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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Frightened childbearing mothers in JA's Letter 10 and Richard III

(for those of you who follow this blog, who might wonder at my sudden silence after so many months of more or less continuous posting here, I have been much engaged in a very unexpected and yet very fruitful line of literary sleuthing, which has greatly enhanced the depth and beauty of the discoveries I've previously described here, and I hope to bring something to public view within the near future to show what I've been up to. In the meantime, I encourage you to browse in my blog and look at any of the hundreds of prior posts in this blog, as a number of you seem to be doing recently, for which I thank you! But I do have a new tidbit today...)

Here is what Lady Ann says in grieving soliloquy over the corpse of Henry VI (freshly murdered by Richard III at a crucial stage in the War of the Roses), little realizing that the "ugly and unnatural" Richard will deploy all his charm in seducing her very shortly thereafter:

If ever [Richard] have child, abortive be it,
Prodigious, and untimely brought to light,
Whose ugly and unnatural aspect
May _fright_ the hopeful mother at the view;
And that be heir to his unhappiness!
If ever he have wife, let her he made
A miserable by the death of him
As I am made by my poor lord and thee!

As I was just reading the above passage, I could not help but be reminded of the following passage in JA's Letter 10 which raised such strong reactions during our discussions of Letter 10 a month ago:

"Mrs. Hall of Sherbourn was brought to bed yesterday of a dead child, some weeks before she expected, oweing to a _fright_.--I suppose she happened unawares to look at her husband."

This parallelism in the notion of a husband's ugliness or a child's ugliness causing a severe fright to the mother of that child, suggests to me that JA, who was, I believe, already very familiar with Richard III, thought Revd. Hall was not the handsomest man in the world. But more important, it also suggests to me that JA was thinking of Richard III's Lady Ann as a symbol of every Englishwoman, who, because of the combination of poor education for women, plus the legally and socially inferior status of women, was vulnerable to the "charms" even of a Richard III or a Revd. Hall.

I think this can help explain the shocking quality of JA's wit in this instance--if it is a coded allusion shared between literarily sophisticated sisters, then there is some context for what otherwise seems to some to be a cruel eruption of malice.

And incidentally, it also suggests a plausible explanation for JA's famous mysterious comments about "Richard" being a terrible name--I am sure that Richard III, the scheming chameleon who charms his audience into complicity with his horrible crimes, was a literary character who triggered in JA the same reaction she described herself as having to another male character of that same type in Letter dated Sept. 15, 1813:

"Fanny and the two little girls... revelled last night in Don Juan, whom we left in hell at half-past eleven. ... The girls... still prefer Don Juan; and I must say that I have seen nobody on the stage who has been a more interesting character than that compound of cruelty and lust."

While on the outside Don Juan was handsome, and Richard was deformed, they both shared a disturbing power over women, and so such description of "compound of cruelty and lust" perfectly fits Richard III as well!

Cheers, ARNIE

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