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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Jane Austen's Letter 30: Hugh Capet and The Usurpation of the “Throne” of Steventon Rectory by James Austen

Diane Reynolds wrote in Janeites and Austen L:

“Then a statement that I am not sure I follow, but which ends on a very caustic, even bitter note: "the brown Mare, which as well as the black was to devolve on James at our removal, has not had patience to wait for that, & has settled herself even now at Deane.-The death ofHugh Capet, which like that of Mr. Skipsey-tho' undesired was not wholly unexpected, being purposely effected, has made the immediate possession of the Mare very convenient; & everything else I suppose will be seized by degrees in the same manner."

Diane, your sense of a caustic, bitter tone is validated and explained by a literary/historical allusion that the erudite JA hid in plain sight in the lines you quoted.

I did some quick checking into the name “Hugh Capet”, and found that Shakespeare refers to Hugh Capet in only one speech in all of his plays, in Act 1, Scene 2 of Henry V, when the Archbishop of Canterbury greenlights Henry V to aggressively assert his claim to the French throne.

The Archbishop, with lawyerly precision, summarizes the claims of the King of France as holding “in right and title of the female”, and therefore, he argues (of course to Henry V’s great liking), that the French King has no leg to stand on in trying to deny Henry V’s claim to the French throne, which is also “from the female”. I.e., what’s good for the goose, etc.

The Archbishop also specifically refers to Capet as “the usurper”, and so the claims of the current French king, based in part on Capet, holds a “crooked title usurp’d from” Henry V and _his_ “progenitors”.

And I believe that JA had all of the Archbishop’s speech very firmly in mind as she wrote the lines you quoted, above, in Letter 30. Note first the reference to Revd. Austen’s “ministers” who “are already deserting him to pay their court to his son.” So JA is casting James Austen as a modern day Hugh Capet, a usurper of the “throne” of the Steventon rectory (which also fits perfectly with the interpretation of JA’s History of England as also being a veiled history of the Austen family).

And in this mock legalistic verbiage, we have JA’s absurdist rendition of two mares as Revd. Austen’s “ministers”, one of whom has already bolted to the usurper ahead of schedule.

And note in that the strong parallelism to Fanny Dashwood in S&S, who has not the patience to wait for the Dashwood women to vacate Norland before _she_settles herself there.

So it is no surprise that, in the midst of this tale of royal usurpation, the name “Hugh Capet”, one of Shakespeare’s many royal usurpers, should pop up. Who knows whether Hugh Capet really was the Austen family name for the equine “husband” of the brown mare, or if she made up this name just for Letter 30. Either way, JA took full advantage of the name, and seized upon poor old Hugh Capet having apparently been put to sleep (“purposely effected”), and reframed it, in her way, like Michael Corleone seizing control of his Mafia Family by a coordinated series of hits, so that JA can then expand that one event into a global campaign of usurpation (“everything else will be seized by degrees in the same manner”).

And of course, the background of all of this is that Henry V’s being on the throne is precisely because his father usurped the throne from Richard II, another Shakespeare play which was on JA’s radar screen in a variety of ways.

And as for claims through the female line, well, here is what JA's resident experts have to say about that topic:

"How anyone could have the conscience to entail away an estate from one's own daughters, I cannot understand..."

"I am glad of it; but otherwise I see no occasion for entailing estates from the female line. It was not thought necessary in Sir Lewis de Bourgh's family."

How caustic an irony it is that JA is deploying here in Letter 30, in questioning the morality of women getting the short end of the stick in the devolution of family property!

Cheers, ARNIE

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