A short while ago, an author of literary mysteries, Lynn Shepherd, devoted a Huffington Post column (titled “If JK Rowling Cares About Writing, She Should Stop Doing It”) to the decidedly peculiar idea that the enormously popular J. K. Rowling should stop writing adult fiction in order to give “other writers, and other writing, room to breathe.” Rowling, Shepherd graciously allowed, could return to writing for children: “By all means keep writing for kids, or for your personal pleasure – I would never deny anyone that – but when it comes to the adult market you’ve had your turn.”
I won’t comment further on this, except to observe that perhaps only a literary novelist, used to receiving accolades from other literary novelists, could have possibly thought that her post would be met with delighted cries of “How witty and clever!” I’ll also observe that Shepherd’s published books, two of which were inspired by Charles Dickens’ Bleak House and Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, one of which is based on the lives of Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife Mary Shelley, wouldn’t have been possible if Dickens, Austen, and the Shelleys had thoughtfully stopped writing in order to give other writers room to breathe. No, instead, I’ll ponder this: what if a few historical figures had followed Shepherd’s advice?
1. Richard III
Soon after taking the throne, Richard III, concerned that Richard I and Richard II as well as his brother Edward IV will be overshadowed, decides to step down and let his nephew Edward V be crowned after all. Allowed by his nephew to retire to his northern estates, Richard devotes the rest of his life to sheep farming and dies in relative obscurity. Future generations hopelessly confuse Richard, Duke of Gloucester, with Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, and obsess about Edward V’s very colorful sex life.
2. Anne Boleyn
Having failed to deliver on her promise of a son, and not wishing to overshadow other sixteenth-century women, Anne offers to step aside so that Henry VIII can find another wife. Delighted at her gracious retreat, Henry helps to free Anne’s old beau Henry Percy from his own marriage, allowing Anne to become the new Countess of Northumberland. Anne promptly bears Northumberland twin boys but only gets to gloat for a few days before dying of childbed fever. Jane Seymour, without Anne’s beheading to learn from, spends rather too much time alone with her brother Thomas and dies on the scaffold.
3. Abraham Lincoln
Not wishing to overshadow other Presidents, Lincoln decides not to run for a second term and retires to Springfield, where he accumulates rather too many cats and Mary Todd Lincoln accumulates rather too many bonnets. Salmon Chase, the next President, not only refuses to go to the theater on Good Friday, April 14, but on any other occasion. Unable to find any opportunity to assassinate President Chase (and not wishing to overshadow other assassins), John Wilkes Booth finally gives up his plan and marries Lucy Hale. He lives long enough to play the lead in a silent version of King Lear, but neither this nor any of his other silent films have been preserved.