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Monday, May 21, 2018

“Byng-Oh"! Jane Austen’s complex web of “encouragement” & allusion to martyred Admiral Byng:

[For those who don’t do Twitter, and who mostly think of it as a tool for badness (epitomized by certain vile Tweetstorms which currently threaten the civilized world), the below Part One (and Part Two, which  will follow within a day) illustrate the positive side of Twitter: the serendipity of crossed scholarly paths.]

PART ONE:  Last week I Tweeted the link for a recent blog post of mine entitled: “Sir Thomas Bertram’s (and Jane Austen’s) ‘encouragement’…of theatrical rebellion in Mansfield Park”.
My post originated from my first noticing that Tom Bertram, in speeches six chapters apart in Mansfield Park, twice refers to paterfamilias Sir Thomas’s early “encouragement” of Tom and younger brother Edmund, as children, to recite speeches from tragic plays, as a justification and inspiration for Tom’s successful scheme to persuade his siblings, and their thespian guests the Crawfords, to stage and perform in a home theatrical of Inchbald/Kotzebue’s controversial play, Lover’s Vows.

As is my custom, I specifically Tweeted that link to various Tweeps whose Tweets suggested a specific interest in the character of Tom Bertram. One of those Tweeps was @AdmiralByngCampaign who had, a few months earlier, Tweeted:       “Jane Austen satirised George III through avatars: "John Thorpe in Northanger Abbey, TOM BERTRAM & Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park, Frank Churchill in Emma, & both Sir Walter Elliot and William Walter Elliot in Persuasion". Would she have satirised George II & the Adm Byng affair?”

I was pleasantly surprised to receive a quick reply Tweet from @AdmiralByng, identifying herself as Thane Byng, an artist and Byng family member. We then moved to email, free to exceed 280 characters:

Me: “I'm interested to hear what you've got to tell me about Admiral Byng & Jane Austen -- i know that
her circle included members of the Byng family, but have no idea of her connection to him personally, mainly because he was executed two decades before she was born.”

Thane: “Please let me know who were the Byngs in Jane Austen's circle? The tragedy of Admiral John Byng's execution would not have faded in two decades! I am interested to know how Jane Austen recorded her thoughts feelings/sentiment/judgement about it. Any clues?”

I searched in Twitter, and learned that Thane had intriguing intuitions, which resonated very strongly with my own sense of Jane Austen as an author passionate about injustice:

05/25/2017:  “Jane Austen, sensitive artist and writer would have known the story of Admiral John Byng”
09/14/2017: “#JaneAusten with her fertile and sensitive mind must have known the story of Admiral the Honourable John Byng. What were her #thoughts?”

I also found this article about Thane, which beautifully encapsulates the modern Byng family’s passionate quest for justice and vindication for Admiral Byng, their martyred naval COLLATERAL ancestor [NOTE: the article is unclear on one point: Admiral Byng had no children, and therefore Thane and other Byng Family members are all his COLLATERAL descendants]:

“‘I’ve remortgaged my house to clear my ancestor Admiral Byng’s name’ says Camden artist”  
Thane Byng, a seventh-generation descendant of Admiral John Byng – the only British admiral to be executed by firing squad – said she would do whatever it takes to restore his honour.
“He was made a scapegoat and has been remembered as a coward – it is simply not right. He faced an impossible situation that the history books have recorded incorrectly.”
In 1756 Admiral John Byng was despatched to Gibraltar to stop the French from taking control of the British garrison on the Mediterranean island of Minorca. But by the time he had arrived, the enemy had already landed.
“He told the admiralty he didn’t have enough ships or sailors but all complaints fell on deaf ears,” said Ms Byng. As a result the garrison surrendered and after an unsuccessful skirmish with the French, Admiral Byng was ordered home. Charged with “failing to do his utmost”, and despite the court’s unanimous recommendation for mercy, on March 14 1757 Admiral Byng was executed by firing squad on board the HMS Monarch in Portsmouth Harbour.
Three previous attempts to clear Admiral Byng’s name have all failed because his descendants are not considered “to be in living memory of the deed”.
“His story has affected my entire life,” said Ms Byng. “I feel like I have always been on a quest to set the record straight.”
Since 2007 the Admiral Byng Campaign has lobbied the Ministry of Defence for an official pardon, attempted to have the case against the Admiral overturned on legal grounds and submitted a petition to the House of Commons, all without success.
Ms Byng said: “If we can’t change things the black and white letters way, then we have to be more imaginative in gaining support, and this year we’re on track to do just that.”
Last month at the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich, in an effort to raise the Admiral’s profile, Ms Byng’s remortgaged house paid for composer Piers Maxim and a number of soloists to perform a threnody in memory of Admiral Byng. On the 260th anniversary of the Admiral’s death Ms Byng plans to hand in another petition at the exact time and date of her forbear’s execution, demanding his exoneration.
She said: “We want history to finally be made right and we will never give up, we’ve waited too long.”
END QUOTE FROM ARTICLE

I was inspired by Thane’s passion for justice, and decided to dive right in and see what I could do to assist her efforts, and, along the way, shed fresh light on yet another potentially fertile realm of Austenian allusion. And as you’ll see in this, and my next post to come, it really paid rich dividends on both fronts!

To kick things off, a quick scan of Thane’s Tweets over the past year revealed two well-known (at least in scholarly circles) examples of towering 18th century literary figures who shared Thane’s anger at the injustice inflicted on Admiral Byng, and famously articulated that anger, albeit in very different ways:

First, one of her Tweets referred to this passage from Boswell’s Life of [Samuel] Johnson:

“The generosity with which [Johnson] pleads the cause of Admiral Byng is highly to the honour of his heart and spirit. Though Voltaire affects to be witty upon the fate of that unfortunate officer, observing that he was shot ‘pour encourager les autres,” the nation has long been satisfied that his life was sacrificed to the political fervour of the times. In the vault belonging to the Torrington family, in the church of Southill in Bedfordshire, there is the following epitaph upon his monument, which I have transcribed:
“TO THE PERPETUAL DISGRACE OF PUBLIC JUSTICE, THE HONOURABLE JOHN BYNG, ESQ., ADMIRAL OF THE BLUE, FELL A MARTYR TO POLITICAL PERSECUTION, MARCH 14, IN THE YEAR 1757; WHEN BRAVERY AND LOYALTY WERE INSUFFICIENT SECURITIES FOR THE LIFE AND HONOUR OF A NAVAL OFFICER.” END QUOTE FROM BOSWELL

One of the incontestable facts of Austen studies is that Jane Austen knew Samuel Johnson’s writings like the back of her hand, as well as Boswell’s famous biography of his idol -- so that alone would support the notion of JA being well aware of Admiral Byng’s tragic end via the above quoted passage.

Another of Thane’s Tweets referred to the following passage from Voltaire’s classic novel of innocence coming of age in an evil world, Candide, written not long after the execution of Admiral Byng:

Talking thus they arrived at Portsmouth. The coast was lined with crowds of people, whose eyes were fixed on a fine man kneeling, with his eyes bandaged, on board one of the men of war in the harbour. Four soldiers stood opposite to this man; each of them fired three balls at his head, with all the calmness in the world; and the whole assembly went away very well satisfied.
"What is all this?" said Candide; "and what demon is it that exercises his empire in this country?"
He then asked who was that fine man who had been killed with so much ceremony. They answered, he was an Admiral.
"And why kill this Admiral?"
"It is because he did not kill a sufficient number of men himself. He gave battle to a French Admiral; and it has been proved that he was not near enough to him."
"But," replied Candide, "the French Admiral was as far from the English Admiral."
"There is no doubt of it; but in this country it is found good, from time to time, to kill one Admiral to ENCOURAGE the others."
Candide was so shocked and bewildered by what he saw and heard, that he would not set foot on shore, and he made a bargain with the Dutch skipper (were he even to rob him like the Surinam captain) to conduct him without delay to Venice.”  END QUOTE FROM CANDIDE

Voltaire of course was well known to all the literati of England continuously from long before Jane Austen’s lifetime, and up to the present; and Candide was translated into English no less than three times within a few years after its initial publication, so was readily accessible to JA. Voltaire’s virtually explicit dramatization of the execution of Admiral Byng was famous for its unconcealed scathing irony and unforgiving moral judgment on the British Navy and Royal Court.

However, I’d wager that it was then, and still is today, completely unknown to everyone currently interested in Admiral Byng’s reputation (and was unknown to myself till Google enlightened me the other day) that the late Austen scholar, Frank Bradbrook, in his classic work on Austenian allusions, Jane Austen and her Predecessors (1966), wrote what I instantly recognized as an inspired speculation about Austen making a veiled allusion to Admiral Byng’s execution in her final completed, novel, Persuasion:

p. 122: “There is almost certainly a reference here to the classic comment in Candide (recalling the sentence passed on Admiral Byng), ‘Dans ce pays-ci il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour encourager les autres.’ Previously, Sir Walter Elliot had complained of Lord St. Ives, ‘whose father we all know to have been a country curate, without bread to eat,’ and who may have been suggested by Lord Nelson himself, whose life by Southey Jane Austen had read. G. M. Trevelyan has stated that ‘the naval officers were now the sons of gentlemen of modest means (Nelson was a poor parson’s son), sent to sea as boys…..Sir Walter Elliot, with his Voltairean wit, and his snobbish imitation of Lord Chesterfield’s code of manners, is completely opposed to the stoicism of Dr. Johnson and the fortitude of Nelson and his ‘band of brothers.’ “ END QUOTE FROM BRADBROOK

With eager excitement, I pulled up the entire relevant portion of Sir Walter Elliot’s speech in Chapter 3 of Persuasion:

“…One day last spring, in town, I was in company with two men, striking instances of what I am talking of; Lord St Ives, whose father we all know to have been a country curate, without bread to eat; I was to give place to Lord St Ives, and a certain Admiral Baldwin, the most deplorable-looking personage you can imagine; his face the colour of mahogany, rough and rugged to the last degree; all lines and wrinkles, nine grey hairs of a side, and nothing but a dab of powder at top. 'In the name of heaven, who is that old fellow?' said I to a friend of mine who was standing near, (Sir Basil Morley). 'Old fellow!' cried Sir Basil, 'it is Admiral Baldwin. What do you take his age to be?' 'Sixty,' said I, 'or perhaps sixty-two.' 'Forty,' replied Sir Basil, 'forty, and no more.' Picture to yourselves my amazement; I shall not easily forget Admiral Baldwin. I never saw quite so wretched an example of what a sea-faring life can do; but to a degree, I know it is the same with them all: they are all knocked about, and exposed to every climate, and every weather, till they are not fit to be seen. It is a pity they are not knocked on the head at once, before they reach Admiral Baldwin's age…"

I’d imagine that most Austen scholars reading Bradbrook’s breezy certainty of intentional parody by Jane Austen would remain skeptical of his inference, because Bradbrook is so brief and cryptic in his explanation, and the allusion itself is subtle. In a nutshell, I see his claim as resting on two related points:
First, by his reference to Sir Walter’s “Voltairean wit”, Bradbrook surely means that Sir Walter’s “It is a pity [the admirals] are not knocked on the head at once” (for the “crime” of looking much older than their age) is Austen’s brilliant parody of Voltaire’s famous acidic irony about Byng’s execution: “in this country it is found good, from time to time, to kill one Admiral to encourage the others."
Second, Sir Walter’s other sneering reference to “Lord St Ives, whose father we all know to have been a country curate, without bread to eat” surely is, as Bradbrook does explain well, Jane Austen’s broad wink at the greatest British admiral of all, Horatio Nelson.
Byng and Nelson – consider these (in Sir Walter’s words “these two men”) side by side. I did, and that is why I am 100% with Bradbrook in seeing Austen’s unmistakably razor sharp, dark (and yes, Voltairean) irony. She has her narcissistic blowhard Sir Walter unwittingly refer, in the same speech, to the two strangest “ship-fellows” in the history of the British Navy:
Admiral Horatio Nelson, for more than two centuries the epitome of heroic death in naval battle; and Admiral John Byng, the only British admiral ever executed for alleged cowardice for avoiding naval battle.
Both Admirals, the (fairly) famous and the (unfairly) infamous, are condemned, convicted, and sentenced (in the same sentence) by Sir Walter to the same punishment -- a knock on the head, and both, so to speak,  for the crime of looking (as) old (as death itself)!

And that concludes, more or less, the existing scholarly wisdom responding to Thane Byng’s sharp intuition that Jane Austen must have alluded to the Byng Family's tragically famous collateral ancestor Admiral Byng, who left the world 18 years before JA entered it.

Two additional quick observations:

First, this validates Thane’s Tweeted intuition that JA would have also parodied King George II, the monarch who insisted on the rapid execution of Admiral Byng despite the judges urging clemency. I say that Bradbrook showed this 50 years ago, and that once again Sir Walter Elliot was JA's parodic vehicle for regal satire.

Second, it occurred to me as I worked on this Part One that there was an amazingly lucky serendipity in my Tweeting to Thane the link to my very recent post about “encouragement” in Mansfield Park, only to then find out that Voltaire’s very famous bon mot about Admiral Byng was about the salutary practice of killing one Admiral to “encourage” the others!  

That serendipity “encouraged” me to do the two days of enjoyable scholarship that will enable me to bring to you, within the next day, the second half of the large iceberg of “Byng-ly” allusion by Jane Austen in both her novels and her letters! So, strap in, and get ready for a second, dizzying ride deep into the subtext of Jane Austen’s multilayered engagement with the memory of Admiral Byng and his family.

And, at the center of that allusive matrix, I will also reveal the identity of yet another very famous work of 18th century literature by another famous English author, who engaged, as it turns out, on a massive, if covert, scale, with the memory of Admiral Byng, cut down so cruelly and unjustly in martyrdom for an alleged lack of courage which was not at all the case.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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