Friday, 11 April 2014

"God help thee, Crazy Jane!"

"Now forlorn and broken-hearted,
And with frenzy'd looks beset,
On that spot where last we parted,
On the spot where we first met;
Still I sing my love-lorn ditty,
Still I slowly pace the plain!
While each passer-by in pity,
Cries 'God help thee - Crazy Jane!'"

Long have I been fascinated by the name 'Crazy Jane', first encountering it in the context of Richard Dadd's [1817-1886] extraordinary picture of the same name. The origin of the name, together with its strange evolution through poem, ballad and portrait, is disturbing and fascinating in equal measure. From M.G. Lewis and Sarah Wilkinson [early progenitors of fictional Gothic horror who both helped popularise the sad tale], through to Richard Dadd and W.B. Yeats [painter and poet respectively], the subject has received occasionally intense - but invariably scattered -attention. I hope to address this random neglect by drawing-together various disparate references and putting them into some rough chronological order. 

Little attention is given to contemporary references, for although they may have their place on Wikipedia, they have hardly stood the more rigorous test of time, and are perhaps not likely to. However, I will create an exception with regard to an oblique Nick Drake reference [simply because it's Nick Drake]. 

The first recorded references in printed text to 'Crazy Jane' exist in a rhyming ballad composed by Matthew Gregory Lewis [1775-1818], author of the notorious gothic horror novel 'The Monk' [1796]. Lewis was an influential figure in the literary world, and his work appealed to a wide cross-section of people, whilst simultaneously outraging his numerous critics. Unashamedly in it for the money, there were few ideas that Lewis would not quickly fictionalise. 

Lewis composed 'Crazy Jane' after a real-life chance meeting with a woman we now know to have been the tragic Jane Arnold. An account of this meeting is documented by Margaret Baron-Wilson in her work 'The Life & Correspondence Of M.G. Lewis' [1839]. She writes: 

"Many were the summer rambles taken by the young poet in the woods surrounding Inverary Castle..[and it was during these]...that the encounter with a poor maniac occurred, which gave rise to the well-known balled of 'Crazy Jane'. The alarm naturally excited in the breast of the lady, at a meeting so startling - possibly exaggerated by the imagination of Lewis - threw an air of romance over the adventure, which, suffused into the poem, gained for it a degree of popularity scarce yet abated."

'Crazy Jane' consists of four eight-line stanzas and quickly became very popular. It does not have an agreed first edition but the British Library cite numerous examples of song-sheets in circulation between the period 1795-1830. It was subsequently scored by various musicians, and in addition to being sung on street corners, in taverns and in both front parlours and drawing-rooms, it was also adapted for the stage, as both a play and an opera. Song-sheets were produced in great numbers two hundred years ago, and a well-liked piece could become very quickly assimilated into popular culture. 

Baron-Wilson reproduced the poem, which she copied from Lewis's own handwritten manuscript.

"Stay, fair maid! On every feature
Why are marks of dread imprest?
Can a wretched, helpless creature
Raise such terrors in your breast?
Do my frantic looks alarm you?
Trust me, sweet, your fears are vain:
Not for Kingdoms would I harm you-
Shun not then Crazy Jane.
Does thou weep to see my anguish?
Mark me, and escape my woe:
When men sigh, flatter and languish,
Think them false - I found them so!
For I loved - O! - so sincerely,
None will ever love again;
Yet the man I loved most dearly
Broke the heart of Crazy Jane.
Gladly that young heart received him,
Which has never loved but one;
He seemed true, and I believed him-
He was false, and I undone!
Since that hour has reason never
Held her empire o'er my brain.
Henry fled! - With him forever,
Fled the wits of Crazy Jane.
Now forlorn and broken-hearted,
And with frenzy'd looks beset,
On that spot where last we parted,
On the spot where we first met;
Still I sing my love-lorn ditty,
Still I slowly pace the plain!
While each passer-by in pity,
Cries 'God help thee - Crazy Jane!'

Baron-Wilson discusses the popularity of the piece:

"The ballad has been wedded to music by several composers; but the original and most popular melody was by the celebrated Miss Abrams, who introduced and sung it herself at fashionable parties. After the usual complimentary tributes from barrel-organs, and wandering damsels of every degree of vocal ability, it crowned not only the author's brow with laurels, but also that of many a youthful beauty, in the shape of a fashionable hat, called the 'Crazy Jane hat'."

A Crazy Jane hat? That surely qualifies as an early example of commercial exploitation. And the 'Miss Abrams' referred to was almost certainly Harriett Abrams [1758-1821], who performed at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane. Abrams worked with the notable Thomas Arne, who composed both 'Rule Britannia!' and 'God Save The King'; she is falsely credited by Wikipedia as having composed 'Crazy Jane', but more correctly, she perhaps arranged a version of the ballad, utilising the words of Lewis.

Thusfar we have a relatively light tale of romantic tragedy, suggesting little beyond unrequited love, plain-pacing and wit-fleeing. However, the 'romance' becomes rather more serious after the novelist Sarah Wilkinson [1779-1831] becomes involved. Wilkinson is an interesting and heroic figure who spent most of her life as a single mother trying to keep clear of the jaws of first destitution and later ill-health which snapped unmercifully at her heels. Obliged to write schlocky 'Gothic Bluebooks' in the style of her male peers for what she bemoaned as a mere pittance [she authored approximately fifty], Wilkinson is respected for having produced work to a greater literary standard than the norm, and for presenting a female perspective on such issues as virtual imprisonment within relationships and society. That her work did not champion women's rights more powerfully was attributable to the male-dominated social and economic climate in which she was working. Sadly, Wilkinson died in a workhouse in 1831, after having undergone many surely brutal surgical procedures for breast cancer. 

Wilkinson was obviously drawn to the myth of 'Crazy Jane', probably empathising with the plight of the real-life Jane Arnold, for at some time during the period 1810-1820, she researched and composed 'The Tragic History Of Jane Arnold' [also known variously as 'The Tragical History Of Jane Arnold, Commonly called Crazy Jane', 'The Tragical History Of Crazy Jane and Henry' etc, etc, depending upon the printer or bookseller]. It is difficult to be more accurate about the date because Copac [a collective comprising the key libraries in the UK] itself is imprecise. Even the date of a later illustrated edition is in dispute; Copac quotes 1818 but several contemporary publications cite this edition as 1813. 

Wilkinson's version describes how Jane Arnold was seduced and discarded by Henry Percival. To quote further from Baron-Wilson: 

"Jane is seduced by Henry Percival, who deserts her and sails away to the West Indies. She has an abortion, goes mad, is called 'Crazy Jane' by the villagers, and dies in the grove in which they used to meet. Her lover dreams of her on the night she dies, returns home 'pale and emaciated, a living skeleton', is declared a maniac, commits suicide and is buried beside her under the same yew."

If these events are factually accurate, the justice meted out to the villain Percival - burying him in the same grave as the woman he wronged - is [to mix up my languages] a most piquant form of schadenfreude. 

Wilkinson's version was probably 'romanticised' in the true definition of the word but the account is still the most detailed we have; furthermore, her research was undertaken within a few short years of the original events. Undoubtedly Wilkinson would have been sympathetic to Jane Arnold's plight given her own experiences, but any feminine bias (or balance, depending upon your perspective) is surely still preferable to that of an opportunistic male chronicler. As good a writer as Matthew Lewis was, he could not possibly have written about the matter with the same degree of experience or qualification. Indeed, one could argue that by virtue of the ironic ambivalence shown in his work, and his obvious masculine perspective, that his own insights would be particularly myopic. 

Although attributed to Thomas Bewick, the illustrated edition of 1813 or 1818 features four illustrations by his pupil Luke Clennell, who was himself to later die in an asylum [madness and death seems to affect many of those drawn to the myth of Crazy Jane]. It is my belief that Clennell's illustrations directly inspired Richard Dadd, for the painter's own version of Crazy Jane also sports a figure with garlands in her hair, in addition to wearing a similar style dress and apron, as originally depicted by Clennell. Furthermore, both creations too have many fabric straps about their arms. These physical similarities are too specific and numerous to be coincidental. However, in the rest of his composition, Dadd spirals off into a weird psycho-fictional realm, creating an ostensibly female figure but with the face of an androgynous man, suspended in mid-air from the flimsiest of boughs, adorned with a bizarre array of twisted ribbons and fetters, all of which are deeply symbolic. The expression on Dadd's figure is perhaps ultimately inscrutable, but for me it is startlingly, curiously serene, imbued with a dark, bleak and thinly ironic consciousness. 

'Crazy Jane' was painted forty years after the Bewick edition, in 1855, while Richard Dadd was incarcerated at Bethlehem Hospital in London. Dadd had been a promising artist, attending the Royal Academy Schools in London. Upon graduation in 1842, he accompanied the obsessive bibliophile Sir Thomas Phillipps on a 'Grand Tour' of Europe and the Middle East for ten months, where he practised his sketching and composition skills. However, Dadd returned a changed man, suffering from schizophrenia and disturbing delusion. Quite why this aberrant behaviour suddenly manifested itself is unclear. 

Upon his return, Dadd began to compose disturbing and horrific drawings. Several featured friends and acquaintances, which alarmed those close to him. Dadd began to believe in the existence of the Devil; in particular, he came to believe that the Devil had taken up residence in his father. Charles Dadd quietly obtained a covert diagnosis from the physician Alexander Sutherland of St. Luke's Hospital, which concluded that his son was 'not of sound mind'. 

It is possible to speculate that Richard may have experienced some trauma whilst travelling abroad, and that his subconscious mind blamed his father for having made him go in the first place. Certainly he was never to accept guilt for the appalling crime that was to follow, nor atone for his actions. 

Fatefully, on 28th August 1843, Charles Dadd accompanied his son to Cobham in Surrey. I have established that there had been a spate of freak weather that month, comparable to the phenomena known as 'Spanish Plumes', resulting in sudden, torrential hailstorms, and wildly variable air pressures, that affected much of Great Britain. Quite possibly this would have impacted upon Richard on a physiological level; an increase in crime has often been associated with unseasonably hot weather, particularly affecting those with appropriate predispositions. The strange weather may have also fuelled his belief in the powers of dark, supernatural forces. 

After dining at a local inn, father and son took a walk, eventually reaching a spot known as 'Paddock's Hole' at about eleven o'clock. Here Richard produced both a knife and a cut-throat razor, and proceeded to not only murder his father, but attempted to decapitate him. It was a shocking crime. Richard fled south to France, but en route to Paris, he attempted to murder a fellow passenger in a similar fashion with his cut-razor, and was fortunately apprehended by the Police. 

Richard Dadd then spent approximately forty years in confinement at Bethlehem. He eventually succumbed to lung disease after being moved to a new facility at Broadmoor Hospital in Crowthorne, Berkshire. During this first period of incarceration, he produced a curious body of work, reflected in part by his limited access to materials and other resources. His work was often small and acutely detailed, for example. Furthermore, the sexes were separated in both facilities, so access to female models would have been limited. 

Best known for his macabre depictions of fairy-folk, Dadd's work also explores the negative emotions which exist within the family, as exemplified by 'The Child's Problem' [1857]. Personally, I find 'Crazy Jane' his most interesting work, but that does not mean to say that it is his most interesting; rather, it says more about my fascination with the story and the myth. 

William Butler Yeats [1865-1939] composed 'The Crazy Jane Series' of poems sometime in the late 1920s, narrating several fictitious incidents and encounters involving his Crazy Jane, in a style that is often irreverent and ambiguous. 

'The Crazy Jane Series' is an odd, occasionally jarring set of poems. For example:

'A woman can be proud and stiff
When on love intent;
But Love has pitched his mansion in
The place of excrement;
For nothing can be sole or whole
That has not been rent.'

Yeats' prose takes a cue from the myth of Crazy Jane, as evidenced by this piece:


I know, although when looks meet
I tremble to the bone,
The more I leave the door unlatched
The sooner love is gone,
For love is but a skein unwound
Between the dark and dawn.
A lonely ghost the ghost is
That to God shall come;
I -- love's skein upon the ground,
My body in the tomb --
Shall leap into the light lost
In my mother's womb.
But were I left to lie alone
In an empty bed,
The skein so bound us ghost to ghost
When he turned his head
Passing on the road that night,
Mine must walk when dead.

And so finally we wend our way to Nick Drake. Or rather, I do.

The late Nick Drake is often likened to a melancholy poet of the romantic era. This is not surprising given that he read English at Fitzwilliam College in Cambridge, study which included the work of Yeats. The first time I encountered his song 'Hazey Jane', I wondered whether it was an oblique reference to the myth of 'Crazy Jane'. Here is one verse from the song:

Do you feel like a remnant
Of something that’s past?
Do you find things are moving
Just a little too fast?
Do you hope to find new ways
Of quenching your thirst?
Do you hope to find new ways of doing
Better than your worst?

The legend of Crazy Jane could be the 'remnant' of Jane Arnold's past.

Tragically, Drake took his own life after suffering from a crippling bout of depression. One need only consult his last recordings - and indeed his third and final album, 'Pink Moon' - to actually experience this at one remove. Is it possible, I wonder, to speculate that the myth of Crazy Jane is itself a curse? It is certainly a very attractive 'romantic' notion, in the literary definition of the word.

But I do hope not, for hopefully obvious reasons.


NB. At the risk of endorsing my own work, I have fictionalised Drake's life, decline and dark supernatural resurrection in the novella 'The Melancholy Haunting Of Nicholas Parkes'.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I can definitely relate to this tale.And I have always felt like "a remnant of something that's past".

    (re-posted for typo)

  3. I think ideas & emotions can pass between people & through time like ghosts.