The Admirable Crichton

by J. M. Barrie
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 910

Once every month, the philanthropic Earl of Loam gives expression to his views on human equality by forcing his servants to have tea with him and his family in the great hall of Loam House in Mayfair. It is a disagreeable experience for everyone concerned, especially for his butler, Crichton, who does not share his master’s liberal views. Lord Loam alone enjoys the occasion, for he is the only one who remains in his station. He orders his daughters and his nephew about and treats them exactly as he treats his servants on the other days of the month.

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Lady Mary, his oldest daughter, is a spirited young woman who resents her father’s high-handed methods with his family. Her indignation reaches a climax one day when Lord Loam announces that his three daughters are to have but one maid among them on a yachting trip on which the family is about to embark. Lady Mary is furious, but she assumes that her maid, Fisher, will go along. When Fisher learns that she is expected to look after the two younger sisters in addition to Lady Mary, she promptly resigns, and the two maids attending Catherine and Agatha follow suit. Lord Loam is left without any servants for his projected cruise, for his valet also resigns. Although his pride is hurt deeply, Crichton finally agrees, out of loyalty to his master, to act as his valet on the trip. Moreover, he persuades Tweeny, the housemaid upon whom he casts a favorable eye, to go along as maid to Lord Loam’s daughters.

The cruise ends unhappily when the yacht is pounded to pieces during a violent storm in the Pacific, and the party is cast away on a tropical island. All reach shore except Lord Loam. The survivors watched him throw away his best chance at safety in a frantic but vain attempt to get into the lifeboat first.

On the island all try to preserve as much as possible the class distinction that prevailed in England, but the attempt is unsuccessful. Crichton alone knows exactly what he is doing, and it is upon him that the others must depend. Crichton, the servant, becomes on the island the natural leader, and he rules his former superiors with a gentle but a firm hand. For example, he finds the epigrams of the Hon. Ernest Woolley, which seemed so brilliant in England, a bit trying; as a consequence, Crichton adopts the policy of submitting Ernest to a severe ducking whenever he comes forth with an epigram. The aristocrats worry over the rising authority of their former butler and the decline in their own prestige. When Lord Loam appears, after washing ashore with some wreckage, they urge him to take a stand of authority. Lord Loam’s only recourse is to remove his little party to another section of the island apart from Crichton. Hunger, which the aristocrats by their own efforts cannot assuage, brings them meekly back. Crichton becomes the acknowledged leader of them all.

Crichton takes full advantage of his newly acquired authority. Sharing none of the earl’s ideas about equality, he finds no necessity to pretend that on the island his former betters are his equals in any sense. Each is kept in his place and required to do his own work according to the needs of the camp.

Under Crichton’s rule the aristocrats are happy for perhaps the first time in their lives. The hard physical labor makes something approaching a man out of Ernest, and the task of helping to prepare Crichton’s food and waiting on him at the table turns Lord Loam’s snobbish daughters into attractive and useful women. Lord Loam, dressed in animal skins, is merely a harmless and rather genial old man with no particular talents, whom everyone calls Daddy. The greatest change occurs in Lady Mary. She alone realizes that in any environment Crichton is superior to them all, and that only the conventions of so-called civilized society obscure that fact. Consequently she falls in love with the butler and does everything in her power to make herself his favorite. Crichton, attracted to the beautiful Lady Mary, considers making her his consort on the island. He indulges in the fancy that in some past existence he was a king and she a Christian slave. When a rescuing ship appears on the horizon, Crichton realizes that his dreams are romantic nonsense. On their return to England he again will be a butler, and she will be Lady Mary.

It is as Crichton expects. After the rescue Lord Loam and his family return to their old habits of thought and behavior. Crichton is again the butler. Ernest writes a book about their experiences on the island and makes himself the hero of their exploits. Crichton is barely mentioned. Lady Mary reluctantly renews her engagement to the rather ridiculous Lord Brocklehurst, whose mother is greatly worried over what happened on the island and not sure that a daughter of Lord Loam is a fit wife for her son.

Lady Mary still recognizes Crichton’s superiority and tells him so frankly. Crichton is shocked. Her views may have been acceptable on the island, he says, but not in England. When she expresses the radical view that something might be wrong with England, Crichton tells her that not even from her will he listen to a word of criticism against England or English ways.

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