Proximity to celebrity complicates our self-hood. Fame transforms names into commodities; people are judged by their famous relatives, and their name becomes a brand that they must protect.

Actually, shared kinship through names is not necessary for this transformation. Take the case of 'Cheddar man' whose prehistoric skeletal remains were discovered in a limestone cavern near the village of Cheddar in Somerset. Cheddar man died at least three thousand years before agriculture began in Britain. DNA extracted from one of his molars showed that he belonged to a branch of a genetic group which is especially common in Britain, Ireland and the Basque Country of northern Spain and south western France. This 'Haplogroup U' is generally found to be most common in southern and western Europe and may have originated in West Asia. A comparison of the genetic profile of Cheddar man with twenty living residents of the village produced two exact matches and one match with a single mutation. The two exact matches were schoolchildren, and their names were not released. The close match was a history teacher named Adrian Targett who is now famous because of his link with a prehistoric relative who was interred a few miles from where he lives. He and his ancestor are both famous as evidence for the theory that some modern-day Britons are descended from ancient European Palaeolithic and Mesolithic hunter-gatherer tribes who much later on adopted farming.

This example of tribal genetics linked with place is the story of my connection with the famous poet George Crabbe, who was born in the Suffolk village of Aldeburgh, the same town as my great grandfather, but a hundred years earlier. The kinship connection is through my mother's family, the Suffolk Kemps. The link was made when George married Sarah Elmy December 15th 1783 in the market town of Beccles. Sarah was the daughter of James Elmy, a tanner, and Sarah Tovell. Sarah Tovell was the sister of John Tovell of Parham. The Tovells had been established as gentleman farmers in Parham for more than two hundred years. John Tovell's wife was Jenny Kemp, my first cousin 6 times removed. The Kemps were long-standing neighbours of the Tovells. Therefore, although there is no genetic link between myself and George Crabbe, the Kemps, Crabbes and Tovells shared the environments of Aldeburgh and Parham and the social conditions common to 18th century middle class rural families.

The following extracts from the book on George Crabbe by R. L. Huchon give some idea of these environments and social transactions. The quotations are from his son's biography. The poems are extracts from Crabbe's own work. There is also an extract from Alfred Ainger's biography.


George Crabbe met his future wife through his friendship with William Levett, son of an Aldeburgh surgeon and who like Crabbe was another doctor's apprentice. Levett was engaged to a young Framlingham girl Althea Brereton.... ' whoes letters reveal to us a sprightly character, much vivacity of mind not unmixed with pretension, and, above all, a great intimacy with Crabbe and his future wife. The two girls, in fact, were close friends: Miss Brereton lived barely three miles from Miss Elmy, who at that time was staying with her uncle Tovell in the village of Parham. The Biographer tells us that one day Levett, on starting for Framlingham, said to Crabbe half jokingly, " Why, George, you shall go with me to Parham; there is a young lady there that would just suit you." The introduction took place, a mutual liking sprang up, and Crabbe, at the age of eighteen, found himself bound by one of those long engagements of which moralises are fond of discussing the drawbacks and the advantages.

Born on December 12th, 1751, at Beccles, in the extreme north of Suffolk, Sarah Elms belonged, through her father, to the manufacturing bourgeoisie of the place, and through her mother, Sarah Tovell, sister of John Tovell, of Parham, to the land-owning middle class. But fortune had not favoured James Elmy, tanner at Beccles, for he had become bankrupt in the month of November, 1759, and had gone to Guadeloupe, where he died "some time before Mr. Crabbe knew the family.` His widow, of a calm and cheerful temper, in spite of "the many heavy afflictions " she had to endure, averse to " all violent emotions" and to the display of them, no doubt endowed with that happy apathy which enables its possessor to go through life without feeling its shocks too keenly, had remained at Beccles, where, with her three daughters-Sarah, Mary, and Eleanor'-she lived modestly " on the interest of a capital of £1,500." a Her brother John Tovell, who was comfortably off, made up her yearly income to £100, defrayed the educational expenses of her son James, the eldest of her children, then a pupil of Cosway at the Royal Academy, and often invited Sarah, the eldest of the daughters, to make long stays at Parham. It was during one of these visits that she became engaged to the poet.

One would like to picture her in imagination, to see her as she appeared at the dawn of their young love. Unfortunately, Crabbe and his son, both excellent psychologists, were more observant of moral than physical qualities, and the features of Sarah Elmy, of the" Mira" of the early poems, are lost to us. We only know that she was "remarkably pretty," of a "lively and cheerful disposition," very capable of prudence and of boldness in her resolutions, and that nature had endowed her with "a great share of penetration and acuteness, a firm, unflinching spirit, and a very warm and feeling heart." She was a tender and devoted mother, and her eldest son still recollected, many years afterwards, an evening in 1788 when, by the flickering light of the fireside, she had combed his hair and sung to him a plaintive ditty.' The same impression is left by the only two letters of hers which we possess'.

(Page 72)

Crabbe soon learned to appreciate these friends of his betrothed who he referred to poetically as Mira; he will call them the " Ladies of the Lake," will later on pay them one of those honeyed compliments which are always welcome, will praise the elegance and ease of their life, their goodness, their taste, the charm of their manners, " the pleasant scenes that round them glow, like caskets fraught with gold, which owe their worth to what they hold":

Trees may be found, and lakes, as fair,
Fresh lawns, and gardens green
But where again the Sister-pair
Who animate the scene?

For the moment he is a stranger to them; he follows, not without some ill-humour, the road which runs at some distance from the winding Waveney, with its " smooth and full " waters; he sees, at Worlingham and at North Cove, at the end of a park or on a lawn, one of those "mansions fair and tall," which are the delight of the traveller in England; he beholds " the grazing steer, the full-fed steed, and herds of bounding deer "fly at his approach; he observes children attended by a nurse, but allowed to play around the noble elms and over the "checkered shade" of their foliage; he gallops past inns and village churches, and does not stop till he arrives at Normanston, where Mira is awaiting him. And then come a few delightful hours, when the " burden of existence seems to be lightened for him," a flight into the ideal, far away from the sad reality. Does not Normanston or Beccles hold the treasure which perhaps will transform his life? Not that the reality always failed to assert itself, and that from time to time some accident did not come to remind the moralist of the fragility of human hopes. It was thus that, according to the Biographer,' the poet, on a warm summer day, had left Mira fishing in the Waveney near Beccles, and had retired some way off to bathe. Suddenly, he lost his footing unable to swim or to cling to the bank, he struggled desperately; as the water closed over his head, " an undefined sensation stopped his breath,"

Disordered views and threatening signs of death
Met in one moment, and a terror gave
-I cannot paint it-to the moving wave;
My thoughts were all distressing, hurried, mix'd,
On all things fixing, not a moment fix'd.
Man has not the power
To paint the horrors of that lifelong hour;
Hour !-but of time I knew not-when I found
Hope, youth, life, love, and all they promised, drown'd.

"He could never," adds his son, "clearly remember how he was saved. He at last found himself grasping some weeds, and by their aid reached the bank."

If it be true that a blessing is all the more precious the more fear there has been of losing it, then Crabbe's and Mira's affection was strengthened by illness, by their devoted care of each other, and by the terrible anxiety which they successively experienced. " Cordially invited " by the poet's relations, Sarah Elmy had come to Aldborough, had grown intimate with her future sister-in-law Mary,2 when Crabbe was seized with a " dangerous fever," accompanied by a violent delirium and ending in the extreme weakness of a prolonged convalescence. " The attentions of his betrothed were unwearied," says the amiable Biographer; she helped him to walk when, bent by two months of suffering, he could at last leave the house and saunter for an hour on the beach

Stopping, as one unwilling to advance
Without another and another glance,
With what a pure and simple joy he sees
Those sheep and cattle browsing at their ease!
Easy himself, there's nothing breathes or moves
But he would cherish ,-all that lives he loves."

Hardly had he recovered and Mira returned to Parham, when the disease, which was probably infectious, attacked her in turn with still greater violence. Her life was supposed to be in danger; Crabbe was invited to stay in the house, and in this cruel suspense, chafing under his own impotence, the poet, writes his son,' used to water the flowers which Mira herself had planted, and which he intended to keep in remembrance of her if she succumbed. Death, which spared Sarah Elmy, inflicted a heavy blow on the Tovells by taking their daughter " Jenny," who was carried off by diphtheria on January 12th, 1778. She was their only child, and the event made a" permanent alteration at Parham." Her parents' grief was so great that " Mr. Tovell's health declined from that period," and her mother abated some of her bustling activity. A gloom which neither friends nor the bottle could dispel settled on the countenance of the yeoman. He fretted at the thought that his money would now go to persons less dear to him- to his two sisters, Miss Elizabeth Tovell and Mrs. Elmy, and, through the latter-named, to his niece Sarah, and so to this stranger, this poet who, when he was gone, would doubtless take his daughter's place. "Ah! she is now out of everybody's way, poor girl!" he remarked one day on seeing Crabbe enter the room.'

Altogether, in spite of the anxieties of an uncertain future, love remained a source of consolation for the young man. This single star, which shone in his firmament amid banks of clouds, guided, encouraged him in the storm, prevented him from yielding to despair, from letting himself drift like one of the waifs and strays of life. A ray of warm sympathy emanated from his beloved and spread over the earth, kindling his imagination and his heart, and uplifting his thoughts. He had returned to his pen and his favourite books-his Horace, his English poets.,' He was gradually turning aside from medicine and reverting to his true vocation. Perhaps he was dreaming of becoming celebrated one day, of " bursting to light" and "exciting the admiration of the world":

Fame shall be mine, then wealth shall I possess,
And beauty next an ardent lover bless.'

Alfred Ainger

As Miss Elmy had lived for many years with her uncle and aunt, Mr. and Mrs. John Tovell, at Parham, and moreover as this rural inland village played a considerable part in the development of Crabbe's poetical faculty, it may be well to quote his son's graphic account of the domestic circumstances of Miss Elmy's relatives. Mr. Tovell was, like Mr. Hathaway, "a substantial yeoman," for he owned an estate of some eight hundred a year, to some share of which, as the Tovells had lost their only child, Miss Elmy would certainly in due course succeed. The Tovells' house at Parham, which has been long ago pulled down, and rebuilt as Parham Lodge, on very different lines, was of ample size, with its moat, so common a feature of the homestead in the eastern counties, "rookery, dove-cot, and fish-ponds"; but the surroundings were those of the ordinary farmhouse, for Mr. Tovell himself cultivated part of his estate.

"The drawing-room, a corresponding dining-parlour, and a handsome sleeping apartment upstairs, were all tabooed ground, and made use of on great and solemn occasions only--such as rent-days, and an occasional visit with which Mr. Tovell was honoured by a neighbouring peer. At all other times the family and their visitors lived entirely in the old-fashioned kitchen along with the servants. My great-uncle occupied an armchair, or, in attacks of gout, a couch on one side of a large open chimney.... At a very early hour in the morning the alarum called the maids, and their mistress also; and if the former were tardy, a louder alarum, and more formidable, was heard chiding their delay--not that scolding was peculiar to any occasion; it regularly ran on through all the day, like bells on harness, inspiriting the work, whether it were done well or ill." In the annotated volume of the son's memoir which belonged to Edward FitzGerald, the writer added the following detail as to his great-aunt's temper and methods:--"A wench whom Mrs. Tovell had pursued with something weightier than invective--a ladle, I think--whimpered out 'If an angel from Hiv'n were to come mawther'" (Suffolk for girl) "'to missus, she wouldn't give no satisfaction.'"

George Crabbe the younger, who gives this graphic account of the menage at Parham, was naturally anxious to claim for his mother, who so long formed one of this queer household, a degree of refinement superior to that of her surroundings. After describing the daily dinner-party in the kitchen--master, mistress, servants, with an occasional "travelling rat-catcher or tinker"--he skilfully points out that his mother's feelings must have resembled those of the boarding-school miss in his father's "Widow's Tale" when subjected to a
like experience:--

"But when the men beside their station took,
The maidens with them, and with these the cook;
When one huge wooden bowl before them stood,
Filled with huge balls of farinaceous food;
With bacon, mass saline! where never lean
Beneath the brown and bristly rind was seen:
When from a single horn the party drew
Their copious draughts of heavy ale and new;
When the coarse cloth she saw, with many a stain,
Soiled by rude hands who cut and came again--
She could not breathe, but with a heavy sigh,
Reined the fair neck, and shut th' offended eye;
She minced the sanguine flesh in frustums fine,
And wondered much to see the creatures dine!"

The home of the Tovells has long disappeared, and it must not therefore be confused with the more remarkable "moated grange" in Parham, originally the mansion of the Willoughbys, though now a farmhouse, boasting a fine Tudor gateway and other fragments of fifteenth and sixteenth century work. An engraving of the Hall and moat, after Stanfield, forms an illustration to the third volume of the 1834 edition of Crabbe.

Byron admired Crabbe's poetry and called him: 'Nature's sternest painter yet the best'. He was also a friend of Sir Walter Scott and Jane Austin's favourite poet. His best work is characterised by realistic and meticulously observed portraits of rural life.

In 1945 Benjamin Britten composed the opera Peter Grimes based on the character in Crabbe's portrait of Aldeburgh, 'The Borough'.


Huchon, R.L. (1968) George Crabbe and his times, Frank Cass

Alfred Ainger