‘Squire Thomas (or The Precipitate Choice) is one of the Tales in which Crabbe’s sometimes bleak view of humanity is revealed in its fullest extent. Every single character in this Tale is deeply unpleasant.
It is this kind of Tale, and its underlying world-view, which earned Crabbe a (semi-deserved) reputation as one whose view of reality was too bleak and pessimistic. This was uncomfortable for many contemporary (and I suspect later) critics and readers.
Let me tell the story. Thomas is a young man who for 10 years lives with a nasty, capricious elderly Aunt in the hope of her inheriting her wealth….
‘Squire Thomas flatter’d long a wealthy Aunt,
Who left him all that she could give or grant;
Ten years he tried, with all his craft and skill,
To fix the sovereign lady’s varying will;
Ten years enduring at her board to sit,
He meekly listen’d to her tales and wit:
He took the meanest office man can take,
And his aunt’s vices for her money’s sake:
Finally she dies and he does indeed inherit her considerable fortune, dismissing all her other relations. He then looks to marry but refuses to engage in any of the rites of courtship believing that….
He thought attention now was due to him;
And as his flattery pleased the wealthy Dame,
Heir to the wealth, he might the flattery claim:
Not surprisingly, and given that he was unwilling to countenance any young woman of lesser status (and wealth) he was refused….
this the fair, with one accord, denied,
Nor waived for man’s caprice the sex’s pride.
There is a season when to them is due
Worship and awe, and they will claim it too:
“Fathers,” they cry, “long hold us in their chain,
Nay, tyrant brothers claim a right to reign:
Uncles and guardians we in turn obey,
And husbands rule with ever-during sway;
Short is the time when lovers at the feet
Of beauty kneel, and own the slavery sweet;
And shall we thus our triumph, this the aim
And boast of female power, forbear to claim?
No! we demand that homage, that respect,
Or the proud rebel punish and reject.”
[there is something very Trollopian about this assertion – or observation – of Patriarchy: actually I think Crabbe is probably somewhat more neutral than Trollope. Whatever the case it is an admirable summary of patriarchal mores and realities in the early 19thC].
On someone else’s recommendation Thomas takes on a young man, George, as a servant. George proves highly satisfactory, burnishing Thomas’s ego in subtle ways. He suggests that they visit a fair some miles off, but on the way back, during a rainy night, they get lost until finally arriving at George’s home village where they are welcomed by his parents and his sister. The latter, Harriot, is a ‘tall fair beauty’ but bashful and retiring in Thomas’s presence. Although he falls in love he is unwilling to go any further because she is poor….
Lovely she was, and, if he did not err,
As fond of him as his fond heart of her;
Still he delay’d, unable to decide,
Which was the master-passion, Love or Pride:
While thus he hung in balance, now inclined
To change his state, and then to change his mind,
George drops a letter from his mother on the floor which relates how Harriot is hopelessly in love with Thomas and pining for him. This decides the matter and they are married. But almost immediately afterwards Harriot’s character changes and she becomes a raging harridan (I suspect the name is deliberate!). Thomas ask her why she is so unhappy and she answers with a rather magnificent tirade….
Your hired domestics–and what pays me? Love!
A selfish fondness I endure each hour,
And share unwitness’d pomp, unenvied power.
I hear your folly, smile at your parade,
And see your favourite dishes duly made;
Then am I richly dress’d for you t’admire,
Such is my duty and my Lord’s desire:
Is this a life for youth, for health, for joy?
Are these my duties–this my base employ?
No! to my father’s house will I repair,
And make your idle wealth support me there.
Was it your wish to have an humble bride,
For bondage thankful? Curse upon your pride!
Was it a slave you wanted? You shall see,
That, if not happy, I at least am free:
Thomas accuses her and her family of gross deception, of having trapped him into marriage: at that point she throws off disguise and reveals that her mother was one of the Aunt’s relatives and that all his manoeuvres had been observed…
Speak you of craft and subtle schemes, who know
That all your wealth you to deception owe;
Who play’d for ten dull years a scoundrel part,
To worm yourself into a Widow’s heart?
Her parents then determined that she should be the tool of revenge…
…..my father, in his anger, swore
You should divide the fortune, or restore.
Long we debated–and you find me now
Heroic victim to a father’s vow;
Like Jephtha’s daughter, but in different state,
And both decreed to mourn our early fate:
Harriot demands a large slice of his wealth if he wants her to leave him in peace. But she and her family have underestimated Thomas’ greed…
Her strongest wish, the fortune to divide,
And part in peace, his avarice denied;
And thus it happen’d, as in all deceit,
The cheater found the evil of the cheat;
So they live on together bound only by mutual hatred, endlessly trying to devise new ways to wound each other…
The Husband griev’d–nor was the Wife at rest;
Him she could vex, and he could her molest;
She could his passion into frenzy raise,
But, when the fire was kindled, fear’d the blaze;
As much they studied, so in time they found
The easiest way to give the deepest wound;
But then, like fencers, they were equal still, –
Both lost in danger what they gain’d in skill;
Each heart a keener kind of rancour gain’d,
And, paining more, was more severely pain’d,
And thus by both was equal vengeance dealt,
And both the anguish they inflicted felt.
Which is where the poem ends: no attempts at any contrivance of a happy ending for any of these wretched characters but rather a life-sentence of misery.
My notes pointed out that the story of Jephthah’s daughter is to be found in Judges 11: it is one of those bloody Old Testament stories which tend to convince those of us who are atheists just how unpleasant God is, but would give much comfort to those who love a jealous wrathful deity. In the King James version it is also, as so often, a fine piece of literature. And it has very obvious links to the story of Agamemnon and Iphigenia. Cutting a not very long story even shorter Jephthah (who was ‘the son of a harlot’) , appointed military leader of the Israelites, promises God that…
…..if thou shalt without fail deliver the children of Ammon into mine hands, 31 Then it shall be, that whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, shall surely be the LORD’s and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.
Of course he does destroy the Ammonites, with the customary ‘very great slaughter’, but when he comes home it is his daughter, his only child, who comes out to greet him. He tells her of his vow and all she asks is that she given two months ‘that I may go up and down upon the mountains and bewail my virginity’, at the end of which time she returned to Jephthah and was duly sacrificed. It is impossible to relate this story without making the observation that biblical passages like these are all too little known. In many ways this is much more horrific and terrible than all those absurd rules which people rightly poke fun at. This is straightforward human sacrifice and differs in no important way from Agamemnon’s ritual murder of his daughter Iphigenia. That is the nature of this holy book; the values which it endorses; and the deity who accepts such worship.
Of course these observations of a 21st century atheist are not relevant to Crabbe’s use of the story which is somewhat curious. Are we really to see Harriot as similar to Jephthah’s daughter (who is never named – presumably to dehumanise her) as a ‘heroic victim to a father’s vow’? I am fairly sure that, while this is how Harriot might like to see herself, it is not Crabbe’s view and he is being deeply ironic, as he is earlier in the tale when he refers to Thomas as ‘Our Hero’ (whatever else he may be it is certainly not heroic!). No, I think Harriot is shown as just as capable of self-will and self-determination as any other character in the Tale and her motives (a lot of money) are just as base. In that case the reference to Jephthah’s daughter might be an ironic contrast: she was truly heroic where Harriott is in fact just another greedy individual in a Tale full of them. But in that case is Crabbe genuinely endorsing the behaviour and moral of the story of Jephthah? Perhaps, for he was after all a vicar. But as essentially a man of the 18thC Anglican Church, and without any evangelical tendencies as far as I know, is it not possible that he is in fact being ironic about both Harriot and the whole of the Jephthah tale? Suggesting that far from being heroic it is tragic, sad and inhuman? Well I would like to think so in the absence of any firm evidence either way .
For the rest of this tale it is, as I suggested at the beginning, unremittingly bleak in its view of what Victoria Glendenning calls ‘the brutal politics of human relations’ (she is speaking of Trollope’s work but the phrase is wonderfully apt in many other cases). Everyone is out for their own ends, which means here the accumulation of wealth, and will try any deception, endure all humiliations, to achieve their goals. The punishment which Crabbe ends up inflicting on Thomas and Harriot, trapped in their hellish marriage, is, for once, one that feels both realistic and deserved. Although it lacks any especially fine passages and is decidedly down-beat, in a way Squire Thomas is something of a mini-masterpiece, certainly if your view of those politics of human relations is, whether temporarily or permanently, somewhat jaundiced. I would generally be considerably more optimistic, but I love the way in which this poem can also be read as a treatise on the distorting effect of money and the acquisitive drive on humanity. If not the source of all evil then the love of money here is certainly the source of misery, dishonesty and cruel deception.
1. In fairness it needs to be said that there have been all sorts of attempts to explain away the story of Jephthah’s daughter within both the Jewish ( see http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=222&letter=J ) and Christian (eg: http://www.crivoice.org/jephthah.html ) traditions. Interestingly and more relevantly for Crabbe a fairly recent article by Susan Staves in the December 2008 Huntington Library Quarterly ( see http://caliber.ucpress.net/doi/abs/10.1525/hlq.2008.71.4.651?cookieSet=1&journalCode=hlq) considers 18thC analyses of the story : she starts…
Eighteenth-century debates over the story of Jephtha illuminate contemporary biblical hermeneutics. Deists used it as an example of religious fanaticism. Learned Anglican and Presbyterian commentators, responding to such skeptical critiques, used other modern textual critical approaches, sometimes to deny that Jephtha had made his daughter a burnt offering, sometimes to acknowledge that the interpretive problems were too difficult to admit of certainty. While scholarly, orthodox Christian commentators wrote about the sacrifice of Jephtha’s daughter with calm detachment, the deists used strong language of revulsion to arouse outrage.
[I cannot access any more of this article]. Perhaps Crabbe was aware of these debates? But if he wished to defend biblical othodoxy would have he drawn attention to a story which gave great ammunition to ‘free thinkers’?