I became interested in Crabbe because of his stories. I was seventeen, in a small town on the Essex coast, and we were ‘doing Crabbe’ on our A level syllabus, so we had no choice anyway. But as soon as our group began to talk about Peter Grimes, a fisherman who shockingly killed three apprentices younger than ourselves, we were hooked.
Earnestly we concluded that ‘Grimes finally went mad’. Well that explained it, didn’t it? And where was he brought? To a Poorhouse! What on earth was that? I’d heard the stories of poor people being sent there – of children ‘born into care’ – and I saw the fear in my Nanna’s eyes when she recalled the days of the ‘big work’us’ not far from her family home in Suffolk.
No welfare system or pension in Crabbe’s day: for many, the gap was narrow between maintaining themselves and living as paupers in some hovel or on the Parish. Those who received benefits were given uniforms, caps and badges which emphasised the shame of being poor. It reminded me of the Nazi Holocaust, though it happened in this country.
As a young man I saw a production of Peter Grimes – the opera by Benjamin Britten, and my first ever. Yet the story wasn’t about the Peter Grimes we’d studied. It was a beautiful production with music which I’ll never forget, but the story of Grimes had been re-shaped. A whole industry now exists around Britten’s opera, whose lyrics use a single half-line by George Crabbe.
The famous modern sculpture on Aldeburgh beach doesn’t quote Crabbe’s Peter Grimes, either, but words from the opera – even though Benjamin Britten (Lowestoft-born) wanted to honour Crabbe’s work. Seemingly the original author’s traces were being silted over and forgotten.
George Crabbe’s life was as interesting as his verse-tales. He loved botany, and learned to observe closely the world around him. Crabbe applied this to people-watching. He describes a Lady’s Companion who must pretend to enjoy every piano-performance by Her Ladyship, and day after day must graciously lose to her at cards… We’re told Peter Grimes beats a boy ‘with selfish pity’. Dinah, the hypocritical central character of Procrastination, turns to religion yet invests her wealth, even as the posh drawing-room clock clicks ‘from prayer to prayer, from meal to meal.’ It’s notable that in the early 1800s Crabbe (like Jane Austen) could pinpoint human psychology so precisely.
Crabbe and his fiancée waited nine years to get married. He didn’t have a profession and almost starved to death on the streets of London, desperate to get published. When Sarah Elmy of Beccles finally married him, they lived happily for a time but five of their seven children died young, and eventually this broke her frail mental health. As I came to write ‘Forgotten’, I felt that the couple’s shared history of loss, grief and mental illness should stand alongside the drama of his work: heroism plus a strange kind of human comedy. And now I’m nervously waiting for audiences to decide!