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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Friday, October 25, 2013

More of Captain James Benwick in Persuasion as a Negative Representation of Captain Charles Austen

Earlier today, I wrote briefly about Letter 123 as being, in part, JA’s coded and not very positive view in 1815 of brother Charles Austen’s overly quick attachment to his sister in law after the death of his wife in 1814 ….

…and I intended to return to amplify on the following comments with which I concluded:

“So, viewing Letter 123 through the lens of JA making a veiled commentary on Charles's blossoming relationship with his young sister in law, we can see that the reference to Cassy playing The Hermit was doubly loaded. I.e., JA was sarcastically but veiledly commenting that Charles was the furthest thing from Beattie's hermit, and he was anything but a husband consumed with grief over the death of his wife. And JA was in effect casting little Cassy as Hamlet, who (metaphorically) is the Hermit of Hamlet, the brooding child mourning the death of a beloved parent, and watching the surviving parent in effect marry with the funeral meats used to furnish the marriage table!
And best of all, does any of this sound like anything in one of Jane Austen's novels--such as, e.g., the novel that she had already begun to write as she wrote Letter 123?  Of course, JA revisited what she must have seen as brother Charles's shocking lack of grieving for his dead wife, when she created the character of James Benwick, who similarly does not spend a long time grieving for his dead fiancee FANNY Harville!”

Apparently, I am the first (1) to see Letter 123’s veiled sarcasm directed at Charles Austen, (2) to realize that Captain Benwick’s short-lived grief for his dead fiancée Fanny is also a veiled criticism of Charles Austen’s short-lived grief for his dead wife, and (3) to connect the dots between (1) and (2) and realize that this connection is no surprise, given that Letter 123 and Persuasion were written contemporaneously by JA. 

What’s disturbing--yet oddly fascinating--is to observe the power of the mythology around the Austen family, which prompts Austen scholars to sugar-coat and drastically distort reality, in this instance. I think the general blindness of Austen scholars to Jane Austen’s judgment on Charles Austen via the Benwick character in Persuasion is a particularly good (or bad) example of this phenomenon.

Exhibit “A” of this phenomenon has to be Sheila Johnson Kindred’s 2009 Persuasions article “The influence of Naval Captain Charles Austen's North American experiences on Persuasion and Mansfield Park.”

Read the following, and ask yourself, did Kindred read the same Persuasion that we all know and love?  

“Finally, an echo of Charles and Fanny's devotion to each other occurs in another context in Persuasion. Recall that Captain Benwick, Wentworth's lieutenant on the Laconia, had been engaged to the beautiful young Fanny Harville. He is made desolate by her death while he is at sea and is in deep mourning when the reader first meets him. A similar catastrophic event had shattered Fanny and Charles's relationship when suddenly in early September 1814 she died from complications following the birth of their short-lived daughter Elizabeth. This unexpected death of a sister-in-law, who was only twenty-four, occurred in the period before Jane began to write Persuasion. She was touched by Fanny's tragic demise and the deep effect it had on the grieving Charles. Her closeness to this event may explain her characterization of the emotionally devastated Captain Benwick in chapters eleven and twelve of Persuasion.”

The whole point of our hearing how emotionally devastated Benwick is left by his uncontrollable grief for Fanny—how he even asks Anne for recommendations for poetry to read to help him through his grief (like, perhaps Beattie’s The Hermit?) ---is the devastating irony of his abrupt turnabout, when Anne (and we later learn, also Harville and Wentworth) is shocked to learn that Benwick has gotten engaged to Louisa so quickly. This is Hypocrisy with a capital H.
Even Peter Knox-Shaw, in his wonderfully subversive 2004 book Jane Austen & The Enlightenment, where he repeatedly demonstrates that he does not wear blinders, fails to reach the point of seeing Benwick as a negative representation of Charles Austen, when Knox-Shaw discusses Benwick and Charles Austen vis a vis naval grief, real and fictional, at ppg. 221-2.

And even the strongly outside the box Janine Barchas, in her 2009 Persuasions article “Artistic Names in Austen’s Fiction: Cameo Appearances by Prominent Painters”, speculates, along with the equally outside the box Jocelyn Harris, that the “small miniature portrait” of Captain Benwick which Wentworth agrees to refit for delivery to Louisa Musgrove was an allusion to a miniature of Frank Austen, without seeming to consider how much  better it would fit if it were an allusion to the Benwick-like Austen brother, Charles.

But back to the Kindred article, which by the way, had to get past the editorial process at Persuasions in 2009 only 4 years ago, during which this error should have been caught by other scholarly eyes---such is the power of the still prevalent Austen mythology, that a paragraph like the above which ignores what we learn about Benwick after Chapter 12 of Persuasion, could be presented to Janeites as a valid description of Jane Austen’s family, and not even be challenged….until now, by me.

To see the character Benwick as Jane Austen’s positive tribute to Charles Austen’s admirably intense grief, instead of as her parody of his less than noble haste into the arms of another woman (and with considerably larger income than Fanny Harville would have had), is to completely misunderstand and misrepresent the true Jane Austen. Benwick’s worst sin is not just that  he was inconstant in his grief for Fanny Harville-it is the intense hypocrisy of his exaggerated grieving followed by his exaggerated speed in marrying another woman, which makes the veiled allusion to Charles Austen so disturbing.

And so it’s obvious why this scholarly neutering of JA’s sometimes brutally honest satire happens—it is too disruptive of the myth of Jane Austen to imagine that she would, in her novel considered by most Janeites to be a love letter to both of her brothers in the Royal Navy, present such a harsh parodic portrait of her younger sailor brother’s moral and emotional foibles.

It’s a Pandora’s Box Moment for Austen scholarship—because if this sort of harsh parody is possible, then who knows, maybe this nutty conspiracy theorist Arnie Perlstein is also correct in some of his other outside the box interpretations about Jane Austen.  

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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