Dear friends and readers,
As you probably know the bones of Richard III were unearthed this past Monday in a Leicester parking lot; the skeletal remains show a small man with a twisted spine, some who had suffered scoliosis; dreadful wounds from a weapon made of a hatchet axe and spike had been delivered to his head and shoulders; his body was covered with humiliation wounds. It seems the parking lot is where there was once a friary, later closed by Henry VIII. The friars rescued the body (all but the feet) and buried it.
As I’m sure you also know Richard III has been portrayed as a villain, twisted in mind by his ugly body — said to be that of a hunchback. This portrayal goes back to Thomas More’s life, a political document supporting the Tudor claim to the throne; and it was carved in the English imagination and memory from the time of Shakespeare’s plays, with a long tradition of great actors admired in the role, from Garrick to Olivier who did it part farcically, to the most recent Ian McKellen who lent humanity to the role.
Less well-known Kevin Spacey and Annabel Scholey in lead roles at BAM
I’m not sure you know that the first objections to this portrayal occurred in the 18th century and were bought together by Horace Walpole who took the side of the Yorks and said it was Henry Tudor who murdered the two young boys, heirs to the throne, and in our time there are groups of people who join together to defend Richard III: The Richard III society has put the whole of Walpole’s Historic Doubts on the Life and Reign of Richard III online. One such person, Robert Fripp ‘s Dark Sovereign will sell more widely now: he was a guest blogger on my Ellen and Jim have a blog two after I wrote a posting in praise of a local WSC Shakespeare company’s production of Richard III where the production brought out telling parallels with contemporary politicians.
Austen took the Walpole and Fripp side of the question in her wildly parodic History of England (dated November 1791) where she plays upon Goldsmith’s History of England (either 2 or 4 volume version) and history in general. Her family library and brothers’ reading suggest she could have read anyone from Robertson to Hume too; and she’s read Shakespeare’s history plays:
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 and his Wife, but it has also been declared the he did not kill his two Nephews, which I am inclined to beleive [sic] true; and 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 and having killed the King at the battle of Bosworth, he succeeded to it.
Austen gets a kick out of shocking the reader, startling us and mocking in this history and sometimes it feels like 1066 and all That. But she does seem to sympathize with Catholics rather than Protestants — she and two neighbors are fervent adherents of Mary Queen of Scots no matter what anyone says. Alas, she has an anti-learned lady quip on the beheading of Lady Jane Grey’s death, suggesting the same kind of odd detachment we find in her letters. So I am not sure she is seriously “on the side” of the Stuarts — or anyone in this parody. It resembles 1066 and All That, with the hits at history as much as the way it is taught and presented. She’s still dwelling on this Northanger Abbey, the conversation during the country walk between Eleanor Tilney and Catherine which ranges from history as such to the Gordon Riots to the connection (or not) of all these to gothics , viz.,
Catherine: ‘But history, real solemn history, I cannot be interested in. Can you?’
Eleanor: ‘Yes, I am fond of history'”
Catherine: ‘I wish I were too. I read it a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all — it is very tiresome: and yet I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention. The speeches that are put into the heroes’ mouths, their thoughts and designs–the chief of all this must be invention, and invention is what delights me in other books.’
Eleanor: ‘Historians, you think … are not happy in their flights of fancy. They display imagination without raising interest. I am fond of history–and am very well contented to take the false with the true. In the principal facts they have sources of intelligence
in former histories and records, which may be as much depended on, I conclude, as anything that does not actually pass under one’s own observation; and as for the little embellishments you speak of, they are embellishments, and I like them as such. If a speech be well drawn up, I read it with pleasure, by whomsoever it may be made–and probably with much greater, if the production of Mr. Hume or Mr. Robertson, than if the genuine words of Caractacus, Agricola, or Alfred the Great.’ (NA, I:14)
And yet (as we have seen in our journey through her letters), we find the adult Austen in 1813-14 at Godmersham reading Paisley’s book defending aggressive ruthless imperialism (a sort of politicized history), and with her niece Fanny, Bigland’s Letters on Modern History and Political Aspect of Europe (aloud).
Turning to her references in her novels to Richard as an unlucky name, which (as used) feels like a family joke, it’s not clear that the idea the name is unlucky comes from connecting the name to this king or not, but details like “he had never been handsome” incline me to think the reference in Northanger Abbey does refer to Richard III. So Catherine Morland’s
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.
It’s possible too that in one of her unkind jokes in her letters she has latently Richard III in mind: she says in a 1796 to Cassandra of of Richard Harvey whose marriage was put off
till he has got a better Christian name, of which he has great Hopes.” [Letters, p. 10]
An intriguing reference to Richard III in Mansfield Park has one Henry Crawford professing how he longs to enact Richard III (MP 1:13):
I really believe,” said he, “I could be fool enough at this moment to undertake any character that ever was written, from Shylock or Richard III down to the singing …
By Persuasion there is a turn-around (as there often is in this penultimate of her novels), and we are into “poor Dick,” and find Austn harsh on her Richard. The Musgroves have been displaying the common sort of sentimental fantasies people do when someone is safely dead:
The real circumstances of this pathetic piece of family history were, that the Musgroves had had the ill fortune of a very troublesome, hopeless son; and the good fortune to lose him before he reached his twentieth year; that he had been sent to sea because he was stupid and unmanageable on shore; that he had been very little cared for at any time by his family, though quite as much as he deserved; seldom heard of, and scarcely at all regretted, when the intelligence of his death abroad had worked its way to Uppercross, two years before.
He had, in fact, though his sisters were now doing all they could for him, by calling him “poor Richard,” been nothing better than a thick-headed, unfeeling, unprofitable Dick Musgrove, who had never done anything to entitle himself to more than the abbreviation of his name, living or dead. (Persuasion I:6)
Moving outside Austen & 18th century Richards, I seriousl recommend Jennifer Wallace’s magnificent Digging the Dirt: the Archeaological Imagination. Two passages from my earlier book review:
Wallace’s book is a work of deep poetic insight into the subjective
basis of modern archeaology. She points out that the site for geologizing and archeaologizing is no longer external merely or even primarily. Instead of running off to the desert sands, caves, or delving frozen mud, Cavalli-Sforza and his followers take blood samples. We carry our history in our DNA. It’s a fine book which were it taken seriously and read by many common readers could help reshape the popular understanding of what scientific and literary writing together can explore.
Science turns gothic here too in her meditation on sacrifice rituals and freak-show modern tourist places (the realities behind Carter’s mausoleum in her Nights at the Circus) in modern London and malls too around the world. She shows how quite a number of sculls and corpses we happen to find where put there as a result of cruel sacrifice rituals. These included depriving the then living person of certain kinds of food for months, of tying them up in certain ways, killing them slowly.
She includes a long section justifying the archeaologist and Druidical Stuckeley’s work and insights about Avebury in Somerset, and a section on later 18th century archealogical digs in Pompeii. A central map for Robert Wood, an antiquarian, member of the Society of Dilettanti and its first director of Archaelological Ventures, who came to Pinarbasi, a village near Hisarlik (now thought where the citadel of Troy was), determined to discover “concrete facts” was Alexander Pope’s translation of Homer’s Ilidad, notes, and especially, Pope’s map of Troy. In 1720 Pope drew a map which Wallace describes as “bizarre and geographically-impossible,” “exuberantly fanciful, people with warriors and ships and tents and other characters from the Iliad, busily doing things.” This map it was which became the guidepost for the people who first poured over the site “scientifically.”
Poetry and snatches of prose from letters by Shelley, Byron, Wordsworth even are shown to be prophetic and explanatory of archaeological insights today too. To turn back to the grim photo with which I began this blog: such is what these powerful people turn into, as in Shelley’s Ozymandias.
I MET a Traveler from an antique land,
Who said, “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desart. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read,
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is OZYMANDIAS, King of Kings.”
Look on my works ye Mighty, and despair!
No thing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that Colossal Wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.