Unfinished Sympathy: Can Literature Morally Overcome the Reading Handicap? | Books


JYears ago, in early September 2012, a team of archaeologists and researchers unearthed the 527-year-old remains of Richard III in the lost site of the former Greyfriars Church, under the staff car park Leicester City Council Social Services.

Before the results of the mitochondrial DNA analysis of a descendant of Anne of York, the sister of Richard III, confirmed that the remains belonged to the fallen king, it was the osteology work of Dr Jo Appleby which led to a probable identification. She determined that the skeleton in the parking lot belonged to a 30 to 34-year-old man, whose spine had a pronounced curvature and whose head showed signs of two fatal wounds consistent with combat trauma.

Even though Shakespeare made Richard III one of literature’s most famous hunchbacks, before his exhumation the extent of his actual deformity has been the subject of scholarly debate. On stage he is usually depicted with crutches and a hump created by padded shoulders, but we now know that the bard’s description of an “envious mountain on [his] return” in Henry VI, Part 3 can probably be attributed to artistic license, or prejudice, or both.

It turns out that the real Richard III suffered from scoliosis (which twists sideways) rather than kyphosis (which rounds forward, creating “hunch”). In an article by the Lancet published two years after the discovery of the King’s body, the degree of its curvature – measured using a Cobb angle – was estimated to be between 70 and 90 degrees. The authors of the paper concluded that despite the severity of the curve, her “physical disfigurement…was probably mild.” Newspaper headlines claimed it as a victory for the maligned monarch: he was no hunchback after all.

As someone whose spine almost resembled Richard’s, measuring 78 degrees before my vertebrae were fused together and scaffolded by titanium rods, the Lancet article’s conclusion raised an eyebrow in me. Before the operation, the bottom of the left side of my rib cage hit the top of my pelvis when I moved and my right shoulder stuck out like a clipped wing. Even under clothing, these distortions were visible. Richard may not have had any intuition, but he was definitely a trickster.

In the early modern period, physiognomy (the theory that a person’s physical characteristics indicate their character) was influential. A twisted spine was often interpreted as evidence of inner ugliness – the surface revealing the soul below. In the 1613 physiognomic treatise A Pleasant History, Thomas Hill states that the “curvature of the back” betrays “wickedness”. Given Richard III’s reputation, dogged by allegations that he took the throne by killing his nephew children, a twisted spine was a gift for those who wished to consider him twisted. In his opening soliloquy, while still a duke, Richard attributes his bad desires to his bad back. He considers himself “distorted, unfinished” and therefore ready to “prove a villain”.

Arthur Hughes, the first disabled actor to be cast as Richard III by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Photograph: Hugo Glendinning/RSC/PA

Literary characters afflicted with hunched and twisted backs have struggled over the centuries. If they are not mean, they are pitiful. In any case, they are doomed to tragic ends. Take Quasimodo at Victor Hugo The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, the deaf bell-ringer at Notre-Dame Cathedral who has “a huge bump” between his shoulders and is rendered half-blind by a giant wart covering one eye. His physique makes him a pariah, feared and decried by the Parisians. But he is confident, brave and loving, especially when it comes to the object of his affections, the beautiful Esmeralda. After failing to protect her from execution by the cruel Claude Frollo, archdeacon of the cathedral, Quasimodo dies of grief next to her corpse. The gothic conclusion of the book describes the discovery of two skeletons in a cellar: a woman held in the “tight embrace” of a man whose “spine was curved”.

If the lesson of Richard III is that a crooked man must have a crooked heart (to rework the nursery rhyme), Hugo’s story is one of not judging by appearances. As different as their conclusions are, neither will let their protagonist be hunchbacked for no good reason. In contrast, Ottessa Moshfegh’s treatment of scoliosis in her latest novel, the medieval gross-fest Lapvona, seems to take this trope in a new direction. Marek, the little boy at the center of the story is “disfigured from birth, his spine hinged forward so that his small shoulder blades protrude from his back” (Moshfegh herself suffered from scoliosis as a child, spending three years between the ages of nine and 12 in braces).

Like his literary ancestors, Marek is also shaped by his physique, his “sense of his own future” as “stunted” as his body. But unlike Richard and Quasimodo, whose hunched forms contrast with the able-bodied people around them, Marek is not alone in his abnormality. The village in the heart of Lapvona is a relentlessly grotesque place, where adults come to nurse an old nursing woman and peasants resort to cannibalism. Moshfegh’s treatment of these characters is ruthless and unsentimental. Marek may be reviled and pitiful, but he’s also murderous, and his disfigurement is just another form of suffering and weirdness.

The wonderful thing about plays is their ability to reinterpret through hundreds of years of staging. The exhumation of Richard’s remains, and the confirmation that he did indeed have scoliosis, offers contemporary productions of Richard III a new depth. It was only this year that the Royal Shakespeare Company first cast a disabled actor in the role. Rather than an offensive caricature, this Richard was a villain with a bad back, using his physical difference to his advantage because he knows the world thinks he’s twisted.


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