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Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The “frightening” reason for Jane Austen’s mysterious antipathy for the name Richard

Yesterday, my wife and I went to the movies with good friends to see the National Theatre Live screening of Richard III, starring Ralph Fiennes, who was magnificently, seductively vile in the title role. The equally stellar supporting cast included Vanessa Redgrave as King Henry VI’s widow, Queen Margaret, whose curses early in the play prophesy the eventual unhorsed fatal downfall of Shakespeare’s first great archvillain.

The three hour performance was emotionally challenging, especially in the aftermath of a US presidential election, which finds an uneasy half of the electorate (myself included) casting a worried collective gaze on a president-elect who was compared six weeks ago to Shakespeare’s Richard III by Stephen Greenblatt, writing with eerie prescience:
“For his theatrical test case, Shakespeare chose an example closer to home: the brief, unhappy reign in 15th-century England of King Richard III. Richard, as Shakespeare conceived him, was inwardly tormented by insecurity and rage, the consequences of a miserable, unloved childhood and a twisted spine that made people recoil at the sight of him. Haunted by self-loathing and a sense of his own ugliness — he is repeatedly likened to a boar or rooting hog — he found refuge in a feeling of entitlement, blustering overconfidence, misogyny and a merciless penchant for bullying. From this psychopathology, the play suggests, emerged the character’s weird, obsessive determination to reach a goal that looked impossibly far off, a position for which he had no reasonable expectation, no proper qualification and absolutely no aptitude.” END QUOTE

The current production of Richard III also made that eerie contemporary resonance clear. It exerted a subtle, hypnotic appeal to the audience’s Schadenfreude, as Fiennes’s twisted, brilliant, exhibitionistic sociopath constantly confides in us, while he, Iago-like, orchestrates a slow motion royal trainwreck. He pulls the strings on a series of murders of every person he imagines blocks his path to the crown, and seduces women in every direction, only to find himself overwhelmed with guilty dreams once seated on the throne for a brief historical moment.

As always when I see a good production of a Shakespeare play for the first time, it brings aspects of the play to life for me in ways that I can never quite equal from a mere reading of the play, and this was no exception. And, as also regularly happens, a surprising Jane Austen connection popped up when least expected. In Act 1 Scene 2, the young, recently widowed Lady Anne, addressing the shrouded corpse of her murdered father in law (the late King Henry VI), utters a bitter string of insults and curses at the absent Richard, Duke of Gloucester (and future King Richard III), the deformed Machiavel who has recently murdered both Henry VI and his son, Lady Anne’s late husband. Near the end of her speech, she conjures up this macabre fantasy:


As I listened to those lines, for the first time I heard a distinct Austenian echo. Do any of you Janeites reading this post hear that same echo? Scroll down to see…..


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In Jane Austen’s Letter #10 dated October 27-28, 1798 to sister Cassandra, Jane infamously makes what appears to be a shocking, and –- dare I say it?---Richard the Third-like?--- heartless comment about a neighbor’s childbearing misfortune: “Mrs. Hall of Sherbourn was brought to bed yesterday of a dead child, some weeks before she expected, oweing to a fright.—I supposed she happened unawares to look at her husband.”

Think about the startlingly close parallels: in both Lady Anne’s final curse, and in Jane Austen’s tasteless joke, we have a mother giving birth to a stillborn child sired by a very ugly father; and that mother suffers a severe fright caused by her suddenly viewing an extremely ugly face (in one case the ugly face of her husband triggering the stillbirth; in the other Lady Anne describes the ugly face of Richard’s as yet imaginary infant son, who takes after his ugly father). This already is all too close for coincidence, but there is much more to this allusion by Jane Austen, once we delve more deeply.

Here’s what Le Faye has to say about Mrs. Hall and her frighteningly ugly husband: “Reverend Dr. Henry Hall was the vicar of Monk (West) Sherborne and Pamber in Hampshire. “Dr. Hall may have been ugly, but his parishioners remembered him as being ‘a man of a kindly disposition and none ever went to the rectory without being well cared for”.  “

Despite Dr. Hall’s seeming to be undeserving of JA’s bile, I recalled that I had first written about that very bad joke of JA’s more than five years ago here…  http://sharpelvessociety.blogspot.com/2011/02/dr-halls-stillborn-child-and-mrs.html   …a post in which I also showed that JA had revisited a variation of her bad joke on poor Dr. Hall in Letter 19, written only 6 1/2 months after Letter 10: "…at the bottom of Kingsdown Hill we met a gentleman in a buggy, who, on minute examination, turned out to be Dr. Hall — and Dr. Hall in such very deep mourning that either his mother, his wife, or himself must be dead. These are all of our acquaintance who have yet met our eyes."

Clearly, Dr. Hall triggered some pretty strong hostility from JA! And think about how that equally black humor in Letter 19 resonates with Shakespeare’s Lady Anne who, in the same speech I quoted, above, is “in such very deep mourning” because her father in law and her husband were indeed dead! And think also about how the real life Dr. Hall was in fact much older than his young wife, just as Richard III was much older than his wife-for-a-brief-time before he had her murdered, Lady Anne!

So it is pretty clear from the above two examples that Jane Austen, in writing to sister Cassandra, strongly associated the unhandsome Dr. Hall with Shakespeare’s Machiavellian deformed monster, Richard III. We may never know why this was so, but it seems sure that Cassandra was in on this literary joke. But that’s still not all.

In that above-linked post of mine five years ago, without the slightest inkling that Richard III might be involved, I wrote the following about Austen’s two epistolary swipes at Dr. Hall and their “...strong parallels to the passage about Mrs. Musgrove and her dead son [in Persuasion]….: "They were actually on the same sofa, for Mrs. Musgrove had most readily made room for him: they were divided only by Mrs. Musgrove. It was no insignificant barrier, indeed. Mrs. Musgrove was of a comfortable, substantial size, infinitely more fitted by nature to express good cheer and good humour, than tenderness and sentiment; and while the agitations of Anne's slender form, and pensive face, may be considered as very completely screened, Captain Wentworth should be allowed some credit for the self-command with which he attended to her large fat sighings over the destiny of a son, whom alive nobody had cared for."

Here we have another mother mourning a son dead far too young. But surely you now also recall the Christian name of Mrs. Musgrove’s ‘thick-headed, unfeeling, unprofitable’ son ---Richard, as in Richard III! And Anne Elliot shares the Christian name of Lady Anne in Richard III. The coincidences pile upon each other in a remarkable heap of veiled allusion on JA’s part, spread among her letters and her fiction.

So, have I just finally found the explanation to one of the great Austenian mysteries --- just as it’s not clear what was so bad about Dr. Hall, many have wondered what’s so bad about the name “Richard”? Why is it that Mr. Morland in NA is called “a very respectable man, though his name was Richard”? In Letter 6 dated Sept. 16, 1796, to CEA, JA wrote “Mr Richard Harvey’s marriage is put off, till he has got a Better Christian name”. And why was Richard Musgrove called a “troublesome, hopeless son”? 

Many Austen scholars have attempted to explain this mysterious antipathy for this very common English
surname, in both her letters and her novels, and I even wondered long ago whether it might have anything to do with Shakespeare’s arch-villain Richard III. But until today, I never had anything specific to go on beyond the name itself, and other than my knowing how deeply JA drank in general from Shakespeare’s bottomless well.

So I now see Jane Austen, barely into her twenties, seemingly deeply immersed in, and fascinated by the character of Richard III. Might Richard III have provided part of the inspiration for JA’s great female Machiavelle, Lady Susan Vernon, which was written by her during the same time period as Letters 10 and 15 containing her Dr. Hall vendetta.  

And she never lost that fascination ---look at what she famously wrote to her sister Cassandra 15 years after Letter 15, while watching a London stage performance of the Don Giovanni story:  “I have seen nobody on the stage who has been a more interesting Character than that compound of Cruelty and Lust”. I cannot imagine a better description of the character of Shakespeare’s Richard III than that, and so we see that JA’s fascination with seductive literary Machiavels never waned from one end of her writing career to the other!

So please indulge me as I conclude with “A Richard, a Richard, my kingdom for a Richard!”


Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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