I wrote of Tale 12 – Squire Thomas – on September 28th 2010, so my project of providing a commentary on Crabbe’s Tales is proving a protracted one, as I suspected it would! However in the 21 months since then, I have not just read the next Tale – I have read all the early (18thC) poems, The Parish-Register, The Borough, the rest of the Tales and am embarked on Tales of The Hall. I have also read some books of criticism/biography. This effort has now intensified in preparation for a one-day Conference on Crabbe in July. My knowledge has therefore increased substantially, and I feel that I begin to have a better grasp of the poet – or, more accurately, I have a better feeling for the many problems, ambiguities and issues which a more in-depth study of any figure of interest inevitably entails. The encouraging aspect of my reading of the criticism is that I have not, to date, found that those critics I have read either approach the poems in the way I would, nor, more importantly, do they cover every aspect of Crabbe’s verse which I would want to discuss. This matters to me because I would not wish to merely regurgitate other people’s opinions – indeed the project would cease to interest me if this were the case. So I am going to continue with this slow working-through of each individual Tale.
Jesse and Colin is, at first reading, one of the simplest Tales. Jesse is a vicar’s daughter whose widowed father dies and leaves her poorly provided for. She chooses to reject the marriage proposal of her worthy but poor suitor Colin, and opts instead to go and live with a rich woman, The Lady, whom her father had taken in when she herself was in distress and poverty. Jesse’s experiences in The Lady’s household prove to be horrible and she returns to the faithful Colin and they settle down and live happily ever after (a pretty rare ending in The Tales and indeed in Crabbe generally!). The story of Jesse and Colin themselves is mundane; Colin in particular is a dull, pastoral figure. It is what happens in The Lady’s house which is so fascinating, and the concerns and issues which Crabbe examines there have connections to other Tale and to his own life.
Before turning to this it is worth briefly looking at the passages where Jesse is deciding whether to marry Colin or go to The Lady (her very anonymity is significant)..
But prudence placed the Female Friend in view –
What might not one so rich and grateful do?
So lately, too, the good old Vicar died,
His faithful daughter must not cast aside
The signs of filial grief, and be a ready bride.
Thus, led by prudence, to the Lady’s seat
The Village-Beauty purposed to retreat;
But, as in hard-fought fields the victor knows
What to the vanquish’d he in honour owes,
So, in this conquest over powerful love,
Prudence resolved a generous foe to prove,
The use of ‘prudence’ three times in such a short space does rather heavily underscore that Crabbe wants us to pay some attention to the word! And what is interesting is that here ‘prudence’ produces a wrong decision. This is far from the only case in Crabbe where one has to be very careful about the reading of ‘virtue’ words. In other contexts and times he may use prudence as a term of commendation, but here it is clearly not. Abstract virtues are dependant on their context and on the way in which characters use them. This is one reason why reading Crabbe is tricky, but it also underlines his abiding concern with individual circumstance and character.
As I have said the meat of the poem is to be found when we move to The Lady’s household. The central theme here, which echoes one found in Tale 5, The Patron (see https://movingtoyshop.wordpress.com/2009/05/15/crabbe-tale-5the-patron/) and Tale 16, The Confidant to name 2 obvious examples, is that of dependence and its evils. In Jesse and Colin however, we also see much more clearly how the person who wields, or mis-wields, the power is corrupted and perverted. The household in which Jesse finds herself is made up of 4 women, The Lady herself and three dependents – a maid, a young relative and a ‘poor Friend’. Here is the passage which introduces The Lady and the situation…
From her vast mansion look’d the Lady down
On humbler buildings of a busy town;
Thence came her friends of either sex, and all
With whom she lived on terms reciprocal:
They pass’d the hours with their accustom’d ease,
As guests inclined, but not compelled, to please;
But there were others in the mansion found,
For office chosen, and by duties bound;
Three female rivals, each of power possess’d,
Th’ attendant Maid, poor Friend, and kindred Guest.
To these came Jesse, as a seaman thrown
By the rude storm upon a coast unknown:
The view was flattering, civil seem’d the race,
But all unknown the dangers of the place.
Few hours had pass’d, when, from attendants freed
The Lady utter’d, “This is kind indeed;
Believe me, love! that I for one like you
Have daily pray’d, a friend discreet and true;
Oh! wonder not that I on you depend,
You are mine own hereditary friend:
Hearken, my Jesse, never can I trust
Beings ungrateful, selfish, and unjust;
But you are present, and my load of care
Your love will serve to lighten and to share:
Come near me, Jesse – let not those below
Of my reliance on your friendship know;
Look as they look, be in their freedoms free –
But all they say do you convey to me.”
What a splendid and very characteristic passage this is. Our suspicions are instantly alerted by the ‘vast mansion’ and the way that it, like its owner, ‘look down’ on the town. There is also the anonymity of The Lady – it is not the case that all named characters in Crabbe are positive (far from it!) but the reader’s doubts should always be alerted by someone who is un-named. The maritime metaphor is also both apt and characteristic.
So Jesse’s function in the household is to act as a dissembling spy on behalf of The Lady. Over the next few days each of the dependant women comes to Jesse and attempts to win her over, at the same time proving that The Lady’s suspicions are correct and they do indeed hold her in contempt and abhorrence. Each of their situations is indeed intolerable, but, far from forming a united front, they squabble and denigrate each other. They are played off against each – a kind of of microcosmic example of the way in which the Ruling Class divides those it oppresses by fostering divisions and animosities. We, and Jesse, simultaneously pity and are revulsed by these women…
“Strange creatures these,” thought Jesse, half inclined
To smile at one malicious and yet kind;
Frank and yet cunning, with a heart to love
And malice prompt – the serpent and the dove;
Jesse finds her position unbearable, but when she says to The Lady that she intends to leave the mask is thrown aside and a stream of vitriol issues forth….
“Ungrateful creature!” said the Lady, “this
Could I imagine? – are you frantic, miss?
What! leave your friend, your prospects – is it true?”
This Jesse answer’d by a mild “Adieu?”
The Dame replied “Then houseless may you rove,
The starving victim to a guilty love;
Branded with shame, in sickness doom’d to nurse
An ill-form’d cub, your scandal and your curse;
Spurn’d by its scoundrel father, and ill fed
By surly rustics with the parish-bread! –
Relent you not? – speak – yet I can forgive;
Still live with me.” – “With you,” said Jesse, “live?
No! I would first endure what you describe,
Rather than breathe with your detested tribe;
Who long have feign’d, till now their very hearts
Are firmly fix’d in their accursed parts;
Who all profess esteem, and feel disdain,
And all, with justice, of deceit complain;
Whom I could pity, but that, while I stay,
My terror drives all kinder thoughts away;
Grateful for this, that, when I think of you,
I little fear what poverty can do.”
The angry matron her attendant Jane
Summon’d in haste to soothe the fierce disdain: –
“A vile detested wretch!” the Lady cried,
“Yet shall she be by many an effort tried,
And, clogg’d with debt and fear, against her will abide;
And, once secured, she never shall depart
Till I have proved the firmness of her heart:
Then when she dares not, would not, cannot go
I’ll make her feel what ’tis to use me so.”
In his book George Crabbe Neil Powell says of Crabbe that by the time he came to write The Tales his “life had become static: the material for his poetry was now drawn from memory and imagination rather than from fresh experience. Although tending to his wife’s needs and writing in his study were conveniently adjacent occupations, they were not likely to extend his knowledge of the changing world outside.”
I find this claim extraordinary for several reasons. But leaving aside the fact that caring for a very ill – both physically and mentally – wife surely provides any human-being with a wealth of “experience”, this central section of Jesse and Colin is vividly attuned to a major social reality of Crabbe’s day – the position of middle-class women with no money. Their only option was to become either governesses or some form of ‘companion’ to richer families or women. In these positions they often suffered abuse of one kind or another (as we will see again in Tale 16, and on which Ellen Moody has written with knowledge and insight (1)). In Jesse and Colin Crabbe is examining a specific example of the way in which one such household operates. What he shows in stunning detail, and with characteristic attention to individual psychology, is how people’s natures, by no means evil in themselves, are warped by their situations. Even The Lady herself, whose actions and words are despicable, is provided with a back-story which goes some way to explain, though not excuse, her…
….the days her generous Friend had seen –
As wife and widow, evil days had been;
She married early, and for half her life
Was an insulted and forsaken wife;
Widow’d and poor, her angry father gave,
Mix’d with reproach, the pittance of a slave;
Forgetful brothers pass’d her,
‘generous’ here takes a bittely ironic note in the light of what we later learn. But The Lady has, by the time of the events of The Tale, been wholly corrupted by power and wealth, both of which she misuses. The savage irony is that all her suspicions of her three dependants are wholly justified – they do, very reasonably, despise her and cheat her whenever possible.
Crabbe’s analysis of the corrupting influence of dependence and the evils it brings in its train is, in part, the result of his own life-experience. He had been a dependent of literary patrons, and a domestic chaplain in an aristocratic household. He had had to flatter and grovel (of which there is plenty of evidence in the dedications and letters). He knew how dependents warred with each other and could come to despise their overlords. He had endured casual rude dismissal. This gives him an insight into those in such situations which the likes of a Byron or Shelley could never have.
It is this which makes Jesse and Colin such an important poem for me because it provides part of the answer to what remains my central question personal about Crabbe – why do I so like and value a poet who could often be so reactionary and conservative? Because he could also be deeply radical, albeit in a wholly unintended way. The analysis and dissection of the way in which dependence and power distort character and relationships is radical. Who has power over whom? How is it exercised? These are key questions when analysing Crabbe’s mature work. Sometimes the answers are horrible, sometimes, as in this Tale, they have a brilliance and insight, a mixture of realism and tolerance, which is wholly individual.