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Jane Austen and the name 'Richard.'

MANY must have been puzzled at the opening of Northanger Abbey by the statement that the heroine's father, a clergyman, was |a very respectable man, though his name was Richard'. There is a sly allusion here which is typical of the early high-spirited Jane Austen, a detail which probably belongs to the more obvious items she regarded as |obsolete' when she wrote her advertisement for the novel thirteen years after its expected publication in 1803, |many years' after it was begun. This last emphasis suggest a commencement well before the 1798 of Cassandra's memorandum on the composition dates of her sister's novels. The sentence |Mr. Richard Harvey's match is put off till he has got a Better Christian name, of which he has great Hopes' in Jane's letter of 15 September 1796 to Cassandra provides good reason for thinking that the opening of Northanger Abbey was first written about this time.

By 1973, when a Jane Austen Companion was published, I could do not better than hazard the guess that the name |Richard' was out of favour as a result of London revivals of Shakespeare's Richard III, a play which more than anything else had maintained the tradition of Richard as an infamous king. A glance at her |History of England', however, will show that the youthful Jane had read enough to be sceptical on this issue. Recently it seemed to that a more convincing explanation is to be found in George Sand's Mauprat.

The hero of this novel is in Paris for a period during the American War of Independence when Voltaire |recevait son apotheose' and Franklin was the prophet of liberty. He is only nineteen, and affects the style of the |bonhomme Richard' (ch. xiii), his dress proclaiming his republican sympathies, as is made clear two chapters latter, where reference is made to the |petites edition a bon marche' of La Science du bonhomme Richard', which spread romantic egalitarian hopes to the lower classes in France. The general catalogue of the British Library shows that a second edition of this obviously important propaganda medium, attributed to Francois Lemaire and subtitled |La Puce a l'oreille du bon-homme Richard', was published in Paris in 1791. Perhaps Jane's brother Henry brought a copy to the parsonage at Steventon when England under a repressive Government was at war with France not long after the worst of its revolutionary excesses. The notoriety of the |bonhomme Richard' would explain why his name was capable of exciting distasteful associations in many among the respectable when Jane Austen began her skittish first version of Northanger Abbey.

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Author:Pinion, F.B.
Publication:Notes and Queries
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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