I did not often see my Aunt with a book in her hand, but I beleive she was fond of reading and that she had read and did read a good deal. I doubt whether she ever much cared for poetry in general but she was a great admirer of Crabbe. She thoroughly enjoyed Crabbe … and would sometimes say, in jest, that if she ever married at all, she could fancy being Mrs Crabbe … — Caroline Austen, My Aunt Jane Austen
No. I have not seen the death of Mrs Crabbe. I have only just been making out from one of his prefaces that he probably was married. It was almost ridiculous. Poor woman! I will comfort him as well as I can, but I do not undertake to be good to her children. She had better not leave any . . . — Jane Austen, Thurs, 21 October 1813
The set for the Teatro alla Scala Peter Grimes — the rooms in which the actions take place are all inside trailers in a sort of car park, in front is the crashing dangerous sea and cliffs; to the back tenement apartment houses
Dear friends and readers,
I’ve been thinking about writing about George Crabbe’s poetry here, and possible sources for Austen’s deep affinity with his spirit as seen in his poetry, partly because a while back now (more than two years) a couple of us on EighteenthCenturyWorlds @Yahoo read a number of his poems in The Borough and Tales 1812, and found them compelling in their grim realism. Since then I’ve read his son’s biography of him, and my good friend, Nick, has carried on reading Crabbe and books on his verse and every once in a while sends me a specimen of verse with his comments.
Then today Jim and I went to see an HD version of Richard Jones’s brilliant production at Teatro alla Scala (Milan, Italy) in the beautiful theater of the American Film Institute in Silver Springs. If the film is shown anywhere near it (or you are lucky enough to be in the vicinity where this is being performed live), rush out to see and hear it. Like other of the Britten operas I’ve seen, the perspective of Peter Grimes comes out of a mind imbued with the finest of humane values as he puts before us the dense unexamined needs, desires, angers, conscious and unconscious of people in and pushed outside of communities. Britten’s Peter Grimes is rightly sometimes called the greatest opera written in the 20th century and this is a production which makes all its parts understandable.
The daring Britten story and characters: Britten makes a victim and community scapegoat of a man who is violent, has cruelly driven one boy and drives another by relentless hard work in unameliorated circumstances to their deaths. He had not meant to kill them, but he had not taken care of them, and he was not adverse to roughing them up, beating them to get them to obey him and work harder, and we see him take out his resentments on the second. He certainly shows them no affection. The community is right to condemn him (in the opening scene, a court room in a trailer), but we are made to see that in their better circumstances they behave not much better than he does in his worse ones. His perverse (given their real indifference to him) need to prove himself better than them by growing rich and building himself a house (which paradoxically he says will enable him to stay apart from them) has been picked up by the town’s spinster-librarian, Ellen Orford, who sees in his character and goals an opportunity to marry and find a place for herself to thrive. When the community refuses to enable Grimes to hire another apprentice after the death of the first, she steps in to promise she will soften the boy’s life and make sure he is treated decently. And so a second boy is bought.
But Ellen does not protect the boy sufficiently at all. She cannot control Grimes. He works the boy very hard all week and will not give the boy off on Sunday. She has tried to pretend to make friends with the boy (her caring for him is certainly limited as we watch her complacently embroider while she asks him to talk to her, confide in her), but the boy (rightly) will not speak. He is a bought slave. We see other boys his age jeer at him, and seem to threaten him. The citizens are not prepared to befriend Grimes in any way, nor take the one help he has, the boy, away from him until they see proof of beating; their laws and customs (making profits from such sales included) invite Grimes to act out his worst self. They include types: Mr Swallow, a libidinous lawyer, a judge, Rev. Adams, a hypocritically pious priest, Mrs Sedley, a female nosy-neighbor who is thrilled by the notion of violence and fueled by the excitement of relating slander (how true she doesn’t care); there is a tavern owner, Auntie, at which dances are held (very modern club like), her two nieces who are presented as over-sexed cock-teasers, the very quintessence of sick heterosexuality (some of the male dancers have shaved heads and dance with these sopranos). We see them “service” Mr Swallow and how he despises them, and enjoys the experience all the more for the triumph over them.
From another production which did emphasize the connection with Crabbe (older costumes, at the Royal Opera House, London)
How does this opera relate to Crabbe’s Borough, especially the two poems most central: “The Poor of the Borough: Peter Grimes” and “Ellen Orford.” Crabbe’s The Borough is a narrow-minded repressive culture which makes an already hard-scrabble life much harder to endure. In Britten’s play Grimes has not deliberately murdered the boys; he didn’t take care of them properly but the final deaths are accidental (if clearly being slowly engendered). Crabbe’s central figure hated his father who hated him. Old Peter Grimes was a religious hypocrite who made his wife and son pray while he also made their lives a misery and when he dies, they are at least free of his tyrannies. The son, Peter however has been taught to be violent and longs to hurt others as he has been hurt; he is gleeful when he gets his first boy and really enjoys subjecting the boys to his blows. Britten’s Grimes wants to make the boy work harder. Crabbe’s central Peter despises the second boy who becomes lame under the terrible treatment; the town sneaks him fire, food, and comfort, but he drowns after beatings with a knotted rope because he can’t hold on during a storm. The town then will not allow Grimes another boy, and we see him living alone, struggling to keep up his fishing trade. He is haunted by his father’s ghost and the ghost of the two boys, left in isolation and slowly goes mad. One of the epigraphs to Crabbe’s poem comes from Macbeth: “The times have been,/That when the brains were out, the man would die …” The poem ends with a long soliloquy from Grimes begging his father’s ghost for mercy, imagining demons (the boys?) around his bed.
There is no Ellen Orford in the original tale. Instead she is the focus of a tale just as hard and grim. She is also one of the poor of the borough. Crabbe opens by bitterly regaling the reader with typical sentimental romances and then says he will show you what real life is like, real tragedy. Ellen was the daughter of a woman who when widowed remarried a violent angry husband who mistreated her and her children; a young upper class man took advantage of her need for affection and friendship and when she became pregnant deserted her; her baby-daughter was born an idiot. After many years of isolation and menial work, a tradesman takes pity on her, marries her, but their hard life sours the husband, and all her children but two die, her one son is corrupted away from her (like the son in Wordsworth’s poignant “Michael”), another son a seaman drowns. Her retarded daughter had the same fate as she, worse, she dies too. Now Ellen is blind and lives alone, and is imagined telling this tale to show how she survives still, loving mankind and thankful to God (“my friend”).
These are typical tales for Crabbe. My friend, Nick and I have mused over their ambivalent meanings. The director did not indicate why Britten turned to this kind of material, nor did anyone else in the intermission of the opera (where there were interviews played as in the Met broadcasts). Britten did spend the last part of his life in East Anglia (Aldeburgh, Suffolk) where Crabbe was born and lived. It is a place which has fishing communities, probably narrow-minded villages where people live out a hard life. Crabbe would have been a well-known local poet-hero. The sea is central to the opera: a dangerous realm where people have to wrest a living and where they can die doing it.
You might say this is a homosexual take on Crabbe’s original story. He shows no desire for Ellen Orford. It’s a social bargain. The conductor, Robin Ticciati, mentioned this and from the production it’s clear this was in Ticciati and Jones’s perspective. the costume designer suggested the way she designed the nieces’ clothing took this perspective in mind too.
Ticciati said the play and music were written by Britten in the 1950s (correction: actually 1942-45) when he and his partner, tenor Peter Pears, returned from the US where they had waited out WW2 as conscientious objectors. Britten was an outsider at risk from overt hatred as someone who was a pacificist, an open homosexual, regarded as something of a traitor. He is in danger from the small town people. At some level especially in the last scenes when Grimes shows intense remorse and fear as well as frantic anger and a sense of alienation and loss, Britten is identifying with this man, the lowest of the low. He deserves punishment; he ought to be controlled, but he is nonetheless not a monster; he cries, deranged. The one person who shows some disinterested concern for him is Captain Balstrode (Christopher Purves) and at the play’s close, Balstrode tells him there is nothing left but to sink himself in his boat into the sea. Grimes leaves the stage quietly and a messenger reports drowned himself. Meanwhile the citizens have reconstituted the court the opera opened with and Ellen is about to swear to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
The opera was sung and acted beautifully. There were only some 17 people watching it on Thursday afternoon, but just about all looked very moved. We were taught some lessons about life. Were we any of those people or Ellen Orford? did we recognize aspects of our own experience as we watched and listened to Grimes going through his. My only qualification or objection to the show was at the end the young boy who had played the apprentice was not singled out for special applause. He looked around 14 at most and he was directed to be depressed, frightened, attempting to get out of a beating, accept hitting, lay down and cry, and finally slip over a cliff to his death. Not easy for any youngster to enact. The company’s nonchalance towards him during the bowing time (except for one man who seemed to encourage the boy to smile) paralleled the way the community in the play had not looked out for Grimes’s apprentice.
The Crabbe poems are are not poems we might expect Austen to feel deep congeniality with, though since she loved Samuel Johnson’s dark work and he promoted and thought very well of Crabbe’s early poems, we can see a direct line or connection or parallel here. She also loved the tragic book, Richardson’s Clarissa. Fanny Price, her character, has a direct parallel character in one of Crabbe’s poems, “The Parish Register” (see Selwyn, JA and Leisure, pp 204-7). I’ve discovered parallels with Anne Elliot’s story where characters are pressured to wait until a seaman makes good and the lives of both are ruined (see Sarah Raff’s “‘Procrastination, Melancholia, and the Prehistory of Persuasion, Persuasions, 29 (2007):174-180). Crabbe’s milieu was her own: clergymen, well-educated, connected to richer relatives, but themselves fringe people. Austen spent a few years in Southampton, her brothers were sailors, and she experienced a meager genteel poverty existence from 1805, the time of her father’s death, moving about on a precarious income until her brother took her and her mother and sister, and the beloved friend, Martha Lloyd in permanently in 1809 in Chawton. Frank had tried to provide in 1807 at Southampton but the arrangement did not work out: he was away a lot and his first wife, Mary, uncomfortable, fled the Austens to nearby friends, and would not return. Austen had eyes for what she saw around her, even if she did not put it too often into her book. The most consistent treatment is The Watsons
Emma Watson … “I would rather be a teacher at a school (and I can think of nothing worse) than marry a man I did not like.” Elizabeth, her sister, “I would rather do anything than be a teacher at a school … I have been at aschool,and I know what a life they lead …” — The Watsons
But Jane Fairfax similarly dreads becoming a governess, a form of slavery she calls it.
Perhaps it’s well to end on Crabbe’s compassion for his characters, for he does have that. These lines by Crabbe bring very vividly to life the world of the dependent woman in the later 18th, early 19th century: they are from Tale 16 (Tales, 1812) “The Confidant”….
Now Anna’s station frequent terrors wrought,
In one whose looks were with such meaning fraught,
For on a Lady, as an humble friend,
It was her painful office to attend.
Her duties here were of the usual kind –
And some the body harass’d, some the mind:
Billets she wrote, and tender stories read,
To make the Lady sleepy in her bed;
She play’d at whist, but with inferior skill,
And heard the summons as a call to drill;
Music was ever pleasant till she play’d
At a request that no request convey’d;
The Lady’s tales with anxious looks she heard,
For she must witness what her Friend averr’d;
The Lady’s taste she must in all approve,
Hate whom she hated, whom she lov’d must love;
These, with the various duties of her place,
With care she studied, and perform’d with grace:
She veil’d her troubles in a mask of ease,
And show’d her pleasure was a power to please.
Such were the damsel’s duties: she was poor –
Above a servant, but with service more:
Men on her face with careless freedom gaz’d,
Nor thought how painful was the glow they raised.
A wealthy few to gain her favour tried,
But not the favour of a grateful bride;
They spoke their purpose with an easy air,
That shamed and frighten’d the dependent fair;
Past time she view’d, the passing time to cheat,
But nothing found to make the present sweet:
With pensive soul she read life’s future page,
And saw dependent, poor, repining age.
Let us recall what Austen and many another woman of this era who remained unmarried and threatened by her inability to get a decent job of what is written of governesses etc. – are these lines not brilliant descriptions of the horrors of a woman dependent? But also the lines about the male gaze – quite extraordinarily modern really? the very use of the verb. And those great last 4 lines – nothing to console in past, present or future …
Miss Austen Regrets: Jane Austen (Olivia Williams) meets a Member of Parliament who quotes lines from Crabbe at her, and she acknowledges she often carries Crabbe in her pocket (probably ironic).
The lines: With awe, around these silent walks I tread
These are the lasting mansions of the dead … The Library
In Austen, Crabbe and now Britten we can see how in a particular group we are led to feel ourselves an outsider and alien when we don’t share the views of all and are often silenced and depressed by the experience … (Marianne Dashwood anyone?). We see also the theme of the outrages of social life so pervasive in Crabbe. A central motif of the opportunity once lost never gotten again swirls around this: the person doesn’t take the opportunity because they are persuaded out of it … (in all the novels, but especially S&S, P&P, MP). All three can empathize and recognize that crass, stupid, narrow, mean, bigoted people have inner lives too, suffer too.
I recommend Terence Bareham’s Twayne George Crabbe. He opens with a fair and concise resume of Crabbe’s life and then prints a long letter someone wrote after the person visited Crabbe late in life. Much of what’s known of Crabbe’s inner life emerges from this letter as well as what an
innately cordial man (when given the rare opportunity of a like-minded
intelligent person to talk to) he was, someone (not uncommon) who in
effect lived in and upon himself.