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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Binh-goh! Uncle Toby, Siege of Namur & the Atom as Touchstones of Sterne's & Smollett’s Admiral Byng!

INTRODUCTION TO PART TWO: This post follows up on Part One: “Byng-Oh! Jane Austen’s complex web of ‘encouragement’ & allusion to martyred Admiral Byng” which I wrote 3 weeks ago: . In it, I began with background about the tragic execution in 1757 of Admiral John Byng, who was the victim of cynical scapegoating by the highest levels of the English government, including the King, for alleged cowardice in naval command decisions during the Siege of Minorca during the Seven Years War. I also gave detail as to the present-day efforts by members of the Byng family to finally, officially clear his name.

I then went on to discuss the widely recognized contemporary allusions to the Byng execution by Voltaire in Candide and by Samuel Johnson in various ways; after which I extended Frank Bradbrook’s pioneering 1967 insight into what he saw (and I agreed!) Jane Austen as making an ironic, veiled allusion to the Byng execution, which she subtly coded into one of Sir Walter Elliot’s absurd speeches in her 1817 (and final) novel, Persuasion.

If the above very brief summary does not suffice, and you want full context for my new claims, below, you may wish to read through Part One before you go on. Today, I’ll present evidence showing two more contemporary literary allusions to the Byng execution: by Laurence Sterne in his far-ahead-of-its-time, absurdist masterpiece, Tristram Shandy, and by Tobias Smollett in his political allegory, Adventures of an Atom. As it turns out, these allusions intersect in various interesting ways with those by Voltaire and Johnson which I already addressed in Part One.

And, for even fuller context: within a few days I plan to present Part Three of this series, in which I’ll land the plane, and, building on Parts One and Two, finally show not only that the Austen family was indirectly connected to the Byng family, but also that Jane Austen’s allusion to Admiral Byng in Persuasion is, in my considered opinion, much more pervasive and thematically significant than Bradbrook (or even I, when I wrote Part One three weeks ago) dreamt of!

To wit: I see the ghost of the wronged Admiral Byng haunting the entirety of Persuasion, the way the ghost of King Hamlet haunts Hamlet. And, what’s more, it turns out that Austen’s allusion in Persuasion to Tristram Shandy, which I had previously caught glimpses of, is itself also pervasive – precisely, as I’ve now realized, because Austen, the brilliant reader of other literary works of genius, understood how Sterne wove his literary focus on Admiral Byng deep into his masterpiece, via the extraordinary  character of Uncle Toby, a character whom Austen scholars know that Austen knew well (as I’ll also explain in Part Three).

Jumping ahead for a moment, the essence and main theme of that global allusion by Austen to both the real life Admiral Byng, and to the fictional Uncle Toby, is, as I’ll show in Part Three, is -- what else?-- “courage”. You’ll see how Austen artfully transposed the realm of physical courage in battles of ships to that of personal courage in battles of the sexes.

That Austen, in a novel she wrote more than 60 years after Admiral Byng died, placed him in such a central allusive role, shows how long the literary outcry against that fatal injustice survived, in Jane Austen’s most naval novel, Persuasion. So I sincerely hope that my research will assist Thane Byng (who features prominently in Part One, and is, via Twitter, my contact in the Byng Family) in her/their worthy mission to vindicate the scapegoated Admiral 263 years after his death.

Now, with all that as prelude, on with the show.

MAIN DISCUSSION:  At the end of Part One, I wrote “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.”

As an opening salvo, then, here are the key passages in that very famous work, Tristram Shandy, by Laurence Sterne, passages which all refer to the protagonist’s repeated references to his Uncle Toby’s famous, unfortunate groin injury (mirroring the injury suffered by his nephew Tristram from an ill-timed falling window) suffered at the Siege of Namur. As you read along, pay extra attention to the verbiage in italics—It will become clear to you why I selected these passages to show to you, when you read the remainder of this post.

1.21 “Yes, Madam, it was owing to a blow from a STONE, broke off by a ball from the parapet of a horn-work at THE SIEGE OF NAMUR, which struck full upon my Uncle Toby's groin.Which way could that effect it? The story of that, Madam, is long and interesting;—but it would be running my history all upon heaps to give it you here.—'Tis for an episode hereafter; and every circumstance relating to it, in its proper place, shall be faithfully laid before you:—'Till then, it is not in my power to give farther light into this matter, or say more than what I have said already…’ “

1.25: “The wound in my Uncle Toby's groin, which he received at THE SIEGE OF NAMUR, rendering him unfit for the service, it was thought expedient he should return to England, in order, if possible, to be set to rights. He was four years totally confined,—part of it to his bed, and all of it to his room: and in the course of his cure, which was all that time in hand, suffer'd unspeakable miseries…the great injury which it had done my Uncle Toby's groin, was more owing to the gravity of the stone itself, than to the projectile force of it,—which he would often tell him was a great happiness….”

1.26: “I have begun a new book, on purpose that I might have room enough to explain the nature of the perplexities in which my Uncle Toby was involved, from the many discourses and interrogations about THE SIEGE OF NAMUR, where he received his wound.
I must remind the reader, in case he has read the history of King William's wars,—but if he has not,—I then inform him, that one of the most memorable attacks in that siege, was that which was made by the English and Dutch upon the point of the advanced counterscarp, between the gate of St. Nicolas, which inclosed the great sluice or water-stop, where the English were terribly exposed to the shot of the counter-guard and demi-bastion of St. Roch: The issue of which hot dispute, in three words, was this; That the Dutch lodged themselves upon the counter-guard,—and that the English made themselves masters of the covered-way before St. Nicolas-gate, notwithstanding the gallantry of the French officers, who exposed themselves upon the glacis sword in hand.
As this was the principal attack of which my Uncle Toby was an eye-witness at NAMUR,—the army of the besiegers being cut off, by the confluence of the Maes and Sambre, from seeing much of each other's operations,—My Uncle Toby was generally more eloquent and particular in his account of it; and the many perplexities he was in, arose out of the almost insurmountable difficulties he found in telling his story intelligibly…What rendered the account of this affair the more intricate to my Uncle Toby, was this,—that in the attack of the counterscarp, before the gate of St. Nicolas, extending itself from the bank of the Maes, quite up to the great water-stop,—the ground was cut and cross cut with such a multitude of dykes, drains, rivulets, and sluices, on all sides,—and he would get so sadly bewildered, and set fast amongst them, that frequently he could neither get backwards or forwards to save his life; and was oft-times obliged to give up the attack upon that very account only.
These perplexing rebuffs gave my Uncle Toby Shandy more perturbations than you would imagine; and as my father's kindness to him was continually dragging up fresh friends and fresh enquirers,—he had but a very uneasy task of it.…My Uncle Toby could not philosophize upon it;—'twas enough he felt it was so,—and having sustained the pain and sorrows of it for three months together, he was resolved some way or other to extricate himself. He was one morning lying upon his back in his bed, the anguish and nature of the wound upon his groin suffering him to lie in no other position, when a thought came into his head, that if he could purchase such a thing, and have it pasted down upon a board, as A LARGE MAP of the fortification of the town and citadel of NAMUR, with its environs, it might be a means of giving him ease….”

1.37: With all my heart, replied my father, I don't care what they call you,—but I wish the whole science of fortification, with all its inventors, at the devil;—it has been the death of thousands,—and it will be mine in the end.—I would not, I would not, brother Toby, have my brains so full of saps, mines, blinds, gabions, pallisadoes, ravelins, half-moons, and such trumpery, to be proprietor of NAMUR, and of all the towns in Flanders with it.
My Uncle Toby was a man patient of injuries;—NOT FROM WANT OF COURAGE,—I have told you in a former chapter, 'that he was a man of COURAGE:'—And will add here, that where just occasions presented, or called it forth,—I know no man under whose arm I would have sooner taken shelter;—nor did this arise from any insensibility or obtuseness of his intellectual parts;—for he felt this insult of my father's as feelingly as a man could do;—but he was of a peaceful, placid nature,—no jarring element in it,—all was mixed up so kindly within him; MUT had scarce a heart to retaliate upon a fly.”

So what, you say? How do all these references to the Siege of Namur, and the emphasis at one point on Uncle Toby being “a man of courage”, relate to Admiral Byng having been executed for cowardice after the Siege of Minorca?

It turns out that it has been recognized by several modern Tristam Shandy scholars, but is apparently unknown to historians expert in the Byng execution, and to members of the Byng family, that the above references to the Siege of Namur were Laurence Sterne’s code for the Siege of Minorca. How is this known to be so?

The publication of Tristram Shandy created such a sensation, that a flurry of pamphlets quickly appeared within a year or two afterwards, which picked up on the parodic, postmodern, risqué spirit of TS itself. One of those pamphlets, Explanatory Remarks by Dr. Kunastrokius, M.D. (who may have been Sterne himself---if you sound out the name of the good doctor, you’ll understand why), contained the following discussion of  Chapters 15-17 of Book 1 of Tristram Shandy, a section which refer several times to the Siege of Namur. Again, as before, pay particular attention to the all caps and italicized excerpts, and ESPECIALLY note the sentence in bold faced italics, and the connection made by Sterne between the two famous Sieges will become clear:

“In England, every coffee-house has its president, who harrangues the circle that catch his opinions, and support them in their different districts. ——
"Why, Sir, I repeat it, what have we to do with continental connections? — Are not our ships, our floating bulwarks, our only protection? — Could the king of —, in return for all the assistance we have given him, have made such a diversion as THE BRAVE CAPTAIN ELLIOT did, in St. George's channel?"
I say, Sir, would all the german princes put together, have defeated Thurot?
"Is not our trade, and our navigation, the subject of this war, — and what is our navigation to the inland parts of Germany?—trifling,—I repeat it very trifling. And yet neglect the herring fishery, — that Peruvian sea-mine! and scarce pay any attention to those elaborate and well digested schemes of the great Henriques!"
—— The learned, deep sighted, clear witted, eloquent president of ——— coffee-house, after having made this popular and sagacious harrangue — laid hold of my worthy friend Mr. Tristram Shandy, —
"Here, (says he) here is the man after my own heart, — whose political notions are as clear and self-evident as my own. — There is the TOUCHSTONE of public measures, — the whetstone of trade and navigation, and the grind-stone of malversation."
…17: It may be necessary to inform some of my readers, that we are not yet got out of — coffee-house, in — street:—No—here we are yet, as attentive as ever to Mr. Profound, (that is the gentleman's name in the black full bottom wig, and the green spectacles) who has by this time thrown down a dish of coffee in enforcing his argument upon the TOUCH-STONES, whet-stones, and grind-stones; taken two pinches of snuff, and opened Tristram Shandy exactly at page 135.
Oh excellent metaphor, cried Mr. Profound, (in extasy) worthy of the great pen from whence it flows! —"That good chear and hospitality flourish once more; — and that such weight and influence be put thereby into the hands of the squirality of my kingdom, as should counterpoise what I perceive my nobility are now taking from them."
Great—Great Tristram!...
What can he mean here, (resumed Mr. Profound) but pecuniary influence in elections, particularly in boroughs? and yet there is not one in a hundred takes it in that sense. I tell you, gentlemen, Tristram Shandy is one compleat system of modern politics, and that to understand him, there is as much occasion for a key, as there is for a catalogue to the Harleian library:
I own, that I should not myself have penetrated so far as I have, notwithstanding my great reading in works of this nature, if I had not had the opportunity of supping the other evening with the author, who let me into the whole affair. I advised him to publish a key, but he told me it was too dangerous.—What is the Siege of NAMUR, which he often mentions, but the Siege of Fort St. Philip's in Minorca?— or, the wound his uncle Toby received there but the distress the nation was thrown into thereupon? His application to the study of fortification, and the knowledge he therein gained, means nothing else but the rectitude and clear sightedness of the administration which afterwards took up the reins of government. This is a masterpiece of allegory, beyond all the poets of this or any period whatever…..”

The overarching point I want you to take away from the above quoted passages (in Sterne’s novel, and in “Dr. Kunastrokius’s” explanatory pamphlet), is that Uncle Toby’s groin injury suffered at the Siege of Namur is indeed Sterne’s code for Admiral Byng’s execution after the Siege of Minorca; and that Sterne goes out of his way to defend Uncle Toby’s “courage”.

What I’ll also be addressing in Part Three (which, as you see, will be pretty crowded!) is the literary reason why I italicized the references to “touchstones” –hint: it has to do with another famous literary character who waxes eloquent about courage – and I also bet some of you did guess why I put “the brave Captain Elliot” in all caps!

But now, let me move right along to the other contemporary literary allusion to the execution of Admiral Byng, which is found in the following quoted passage in The History and Adventures of an Atom, by Tobias Smollett, his short, 1769 political allegory, in which he transposes England to Japan in order to skewer the villains in the English government who scapegoated and then in effect murdered Admiral Byng:

“Fortune had not yet sufficiently humbled the pride of Japan. That body of Chinese which defeated Koan, made several conquests in Fatsissio, and seemed to be in a fair way of reducing the whole island. Yet the court of China, not satisfied with this success, resolved to strike a blow, that should be equally humiliating to the Japanese, in another part of the world. Having by special remonstrances already prepossessed all the neighboring nations against the government of Japan, as the patrons of perfidy and piracy, they fitted out an armament, which was intended to subdue the island of Montao, on the coast of Corea, which the Japanese had taken in a former war, and now occupied at a very great expense, as a place of the utmost importance to the commerce of the empire….
….The council being at last waked by the clamors of the people, who surrounded the palace, and proclaimed that Motao was in danger of an invasion ; the sea-sey-seo-gun, Ninkom-poo-po, was ordered to fit out a fleet of fune, for the relief of that island; and directions were given that the commander of these fune should, in his voyage, touch at the garrison of Foutao, and take on board from thence a certain number of troops, to reinforce the Japanese governor of the place that was in danger.
Nin-kom-poo-po for this service chose the commander BIHN-GOH, a man who had never signalized himself by any act of valor. He sent him out with a squadron of fune ILL-MANNED, WRETCHEDLY PROVIDED, AND INFERIOR IN NUMBER to the fleet of China, which was by this time known to be assembled, in order to support the invasion of the island of Motao. He sailed, nevertheless, on this expedition, and touched at the garrison of Foutao, to take in the reinforcement; but the orders sent for this purpose from Nob-od-i, minister for the department of war, appeared so contradictory and absurd, that they could not possibly be obeyed; so that BIHN-GOH proceeded without the reinforcement towards Motao, the principal fortress of which was by this time invested. He had been accidentally joined by a few cruisers, which rendered him equal in strength to the Chinese squadron, which he now descried. Both commanders seemed afraid of each other. The fleets however engaged; but little damage was done to either. They parted, as if by consent. BIHN-GOH made the best of his way back to Foutao, without making the least attempt to succor or open a communication with Fi-de-ta-da, the governor of Motao, who, looking upon himself as abandoned by his country, surrendered his fortress, with the whole island, to the Chinese general. These disgraces happening on the back of the Fatsissian disasters, raised a prodigious ferment in Japan, and the ministry had almost sunk under the first fury of the people's resentment. They not only exclaimed against the folly of the administration, but they also accused them of treachery; and seemed to think that the glory and advantage of the empire had been betrayed. What increased the commotion, was the terror of an invasion, with which the Chinese threatened the islands of Japan. The terrors of Fika-kaka had already cost him two pair of trunk hose, which were defiled by sudden sallies or irruptions from the postern of his microcosm; and these were attended with such noisome effluvia, that the bonzas could not perform the barbal abstersion without marks of abhorrence. The emperor himself was seen to stop his nose, and turn away his head, when he approached him to perform the pedestrian exercise….
In this general consternation, Foksi-roku stood up, and offered a scheme, which was immediately put in execution. "The multitude, my lords," said he, "is a many-headed monster--it is a Cerberus that must have a sop: it is a wild beast so ravenous, that nothing but blood will appease its appetite: it is a whale that must have a barrel for its amusement: it is a demon to which we must offer up human sacrifice. Now, the question is, who is to be this sop, this barrel, this scapegoat? Tremble not, illustrious Fika-kaka—be not afraid -your life is of too much consequence. But, I perceive that the cuboy is moved --an unsavory odour assails my nostrils—brief let me be—BIHN-GOH must be the victimhappy, if the sacrifice of his single life can appease the commotions of his country. To him let us impute the loss of Motao. Let us, in the mean time, soothe the rabble with solemn promises that national justice shall be done; let us employ emissaries to mingle in all places of plebeian resort; to puzzle, perplex, and prevaricate; to exaggerate the misconduct of BIHN-GOH; to traduce his character with retrospective reproach; strain circumstances to his prejudice ; inflame the resentment of the vulgar against that devoted officer ; and keep up the flame, by feeding it with continual fuel."
The speech was heard with universal applause: Foksi-roku was kicked by the dairo, and kissed by the cuboy in token of approbation. The populace were dispersed by means of fair promises. BIHN-GOH was put under arrest, and kept as a malefactor in close prison. Agents were employed through the whole metropolis, to vilify his character, and accuse him of cowardice and treachery. Authors were enlisted to defame him in public writings; and mobs hired to hang and burn him in effigy. By these means, the revenge of the people was artfully transferred, and their attention effectually diverted from the ministry, which was the first object of their indignation. At length matters being duly prepared for the exhibition of such an extraordinary spectacle, BIHN-GOH underwent a public trial, was unanimously found guilty, and unanimously declared innocent; by the same mouths condemned to death, and recommended to mercy; but mercy was incompatible with the designs of the administration. The unfortunate BIHN-GOH was crucified for cowardice, and bore his fate with the most heroic courage. His behavior at his death was so inconsistent with the crime for which he was doomed to die, that the emissaries of the cuboy were fain to propagate a report, that BIHN-GOH had bribed a person to represent him at his execution, and be crucified in his stead.”

Now you know why I used “Binh-Goh” in my Subject Line (and why my mind was blown by the spooky coincidence that I used “Byng-Oh” in the Subject Line of Part One, even though at that time I wrote Part One, I had absolutely no idea about Smollett’s “Bihn-Goh”!).

[And now I find I have yet another blog post to write in the near future – about the (to my mind, obvious) allusion by Gilbert to Smollett’s Atom, when Gilbert wrote The Mikado more than a century after Smollett wrote his work. The parallels are overwhelming, most of all with the faux Japanese names that poke sharp fun at the real life English rulers they represent. So I look forward to finding out more about the satire of the late 19th century England government that Gilbert must have been writing via The Mikado, following in the footsteps of Smollett’s satire of 18th century England.]

But back to Admiral Byng, I’m not quite done with Part Two. It seems very clear that Smollett wrote his Atom after having read Tristram Shandy, written several years earlier. Perhaps Smollett felt that Sterne had been too coy in his “Siege of Namur” coding, and so he made it crystal clear that it was Admiral Byng he was defending. But, there may be good karma in Smollett being inspired by Sterne, given that I believe it highly likely that Smollett provided Sterne with inspiration to use the Siege of Namur as code for the Siege of Minorca.

How? Just check out the following passage in Smollett’s History of England, written not long after Byng was executed, and not long before Sterne wrote Tristram Shandy. The title is “The French take Namur in Sight of King William”, but wait till you get to Smollett’s final assessment of what happened.

“…Having reviewed his army, which amounted to about one hundred and twenty thousand men, [France’s King Louis] undertook the siege of Namur…The citadel was deemed one of the strongest forts in Flanders…The place was well supplied, and the governor knew that king William would make strong efforts for its relief, so that the besieged were animated with many concurring considerations. Notwithstanding these advantages, the assailants carried on their attacks with such vigour that in seven days after the trenches were opened, the town capitulated and the garrison retired into the citadel.”

So far so good, but now here’s where we read how King William at Namur, from a position of greater strength than Byng held at Minorca, failed to act, very much as Admiral Byng did -- but being King, he was never put on trial – and, in the “Bad History Repeats Itself” category, read the final sentence in particular, to see that another underling, the governor of besieged Namur, who took the fall instead of the King, who apparently could do no wrong!:

“King William, being joined by the troops of Brandenburgh and Liege, advanced to the Mehaigne at the head of one hundred thousand effective men, and encamped within cannon shot of Luxembourg’s army, which lay on the other side of the river. That general however had taken such precautions, that the king of England could not interrupt the siege nor attack the French lines without great disadvantage. The besiegers, ENCOURAGED by the presence of their monarch, and assisted by the superior abilities of Vauban their engineer, repeated their attacks with such impetuosity that the fort of Cohorn was surrendered after a very obstinate defence, in which he himself had been dangerously wounded. The citadel being thus left exposed to the approaches of the enemy, could not long withstand the violence of their operations; the two covered ways were taken by assault. On the twentieth of May the governor capitulated, to the unspeakable mortification of king William, who saw himself obliged to lie inactive at the head of a powerful army, and be an eye-witness of the loss of the most important fortress in the Netherlands. Louis having taken possession of the place, returned in triumph to Versailles, where he was flattered with all the arts of adulation; while William’s reputation suffered a little from his miscarriage, and the prince of Barbason incurred the suspicion of treachery or misconduct.”

And, as you can see from my putting “ENCOURAGED” in all caps, I wonder whether Voltaire, like Sterne, also read the above description of English regal hypocrisy, and borrowed that verb, and put it in Candide, to such everlasting ironic effect!

One last (scholarly irony). I should not have been the first scholar to connect all of the above dots.
In “The Eastern Tale and the Candid Reader in 18th Century Europe: Tristram Shandy, Candide, Rasselas”, RSEAA 17-18 67 (2010), Prof. Ros Ballaster began as follows:
“Voltaire’s Candide, Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas and the first two volumes of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy appeared in 1759. All three works pursue an agenda of practical scepticism. Textual allusions to the Mille et une Nuit inform the ambivalent pursuit of sceptical reading in these works.”

Later in that same article, Ballaster then wrote:
“Voltaire’s Candide sees the lady Cunegund and her mother raped and their bellies cut open…Candide’s Leibnizian tutor Pangloss is hanged…the lovely princess of Palestrina narrates the story of the excision of her left buttock as a sacrifice for the cannibalistic survival of 20 Moroccan Janissaries…South-American monkey-lovers who bite the buttocks of their mistresses…, the execution of an admiral at Portsmouth to encourage his fellow combatants to fight in chapter 23 (a reference to the execution of Admiral Byng for his failure to relieve the English garrison at Minorca against the French).
In the first two volumes of Tristram Shandy, we hear of Toby’s injury in his groin from a stone broken off by a cannonball from a parapet at the Siege of Namur, his corporal Trim’s wound in the left knee from a musket ball at the battle of Landen, while Tristram’s nose is damaged in his violent delivery to the distress of a father who theorises that the fineness of the human soul depends on the temperature and clearness of the liquor in the cerebellum requiring that the head not undergo severe compression in childbirth.”

Ballaster writes about Admiral Byng in the subtext of Candide in one sentence, and then about Uncle Toby at the Siege of Namur in the next sentence—but she did not realize that Admiral Byng was the subtext of Uncle Toby as well.  

And that provides a perfect moment to end Part Two, and promise that I’ll do my best to end the suspense created above, and deliver Part Three so that you’ll see how Jane Austen paid her respects to Admiral Byng in Persuasion!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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