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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

More On Captain Benwick in Persuasion as a Not Very Flattering Representation of Captain Charles Austen

The past few days I’ve been going back & forth with Diana Birchall in Austen L in a friendly, productive debate about my claims that Captain Benwick in Persuasion is a not very flattering representation of Jane Austen’s younger sailor brother, Charles Austen.

First, Diana summarized further references to Charles’s young children in Letter 128 from late 1815, and I responded as follows: Diana, a month and a half ago, I wrote about Jane Austen's Letter 123 (written to Caroline Austen less than a month before JA wrote Letter 128 to CEA) as reflecting Jane Austen's thinly veiled sarcasm unmistakably directed toward her sailor brother Charles's shockingly quick recovery from grief for his wife Fanny, and his way too rapid re-attachment to Fanny's elder sister Harriet.  Here is a key excerpt from those earlier posts of mine:  "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!...” 

I am sure, therefore, that during this latest visit to Keppel Street reported in Letter 128, JA, in addition to feeling very real pity for the motherless young children of brother Charles, was also very pragmatically gathering more grist for her authorial mill, that she would immediately put to use in her portrait of Captain Benwick in Persuasion--which makes me really wonder what Charles Austen thought about Persuasion when he finally got to read it!

Diana replied to that last speculation as follows: “Doubt he saw himself in it. His justification would be that he had three little daughters who needed a mother. The poetical, sentimental, depressed, susceptible Benwick wasn't much like him (and had no children). Jane Austen may have used her brother's situation but as always she altered it and gave it to a very different sort of person. I agree that bits and pieces of people and situations could be ‘grist for the authorial mill’ but seldom recognizable."
I then responded to Diana as follows: Charles would have had to be a complete moron not to recognize himself in Benwick, especially because by 1816, when JA completed Persuasion, his relationship with his dead wife's sister would have been going on for a couple of years already by then, and was clearly going to end some time in marriage. In addition to Benwick having been a Captain in the Royal Navy, exactly like Charles, I've read Charles's diary entries at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich--and I can tell you he was indeed sentimental, depressed, susceptible, maudlin---all of those things!

I think JA was reacting to the hypocrisy of the situation--there must've been some reason why Charles and Harriet waited six years to marry, when it's clear that they were intimately involved with each other (if not physically, then in every other way--she became the de facto mother of his young children in 1814) long before 1820-and it had to be the stigma of the Biblical injunction (strong evidence of which is found in the 1832 obituary for Harriet and Fanny Palmer’s father, which refers to only ONE of his daughters having married Charles Austen, not two!)

I would imagine that Charles and Harriet got seriously involved very quickly, and it appalled Jane, not because of any Biblical injunction, but because of the shocking speed with which Charles leapt from dead sister to living sister, while ostentatiously grieving.

THIS one is probably at the top of the list of the allusions to real people in NA and Persuasion that prompted Henry Austen to write his infamous lies about Jane Austen never having written about real people. We see Charles Austen not only in the inconstant lover Benwick in Persuasion, but also in General Tilney, the poster child of clueless English husbands "murdering" their wives in childbirth and saying, basically "What me worry?"

Clueless hypocrisy was much worse in JA's book than villains who did their ill deeds openly and without hypocrisy.  Why? Because a straightforward villain is not difficult to spot--it's the hypocrites who are much more dangerous, as they do their ill deeds without even realizing they are doing wrong.

Diana then responded to the above as follows: "As for whether Charles Austen was like Benwick, well you have read his diaries and I haven't, so I must bow to you there. Though I still doubt Jane Austen was referencing Charles in her portrayal of Benwick. His first wife Frances died at Sheerness in September 1814 (and I'm sorry I said they had three daughters, there were four - all the more need for a surrogate mother, especially as the youngest was only a baby, born in 1814!) Jane Austen's death occurred only twenty months after Frances's, and with Harriet busy with four children under the age of six (!) it is impossible to see the situation as a romance anything like that of Benwick's when he forgot his lost fiancee and fell in love with another girl. Benwick was a "young mourner," having lost his Fanny last summer, and it was then November, so he only mourned for about four months. But he did not fall in love with her sister, so it's situationally very different. Also, even if Harriet moved into his house to care for the four children (as was very often done in like circumstances), in the year of her being there at the time this letter was written, it's highly unlikely there would have been hanky-panky blatant enough for Jane Austen to observe or put into Persuasion. Harriet would have been too busy wiping noses, and in fact the marriage did not take place for another five years, or four years after the completion of Persuasion. So no, I don't see Charles's and Benwick's situations as literally resembling each other, though she could hardly help having her sorrowing sailor brother in her mind."
 And here’s my final response: Diana, that might well have left us at "agree to disagree", except that..... you are not recalling that, in addition to the situational "aroma" of Captain Austen that I suggest clings to Captain Benwick as I've argued in my last two posts, what actually gave me the idea of Benwick as Charles Austen in the first place, six weeks ago, was Jane Austen's allusion to  Beattie's famous poem (later set to music), The Hermit, in Letter 123 to niece Caroline Austen....

...a letter to a 10 year old girl in which JA hid, in plain sight for any literarily knowledgeable adult (like, e.g., Caroline's father and Charles's brother, James Austen, another widower who, two decades earlier, perhaps also did not wait very long to start courting a new wife after the death of HIS first wife?), a conjoined allusion to Beattie's poem about a spouse's death, The Hermit, and to Hamlet's bitter reflections on his mother's too-quick remarriage to Claudius after the death of her spouse, King Hamlet!

Please reread my above-linked post, and tell me if you don't think that the reference to "my dear sister-aunt", plus the mock-warning not to sing the lyrics of Beattie's heartsick poetry (expressing overpowering mourning for a dead wife) in front of children who've just lost their mother, doesn't ALL point to Benwick's deeply hypocritical mourning for his dead fiancee?---and the allusion to Hamlet is especially apt, because, again, I've been asserting since 2009 that the subtext of Northanger Abbey is all about the "murder" of ordinary English wives, by their ordinary English husbands, via death-in-childbirth--so in Charles Austen we have united both the "murderer" and the "quick remarrier"--in effect, Charles is Claudius--the only difference is that in Hamlet, Claudius murdered his brother and married his brother's wife, his former sister in law, whereas in real life, Charles Austen "murdered" his wife and married his wife's sister, his former sister in law.

And all of that also, finally, connects to my wondering what it was, exactly, that killed Fanny Harville, a young unmarried woman--we never hear about the cause of death, do we?  Makes me wonder whether Captain Benwick, during his last visit with Fanny Harville in between tours of duty, might not have knocked her up, and then she died in childbirth along with their illegitimate newborn child? It sure would close the circle of all of the above argument I've been making!

But back to the real life of the Austen family one last time. Of course, JA could not just come out in a letter and explicitly state that she was appalled at the way Harriet Palmer was coming on strong to grieving brother Charles, and how readily Charles was responding to his former sister in law. But.....using exactly the same sort of coded allusions to poetry---to Beattie's poem and to Hamlet's blank verse--that JA used a thousand times in her novels, JA made sure to memorialize, on paper, that very message for those who understood the Jane Austen Code, that she was not okay with the way Charles and Harriet were carrying on together, all the while that Charles was putting on the great show of grieving for his dead wife.

And then, in her very next novel, Persuasion, JA made sure to reiterate that theme, front and center, placing Benwick's hypocrisy right smack in the middle of the romantic climax of the novel--the scene at the White Hart Inn, when Benwick's inconstancy and hypocritical faux-grieving is set in the strongest possible contrast to the authentic constancy of the true lovers. She could not possibly have chosen a more prominent setting for this message---and we also happen to know that this was still her intent in July 1816, when she finished writing Persuasion, because we have the cancelled chapters, which do not mention Benwick's inconstancy at all!

This tells us that JA woke up one day in July 1816 a few days after thinking she was done writing Persuasion, and realized that she felt a strong compulsion to revisit Benwick's inconstancy, and fake grieving, in the most memorable way possible. The ending of Persuasion is in a very real sense, then, JA's literary swan song--so it tells you just how strongly she felt, during the last years of her own life and career, about Benwick's (and Charles Austen's) sins.

As I suggested, for JA, the greatest sin was hypocrisy---or, in the lingo of that great 20th century closet Janeite, J.D. Salinger---"phonies".

Cheers, ARNIE
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