meaning and origin of the phrase ‘admirable Crichton’

James Crichton of Clunie (circa 1560-1582) was a Scottish prodigy of intellectual and knightly accomplishments, and the epithet admirable became traditionally applied to him. The Scottish scholar John Johnston (circa 1565-1611) used the Latin adjective admirabilis in Heroes ex omni historia Scotica lectissimi (1603), a collection of biographies and eulogies in elegiac couplets of great figures from Scottish history:

Iacobus Critonius Clunius, Musarum pariter ac Martis alumnus, omnibus in studiis, ipsis etiam Italis admirabilis (James Crichton of Cluny, equal of the Muses and pupil of Mars, admirable in all studies, even to the Italians)

In English, the epithet admirable appeared first in The Jewel (Εκσκυβαλαυρον (= Ekskubalauron) – 1652), a vindication of the honour of Scotland abounding in biographies by the Scottish writer and translator Thomas Urquhart (1611-60). But this author also applies to Crichton the epithets admirable and ever-renowned, inimitable, incomparable, learned and valiant, matchless, courteous and noble-hearted. The following is a passage from the romanticised biography of Crichton by Urquhart:

(1834 edition)
For his learning, judgement, valour, eloquence, beauty, and good-fellowship, [he] was the perfectest result of the joynt labour of the perfect number of those six deities, Pallas, Apollo, Mars, Mercury, Venus, and Bacchus, that hath been seen since the dayes of Alcibiades; for he was reported to have been inriched with a memory so prodigious, that any sermon, speech, harangue, or other manner of discourse of an hour’s continuance, he was able to recite without hesitation, after the same manner of gesture and pronuntiation, in all points, wherewith it was delivered at first; and of so stupendious a judgment and conception, that almost naturally he understood quiddities of philosophy ; and as for the abstrusest and most researched mysteries of other disciplines, arts, and faculties, the intentional species of them were as readily obvious to the interiour view and perspicacity of his mind, as those of the common visible colours to the external sight of him that will open his eyes to look upon them

Allusive expressions such as another (admirable) Crichton, a sort of admirable Crichton and an admirable Crichton denote a person who excels in all kinds of studies and pursuits. The earliest allusion to Crichton that I have found is from The Anti-Jacobin Review and Magazine, or, Monthly Political and Literary Censor (London) of December 1801; the reviewer of Memoirs of Angelus Politianus, Actius Sincerus Sannazarius, Petrus Bembus, Hieronymus Fracastorius, Marcus Antonius Flaminius, and the Amalthei: Translations from their Poetical Works: and Notes and Observations concerning other Literary Characters of the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries (1801), by W. Parr Greswell, wrote:

Speaking of Picus of Mirandola*, he [= Gresell] says, “to whom are ascribed the literary qualifications, and premature attainments of another Crichton.” (pp. 5, 6.) Now, it was not another Crichton, but the Crichton, known by the name of admirable Crichton, whose literary qualifications, &c. were ascribed to Picus. To convey what must be supposed to be the meaning of the writer, he ought to have said either to whom are ascribed the literary qualifications, &c. of Crichton; or, if he chose to introduce “another,” the sentence ought to have run somewhat in this manner, whose literary qualifications, &c. made him to be considered as another Crichton.

* Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-94), Italian Renaissance philosopher

The following is from The Aberdeen Journal of 30th December 1812:

A marvellous boy, of ten years of age, has created much astonishment among the frequenters of the Stock Exchange, by his wonderful adroitness at calculation:—He is a sort of admirable Crichton, in his way. A bet was laid to a considerable amount, a few days since, by a merchant, with a gentleman who is reputed to be the first accountant in that celebrated coffee-house, upon a point of figures, and calculation, so abstruse, that it took him one hour to prepare the question, which the boy immediately answered in one minute: an objection was taken as to the accuracy of the child’s answer, but, after very serious investigation, it was admitted that the boy’s answer was correct. A great lottery contractor, who was present, instantly gave the boy a guinea that was coined in the reign of William IlId. and demanded to know how many years, months, and days had elapsed since the period of its coinage; all which he answered, promptly, to the admiration of the whole circle, who subscribed £50 as a present to this calculating phenomenon. It seems that he is a native of Russia, who has been one [sic] voyage to the United States of America, from whence he came, at the commencement of the present regretted troubles, recommended to a mercantile gentleman of this city; and it is further added, but with what degree of truth we cannot answer, that he can neither read nor write.

In A Pocket Full of Rye (1953), the English writer of detective fiction Agatha Christie (1890-1976) makes Mary Dove, a housekeeper, speak with Inspector Neele:

“If necessary, I can make the beds, dust the rooms, cook a meal and serve it without anyone noticing the difference. Of course I don’t advertise that fact. It might give rise to ideas. But I can always be sure of tiding over any little gap. But there aren’t often gaps. I work only for the extremely rich who will pay anything to be comfortable. I pay top prices and so I get the best of what’s going.”
“Such as the butler?”
She threw him an amused, appreciative glance.
“There’s always that trouble with a couple. Crump stays because of Mrs Crump, who is one of the best cooks I’ve ever come across. She’s a jewel and one would put up with a good deal to keep her. Our Mr Fortescue likes his food—liked, I should say. In this household nobody has any scruples and they have plenty of money. Butter, eggs, cream, Mrs Crump can command what she likes. As for Crump, he just makes the grade. His silver’s all right, and his waiting at table is not too bad. I keep the key of the wine cellar and a sharp eye on the whisky and gin, and supervise his valeting.”
Inspector Neele raised his eyebrows.
The admirable Miss Crichton.”
“I find one must know how to do everything oneself. Then—one need never do it.”

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