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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Shakespeare’s Richard III & Austen’s Richard Morland: Very respectable men who’d never been handsome

In Austen-L, Maria Elena Torres responded to my previous post…
  … follows:   “Hi Arnie - I'm going to toss a little monkey wrench into this thoughtful post by saying that Jane was aware of the controversy surrounding Richard's true character, and seemed as open to the Walpole point of view as to Shakespeare's point of view:
"Richard the 3d: The Character of this Prince has been in general very severely treated by Historians, but as he was a *York*, I am rather inclined to suppose him a very respectable Man. It has indeed been confidently asserted that he killed his two Nephews & his Wife, but it has also been declared that he did *not* kill his two Nephews, which I am inclined to beleive true; & if this is the case, it may also be affirmed that he did not kill his Wife, for if Perkin Warbeck was really the Duke of York, why might not Lambert Simnel be the Widow of Richard. Whether innocent or guilty, he did not reign long in peace, for Henry Tudor E. of Richmond as great a villain as ever lived, made a great fuss about getting the Crown & having killed the King at the battle of Bosworth, he succeeded to it."​  
Since she displays an open hostility to Henry VII and VIII (as well as to Elizabeth I!), I would have guessed, if going by historical perspectives, that she would have disliked the name Henry much more than Richard! ​That said, taking Shakespeare's play as influential (as is certainly is), I think your suggestion has merit.”

Thanks very much, Maria Elena, for that excellent reaction! I didn’t think to look at the teenaged JA’s view of Richard III, which you quoted, above, but, as I’ll now explain, you’ve just prompted me to uncover yet another, and very crucial, piece of the puzzle, which broadens the scope of JA’s allusion to Richard III, and conclusively demystifies JA’s oft-expressed, supposed dislike of the name “Richard”!

As with many other passages in the 16 year old JA’s satirical History of England, it is very dangerous to take what JA says about Richard III at face value, as if she literally meant what she wrote. To paraphrase Darcy’s admiring comment on Elizabeth Bennet’s playful wit, I have had the pleasure of Jane Austen’s acquaintance long enough to know that she found great enjoyment in occasionally professing opinions which in fact were not her own….and nowhere more so than in her Juvenilia, and in particular her opinions about the past kings and queens of England. There could not be a closer synchronicity than between Elizabeth Bennet’s witty dialog in P&P, and JA’s witty absurdities in her History of England.
And so I suggest to you that, as with her infamous Sharade on James I’s predilection for his Carr-pet, the young author’s pronouncements are more riddles than averrals.

In that vein, my eye was particularly drawn to this line describing Richard III:
“…as he was a York, I am rather inclined to suppose him a very respectable Man.”
Richard III a very respectable man? Really??? The irony fairly drips off the page! I decided to search in JA’s novels, to get a better sense of her usage of that word “respectable” in her fiction, and that’s when I struck pure gold. The narrator’s wry description of Catherine’s father, Mr. Richard Morland, in Northanger Abbey, of which I initially only quoted a portion in my previous post, but will now present in its very revealing fullness, uses that identical phrase:   
“Her father was a clergyman, without being neglected, or poor, and a very respectable man, though his name was Richard — and he had never been handsome.”

Millions of eyes have read that passage in NA during the past two centuries, but none before mine today have ever looked at it through a special “Richard III” lens. When I did, I immediately noticed the giant hint in that post-dash afterthought --- “never been handsome”! Of course we’re right back with Richard III, whose extreme lack of handsomeness is the thread which runs through the heart of Richard III. One of the motors which drives Richard’s relentless, ruthless ambition for the kingship is the way he has been scorned all his life for his deformed hunch-backed appearance, with several characters angrily likening him to a toad, adder, spider, and other unhandsome beasts.

So, to sum up so far, when JA, seemingly as a bit of irrelevant comedy, points out that Mr. Morland had never been handsome, right after saying he was a very respectable man, despite his name being Richard, JA, at 15 already the mistress of ironic understatement, is giving THREE giant hints that all point like a laser beam to Shakespeare’s Richard III----and, as an added inside joke for her family and close friends, to her own juvenile description of him as well!

But that giant three-part wink at Shakespeare’s Richard III points to an even deeper, thematic current of evil masked by the surface of respectability in Northanger Abbey. Look at the following excerpt from Act 3, Scene 7 of Richard III, in which Richard and his co-conspirator Buckingham acts out their roles in a cynical playlet quickly improvised by Richard (called Gloucester in the play text), who briefly dons the mask of a pious hermit more interested in private prayer and contemplation of God than in assuming the throne of England, while Buckingham plays the part of the people’s earnest advocate, persuading Richard to hear a higher call, for the sake of the English people, and accept the crown. It is one of the sharpest and most cynical ironies about the power of a Big Lie, in a play filled with them—and the echoes of it are scattered throughout Northanger Abbey:

Enter GLOUCESTER aloft, between two Bishops. CATESBY returns
LORD MAYOR  See, where HE STANDS BETWEEN TWO CLERGYMEN!   [Richard Morland, clergymen]
GLOUCESTER    Else wherefore breathe I in a Christian land?  [Henry Tilney’s famous rant, see below]
Most significantly, the Satanic Richard cynically turns truth on its head, when he speaks of breathing in “a Christian land” of England, and JA pays a subtle homage to Richard’s cynical deception, when she has Henry Tilney castigate Catherine for imagining the General to be a wife murderer:    
“If I understand you rightly, you had formed a surmise of such horror as I have hardly words to—Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you. Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them? Could they be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing, where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay everything open? Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?”

As I’ve pointed out a hundred times in the past 8 years, despite the superficial appearance that Henry has corrected Catherine’s faulty perceptions, JA is really engaged in anti-parody here—she expects us to realize that Henry is actually wrong wrong wrong– English wives were actually the victims of the neglect of Law,  Church, Crown, & Society, which did look the other way as they were abused and neglected. And can you think of a better description of Richard III’s many crimes than we read in Henry’s list of horribles? Richard does commit atrocities, he does connive to twist the law of succession in his favor, he does get away with perpetrating the most outrageous frauds on all those around him in plain sight, by manipulating the perspectives of those observers.

And as a prime example of that, when Richard pulls off his remarkable seduction of Lady Anne, he does it in part with two pathetic claims of “poor” (remember,Richard Morland was not poor) lovesickness:

So, putting all of the above together with the evidence I presented in my first post yesterday, now I hope you’ll agree I’ve made a conclusive case that JA’s famous aversion to the name Richard was, at its base,  a covert, repeated hint at her longstanding fascination with Shakespeare’s first archvillain, Richard III. She winked at this in her letters mocking the real-life Dr. Hall and Mr. Richard Harvey; in Mrs. Musgrove’s mourning for son Richard in Persuasion; and also in the very respectable but not very handsome Richard Morland in Northanger Abbey!

Cheers, ARNIE

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1 comment:

Collins Hemingway said...

Arnie, I don't doubt that Jane's occasional disparaging refs to various "Richards" may have related to Richard III, but she may not have considered him the complete villain the rest of us do. Her feelings as shown in her "History of England" resonate with her Leigh heritage. Her support for Queen Mary, her antipathy for Elizabeth, sound real to me. Her mother's side, the Leighs, took in King Charles when no one else would. Though she cannot say directly (Catholics still lacking most rights in her day), Jane clearly supports the Catholic side versus the Tudors, who overthrew the Catholics and, before that, overthrew Richard. Might be of the thinking, enemy of my enemy is my friend.