arabella

One thing which I have failed to comment on is the way in which certain of The Tales are grouped, or follow on from one another. There are dialogues between the Tales some of which take of the forms of oppositions, others of complements. This is most definitely true of Tales 6-9 all of which have as their central characters young women – Sybil, Nancy, Lucy and now Arabella – and discuss their various positions and fates in respect of marriage. However, here in Arabella, unlike the other three Tales, there is almost no parental presence.

Arabella Rack is a paragon….

>>Of a fair town where Doctor Rack was guide,
His only daughter was the boast and pride –
Wise Arabella, yet not wise alone,
She like a bright and polish’d brilliant shone;<<

Who is held up as an example by the mothers of the town to their daughters – with the expected results…

>>These odious praises made the damsels try
Not to obtain such merits, but deny;
For, whatsoever wise mammas might say,
To guide a daughter, this was not the way;<<

(Crabbe prefigures The Undertones wonderful My Perfect Cousin by a couple of centuries!).

Above all Arabella is marked out by the fact that she reads….

>>This reasoning Maid, above her sex’s dread,
Had dared to read, and dared to say she read;
Not the last novel, not the new-born play;
Not the mere trash and scandal of the day;
But (though her young companions felt the shock)
She studied Berkeley, Bacon, Hobbes and Locke:
Her mind within the maze of history dwelt,
And of the moral Muse the beauty felt;
The merits of the Roman page she knew,
And could converse with Moore and Montague:<<

(Moore is Hannah More and Montague Elizabeth Montagu)

In terms of men Arabella’s standards are extremely high…

>> He must be one with manners like her own,
His life unquestion’d, his opinions known;
His stainless virtue must all tests endure,
His honour spotless, and his bosom pure;
She no allowance made for sex or times,
Of lax opinion–crimes were ever crimes;
No wretch forsaken must his frailty curse,
No spurious offspring drain his private purse;
He at all times his passions must command,
And yet possess–or be refused her hand.<<

A number of suitors for her hand are therefore dismissed in a series of semi-comic vignettes. There is a Doctor Campbell, a Scot, with highly radical views on religion…

>>”All states demand this aid, the vulgar need
Their priests and prayers, their sermons and their creed;
And those of stronger minds should never speak
(In his opinion) what might hurt the weak:
A man may smile, but still he should attend
His hour at church, and be the Church’s friend,
What there he thinks conceal, and what he hears commend.”<<

(I wish I could think who’s highly cynical views about religion these lines are supposed to represent? Suggestions or answers highly welcome!).

Arabella has no time for such views, nor does she accept Vicar Holmes who is too old, or Captain Bligh who is in debt. But then there comes Edward Huntly who seems ideal and they become engaged. But Arabella is determined to test him and does so by continually putting the wedding off….

>>…by some trial your affection prove –
Respect, and not impatience, argues love:

Young Edward grieved, but let not grief be seen;
He knew obedience pleased his fancy’s queen:
Awhile he waited, and then cried–“Behold!
The year advancing, be no longer cold!”
For she had promised–“Let the flowers appear,
And I will pass with thee the smiling year:”
Then pressing grew the youth; the more he press’d,
The less inclined the maid to his request:
“Let June arrive.”  Alas! when April came,
It brought a stranger, and the stranger, shame;<<

A woman turns up whom Edward has impregnated and then abandoned. Edward and his mother plead with Arabella to forgive him but she is adamant…

>>”Plead thou no more, “the lofty lass return’d;
“Forgiving woman is deceived and spurn’d:
Say that the crime is common–shall I take
A common man my wedded lord to make?
See? a weak woman by his arts betray’d,
An infant born his father to upbraid;
Shall I forgive his vileness, take his name,
Sanction his error, and partake his shame?
No! this assent would kindred frailty prove,
A love for him would be a vicious love:<<

Edward gives up and marries someone else (not the abandoned mother of his child).

Crabbe now breaks off into one of his philosophical passages which serves to bridge the two halves of The Tale but is also at its’ psychological centre…

>>Time to the yielding mind his change imparts,
He varies notions, and he alters hearts;
‘Tis right, ’tis just to feel contempt for vice,
But he that shows it may be over-nice:
There are who feel, when young, the false sublime,
And proudly love to show disdain for crime;
To whom the future will new thoughts supply,
The pride will soften, and the scorn will die;
Nay, where they still the vice itself condemn,
They bear the vicious, and consort with them:<<

Crabbe gives a couple of specific examples – of a venal Captain Grove and Belinda an unmarried mother who are spurned by their friends in youth, but accepted in older age. What he asks has made the difference…

>>..’twas the gradual change in human hearts,
That time, in commerce with the world, imparts;<<

He then turns back and applies his observations to Arabella. Twelve years have passed and she is still single. She accepts the offer of a Merchant, Beswell, and far from putting him off allows the time to the wedding to be brought forward. A ‘female Friend’ who was single…

>>….grieved to find her work undone,
And like a sister mourn’d the failing nun.<<

and makes inquiries; she finds that Beswell has a secret…

>>That traitor Beswell, while he seeks your hand,
Has, I affirm, a wanton at command;
A slave, a creature from a foreign place,
The nurse and mother of a spurious race;
Brown ugly bastards (Heaven the word forgive,
And the deed punish!) in his cottage live;<<

Arabella now though, far from immediately rejecting Beswell, finds excuses for him…

“I wish to know no more:
I question not your motive, zeal, or love,
But must decline such dubious points to prove.
All is not true, I judge, for who can guess
Those deeds of darkness men with care suppress?
He brought a slave perhaps to England’s coast,
And made her free; it is our country’s boast!
And she perchance too grateful–good and ill
Were sown at first, and grow together still;
The colour’d infants on the village green,
What are they more than we have often seen?
Children half-clothed who round their village stray,
In sun or rain, now starved, now beaten, they
Will the dark colour of their fate betray:
Let us in Christian love for all account,
And then behold to what such tales amount.”

“we may be too nice
And lose a soul in our contempt of vice;
If false the charge, I then shall show regard
For a good man, and be his just reward:
And what for virtue can I better do
Than to reclaim him, if the charge be true?”
   She spoke, nor more her holy work delay’d;
‘Twas time to lend an erring mortal aid:
“The noblest way,” she judged, “a soul to win,
Was with an act of kindness to begin,
To make the sinner sure, and then t’attack the sin.”<<

Which refers back  very precisely to the end of her earlier reply to Huntly…

>>The way from vice the erring mind to win
Is with presuming sinners to begin,
And show, by scorning them, a just contempt for sin.”<<

According to the Notes in my edition this Tale was suggested to Crabbe by an actual case in Ipswich where a young lady broke off an engagement on precisely the grounds which Arabella does with Huntly – this ‘gave rise to much difference of opinion at the time and suggested this tale’ (Collected Works of 1834). My note (Gavin Edwards) also suggests that Crabbe’s view of Arabella is ‘nuanced’ and that the Tale is intended as a counter-weight to that of the preceding one, and Arabella as a contrast to Lucy.

However what must stand out for the modern reader is the extent to which Crabbe himself  – poet and clergyman we should recall – is prepared to overlook the abandonment of their children and the women who bore them by Huntly and Beswell. These women are not given names and their tragic stories appear only as motives and plot devices. I am not suggesting that this is anything other than a true reflection of the moral and social realities of the period but it is noteworthy nonetheless.

In respect of the main story-line and Arabella herself we can see that in a way this is a further development of the idea which I started to develop in my comment on Tale 8 in response to Ellen – that one of Crabbe’s central concerns is self-deception and its abandonment or otherwise. In this case we see a young woman living a life of the intellect with a set of stern principles which govern her actions. Time however reveals to her that those principles are not going to allow her to enjoy an emotionally satisfying life and so they are abandoned (there are some echoes of John Stuart Mill’s ‘crisis’ when he lost his faith in Benthamism and discovered Wordsworth). Men and women, Crabbe seems to be saying, cannot live by principle alone – which again is an interesting line for a clergyman to take. Arabella’s progress is a discovery of her humanity and a shedding of a self-deception as to her nature. But it would be foolish to be too prescriptive about any reading of this Tale – it is to some degree open to interpretation.

2 thoughts on “Crabbe – Tale 9: Arabella

  1. Dear Nick,

    I read the tale tonight, and found myself moved but the thought and rhythm of the meditative lines:

    “No: ’twas the gradual change in human hearts,
    That time, in commerce with the world, imparts …

    down to

    To soothe dull hours, and cheat the cares of age.”

    It reminds me of the rhythm of Cowper’s meditations:

    “Scenes must be beautiful which daily views please daily …”

    It seemed to me a new thought for him too, more compassionate than he usually is. I didn’t expect Arabella to marry in the end; that she does retrieve herself is different from other of his tales, which end in disaster for the chief participants.

    I thought the poem about age and how it changes our perspective. What mattered what we are young no longer does; we lose our pride too.

    The Shakespeare allusions point to a suddenly pro-marriage point of view. This to me would be male sexuality asserting itself: women must forgive, boys will be boys, and so on.

    Yet the author’s note at the end suggests his theme is self-deception; we take credit for actions that are not our own, so Arabella will take credit for making her choice? Here his idea reminded me of Pope’s lines: “Our depths who fathoms or our shallows finds,/Quick whirls, and shifting eddies, of our minds ? …” So Arabella should not take credit for her decision; it was a product of weakening in old age, and growing need?

    It’s sort of an exercise of different levels of meaning and how the author might not see what we do.


  2. nick2209

    Many thanks as ever Ellen. I quite agree that the poem is centrally “about age and how it changes our perspective. What mattered what we are young no longer does; we lose our pride too.” To cite the passage in full….

    >>No: ’twas the gradual change in human hearts,
    That time, in commerce with the world, imparts;
    That on the roughest temper throws disguise,
    And steals from virtue her asperities.
    The young and ardent, who with glowing zeal
    Felt wrath for trifles, and were proud to feel,
    Now find those trifles all the mind engage,
    To soothe dull hours, and cheat the cares of age;<<

    Of course how true this really is is another matter. One would like to think that experience does indeed teach us greater tolerance and reduce our 'asperities' – and in some people one can discern this movement; but on the other hand prejudices and intolerances can often be deep-rooted and insusceptible to change. It might be argued that for once Crabbe is in fact taking an optimistic view of human experience.

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