One of the longest discussions Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth have in Persuasion actually concerns another couple, Louisa Musgrove and James Benwick. In this electrifying tête-à-tête at the concert in Bath, Captain Wentworth seems to offer a counter to Anne’s earlier, more positive assessment of the pair’s chance for happiness. Since Austen never shows us the future of the young Benwicks (who, like the other married couples in the novel, are foils for Anne and Wentworth), we as readers have only these predictions as guides. Here Austen is doing two things she very often does in regard to the futures of her married couples at the close of a novel: she has others within the narrative predict the characters’ chances of prosperity and contentment, and she places the readers in the position of judge, to be guided, I think, by her instruction in producing a more refined or accurate prophecy by assessing the prophets themselves.
Aside from testing judgment, there can be no other motive for presenting the reader with the two differing opinions of her heroine and hero. The reader’s judgment is engaged in regard to Louisa and Benwick, but also in regard to our protagonist and her future husband. Anne or Wentworth, who is right? I would argue that coming to a conclusion produces a mimesis of Austen’s ideal of marriage, as we balance both and see what is accurate and reliable in both prophecies. Anne is too sanguine, perhaps, but Frederick, only just learning that there may be reason to doubt the sincerity of Benwick’s claim to lasting grief, may also be too alarmist. As in the case of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet’s predictions about Jane and Mr. Bingley, and the Westons’ and Mr. Knightley’s about Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill, the truth lies in between. We must care what happens to Louisa and Benwick because Austen shows the main couple doing so. Their prophecies show what they value and their own attitudes about the marriage bond’s resilience under the tension of the divisive power of individual differences.
Anne says very little in the conversation at the concert; she is mostly absorbed in interpreting how Frederick feels about her, the primary reason that what he says about Benwick and Louisa is important. These additions to the material of the story advance us toward the reunion of the heroine and hero. “With a little smile, a little glow,” upset at the recollection of Louisa’s fall and then “half smiling again,” Frederick brings up the topic of Louisa and Benwick: “‘The day . . . has had some consequences which must be considered as the very reverse of frightful.—When you had the presence of mind to suggest that Benwick would be the properest person to fetch a surgeon, you could have little idea of his being eventually one of those most concerned in her recovery’” (198). Anne’s reply is that of a well-wisher with nothing but good to say: “‘I should hope it would be a very happy match. There are on both sides good principles and good temper.’” The reader is asked to assess Anne’s statement because Frederick’s agreement is only partial:
“Yes,” said he, looking not exactly forward—“but there I think ends the resemblance. With all my soul I wish them happy, and rejoice over every circumstance in favour of it. They have no difficulties to contend with at home, no opposition, no caprice, no delays.—The Musgroves are behaving like themselves, most honourably and kindly, only anxious with true parental hearts to promote their daughter's comfort. All this is much, very much in favour of their happiness; more than perhaps—” (198)
The first count on which Frederick separates himself from Anne is in fact part of his agreement with her. He concurs that Louisa and Benwick do not have difficult personalities and are virtuous. Anne, however, has not brought up the family’s reaction to Louisa’s engagement. To him, thwarted in his early suit by Sir Walter’s cold reception and Lady Russell’s advice against him, this point is salient in advancing the young couple’s chances. From his point of view, rapid and heartfelt consent from the parents is also a considerable advantage.
But he struggles to show Anne his interest in her and has to stop himself from saying more because what he is about to add is no doubt a reflection on their own encounter with difficulty. Anne blushes, and Wentworth too has an emotional pause before he can continue with his view of the problems that might beset the Benwicks’ relationship:
“I confess that I do think there is a disparity, too great a disparity, and in a point no less essential than mind.—I regard Louisa Musgrove as a very amiable, sweet-tempered girl, and not deficient in understanding; but Benwick is something more. He is a clever man, a reading man—and I confess that I do consider his attaching himself to her, with some surprise.” (198–99)
Even if his bafflement is tempered by relief, Wentworth is deeply troubled in a way Anne was not when she received the first news of the engagement in Mary’s letter. The injection of this warning voice after Anne has painted a rosy picture of the Benwicks’ future happiness is worth heeding.
Wentworth speaks so intimately in this conversation that the reader all of a sudden realizes just how close the two were eight-and-a-half years ago. The reader also realizes he is not ashamed at all to discuss Louisa in front of Anne, as he coolly assesses her character in a most un-lover-like way. His detachment from Louisa conveys a great deal. The speech must mean many things to Anne: she is in his confidence, and he clearly thinks they can discuss such things as what attracts a man to a woman; he does not love Louisa; he is disappointed in Benwick. The list goes on. Frederick is perplexed and troubled but not condemnatory. His speech, however, starts from a presumption that equality, or parity, should exist between spouses, an equality he estimates the pair cannot boast: “‘I confess that I do think there is a disparity, too great a disparity, and in a point no less essential than mind’” (198). As others have observed, Austen often uses the word “mind” to mean the whole person, the heart and soul, not just the intellect (Ryle 98–99): this word operates as a red alert.
Perhaps more astonishingly, as Frederick continues confessing his doubts to Anne, he disparages a spontaneous love, sprung from no sense of the woman’s attraction to the man:
“I confess that I do consider his attaching himself to her, with some surprise. Had it been the effect of gratitude, had he learnt to love her, because he believed her to be preferring him, it would have been another thing. But I have no reason to suppose it so. It seems, on the contrary, to have been a perfectly spontaneous, untaught feeling on his side, and this surprises me. A man like him, in his situation! With a heart pierced, wounded, almost broken! Fanny Harville was a very superior creature; and his attachment to her was indeed attachment. A man does not recover from such a devotion of the heart to such a woman!—He ought not—he does not.” (199)
There is only one conclusion to be reached by this reasoning: Benwick is not a man. He has recovered.
The speech begins with lengthy clauses, even with subordination. But it devolves into briefer, staccato exclamations, punctuated with dental consonants that ring out decision and scorn, perhaps shock: “heart,” “pierced,” “wounded,” “almost,” “does not,” “devotion,” “heart,” “to,” “ought not,” “does not.” Wentworth is the master of short, impassioned sentences (“‘You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope’” [257–58]). “He ought not—he does not” could not be shorter or more powerful, and yet it is richly polyvalent. “A man” was Benwick, any man, at the beginning of the paragraph, and by the end of the paragraph, it’s clear, including to Anne, that “a man” is Wentworth. Benwick’s close friend gives the most decidedly negative account of his unfaithfulness, more influential than Mary Musgrove’s, because he speaks from the point of view of a person who has remained constant even in spite of himself. This is what a man is: constant even past the brink of death.
Jocelyn Harris has described Benwick as fickle (183). Her view agrees with Wentworth’s, who seems to find the spontaneity of Benwick’s affection the biggest strike against it. Austen’s most passionate lover is the one who sees “untaught feeling” as most troubling. He could accept the relationship with greater equanimity and confidence if Benwick were responding to Louisa’s interest in him. The fact that Benwick himself seemed to initiate the romantic overtures so soon after Fanny’s death makes him think for the first time that he does not know his friend as well as he thought. Harris’s discussion of Benwick’s dramatized emotion, comparing it to Mrs. Musgrove’s over the loss of her worthless son, is apropos here, for Wentworth is perhaps coming to the realization that Benwick is not sincere and is not the feeling, heartbroken man he took him to be. And Wentworth is the man who curled his “handsome mouth” in scorn at Mrs. Musgrove’s laments for the worthless Dick (73). Wentworth, like Anne, is not dealing at all with disappointed expectations of the romantic kind. He is re-evaluating his friend in the light of his choice of a mate. Austen shows us Wentworth awaking to the possibility of weakness in what he thought was a firm and upright character. That awakening has some claim on our attention since Anne’s knowledge of Benwick is not shaken, but confirmed. She thought him “not inconsolable” (181), but Wentworth thought him like himself. On the surface, that seems to be true: each values Anne; each flirts with Louisa. But below the surface, they could not be more unlike: Benwick wants consolation and an understanding ear. Any nice girl could provide that. Wentworth wants “only Anne.”
Anne has provoked this confidence—their longest conversation to date—by the simple observation, “‘There are on both sides good principles and good temper.’” He agrees with this assertion, and thus whatever hope we have for them from Anne’s earlier reverie remains. What has Anne thought up to this point, and has she taken into account the disparity in their minds and the problem of fickleness? Anne’s power as charitable and candid judge is such that it is possible to read this passage as the author’s confirmation of the couple’s future, and not as Anne’s rationalization, though Austen leaves both options open:
Captain Benwick and Louisa Musgrove! The high-spirited, joyous talking Louisa Musgrove, and the dejected, thinking, feeling, reading Captain Benwick, seemed each of them every thing that would not suit the other. Their minds most dissimilar! Where could have been the attraction? (181)
Looking back at Anne’s earlier thoughts, the reader is struck by her first astonishment caused by the dissimilarity of Louisa and James Benwick’s “minds.” Talking and high spirits are too different from thinking, reading, and low spirits for Anne to accept that either could have been attracted to the other.
Austen’s strategy in developing Anne’s interior monologue, or the heavily colored narrative, is interesting. Whereas Anne and Frederick agree on salient points, he thinks of his own disappointment and the influence of family; she thinks of the propitious situation of the two young people, constantly in proximity after Louisa’s injury, which has made her, too, a guest at the Harvilles’:
The answer soon presented itself. It had been in situation. . . . [S]ince Henrietta’s coming away, they must have been depending almost entirely on each other, and Louisa, just recovering from illness, had been in an interesting state, and Captain Benwick was not inconsolable. That was a point which Anne had not been able to avoid suspecting before; and . . . [it] served only to confirm the idea of his having felt some dawning of tenderness toward herself. She did not mean, however, to derive much more from it to gratify her vanity, than Mary might have allowed. She was persuaded that any tolerably pleasing young woman who had listened and seemed to feel for him, would have received the same compliment. He had an affectionate heart. He must love somebody. (181)
Anne begins with as much surprise and shock as anybody at the idea of Louisa and Benwick yoked for life. Her meditation centers on Benwick, not Louisa, and, unlike Captain Wentworth, she is unsurprised by his actions. Natasha Duquette has written of Anne’s sympathetic understanding of Benwick’s “compassionate sensibility” (105, 108). Anne has also noted, however, that Benwick is not “inconsolable”: his seeking consolation has opened him up to finding it. An affectionate heart in this case seems a good thing: “He must love somebody.” Anne’s final two sentences in this paragraph are worth noting. They are declarative, and their substance is affection and love. Benwick strikes her as being loving, not selfish. She believes his love only requires an object.
And thus she convinces herself that the two will certainly be happy together:
She saw no reason against their being happy. Louisa had fine naval fervour to begin with, and they would soon grow more alike. He would gain cheerfulness; and she would learn to be an enthusiast for Scott and Lord Byron; nay, that was probably learnt already; of course they had fallen in love over poetry. The idea of Louisa Musgrove turned into a person of literary taste, and sentimental reflection, was amusing, but she had no doubt of its being so. The day at Lyme, the fall from the Cobb, might influence her health, her nerves, her courage, her character to the end of her life, as thoroughly as it appeared to have influenced her fate. (181–82, italics mine)
Anne makes excuses for Benwick and invents a new Louisa, different from the one we know from the previous chapters. Although Benwick might have fallen in love with a very different Louisa from the one both Anne and Wentworth describe, the narrator does not confirm Anne’s fanciful imagination of how the decision to marry was arrived at: “she had no doubt”; “The day at Lyme . . . might influence her . . . character to the end of her life,” Anne forcefully guesses and then muses in the conditional (italics mine). But such a guess at what might have happened and such a prophecy of what their future would be is all the reader gets, aside from Mary’s ominous observations.
Why would Austen couch the fate of Benwick and Louisa in such dubious grammatical terms? Anne is not represented as an unrealistic dreamer in the novel, and here she is just a candid and generous woman who doesn’t envy Benwick’s choice. Anne seems to imagine a companionate marriage but one perhaps more along the lines of the ideal of the time, where the woman is helpmate and support. Although she does not imagine herself being guided and educated by Wentworth in this way, she is willing to see a weaker woman improved by a more intelligent mate. Frederick does not think of the disparities between Louisa and Benwick in this way, but Anne’s words retain a good deal of their power over the reader’s imagination. I believe we remember them as confident predictions rather than as conditional musings.
Anne finishes her assessment with the following free indirect discourse: “ The conclusion of the whole was, that if the woman who had been sensible of Captain Wentworth’s merits could be allowed to prefer another man, there was nothing in the engagement to excite lasting wonder” (182). Anne’s problem is with the first premise, but that of course is the ironic or comedic point Austen inserts here. A woman who appreciated Wentworth prefers Benwick—and she is perfectly at liberty to choose; she did not know when she made her choice that Wentworth did not want her! Anne is so uncomprehending of such a wonder, nothing else surprises her. Frederick does not approach the problem from this perspective. He does not care at all that Louisa has switched allegiances from him to his friend.
Louisa’s general admiration of the navy perhaps makes some sense of her transferring her affections to someone who is inferior to Captain Wentworth, in Anne’s view. Moreover, Austen never invites us to imagine Louisa’s youthful fishing for an admirer as an undying love for Wentworth in the first place. The relationship between the two seems to consist of showing off and flirting and in a use of Louisa by Frederick as a sort of medieval troubadour’s screen lady to obscure from himself as well as onlookers his true continued devotion to Anne. His private conversation with Louisa on the long walk before the trip to Lyme, which Louisa probably interprets as growing intimacy between them, concerns Anne almost exclusively. Louisa, we feel, would show off to any eligible bachelor in her quest for a husband, but she has the potential, with her parents’ good example and the sobering effects of her accident, as Anne imagines, to be satisfied with one man.
Austen features another couple as prophetic of the Benwicks’ future: Charles and Mary Musgrove. Charles, who is Louisa’s older brother, after all, and has known her all her life, says she is altered by the accident, telling Anne that she is “‘very much recovered; but she is altered: there is no running or jumping about, no laughing or dancing; it is quite different. If one happens only to shut the door a little hard, she starts and wriggles like a young dab chick in the water; and Benwick sits at her elbow, reading verses, or whispering to her, all day long’” (237). Anne laughs at Charles’s description, but that does not mean Charles is wrong. He has some authority as an observer in this novel, though he loses a portion of it—and we are thankful that he does—when he is blinded by the allure of a gun and hands Anne off to Wentworth in the climactic chapter. Nonetheless, he is the observant young man who wanted Anne, not Mary, when he first went wooing and who detected Captain Benwick’s penchant for Anne when the jealous Wentworth did not, an observation that Mary mocks in the letter that reveals his proposal to Louisa.
Mary, for her part, says, “‘Miss Harville only died last June. Such a heart is very little worth having’” (142). We might be tempted to dismiss Mary’s opinion because of her often annoying and invariably selfish behavior, but her opinion resonates later with Frederick’s doubts. Since her own husband married her within a year of having asked Anne to marry him, we can perhaps guess what standard Mary has in mind. Mr. Elliot has also not been a widower for even a year upon his courtship of Anne and his affair with Mrs. Clay. As for Benwick, Fanny Harville died in June 1813, but he does not know of it till August 1814. Three months later, Benwick meets Anne and the Musgroves on their visit to Lyme; by the end of January, he has proposed to Louisa. By February 21st, Frederick and Anne are discussing the engagement at Lady Dalrymple’s sponsored concert.1 So about five months after he learns of his beloved’s death, Benwick has been attracted to two vastly different young ladies and promised to marry the second, younger one, the one who by all accounts cannot compete with his dead fiancée’s excellence or come up to his own intellectual level. We do not have to be like the early Christian author Tertullian and condemn all second marriages (or in this case, engagements) to be troubled by what they imply.
A suspicion that inconstant affections have led to such a rapid set of changes, affections not anchored by a steadfast heart, of course leads the reader to suspect as well that marriage itself might not be enough to keep the spouse from wandering. Only one man in the novel appears to be preparing to be guilty of something so bad as adultery, however, and that is William Elliot. If he intends to marry Anne and keep Mrs. Clay away from Sir Walter by installing her as his mistress in London, he intends to be untrue to his marriage vows once taken. Austen does not imply even in Captain Wentworth’s darker view of him that Captain Benwick is going to be untrue in this way; we can imagine him to be much higher on the scale of marriageable men from the narrator’s perspective. Though marrying William Elliot would make Anne mistress of Kellynch, marriage to the poetry-quoting Benwick seems in Austen’s eyes to be a much preferable fate. If Wentworth had not come back to Anne, if Louisa had not fallen, and if he had had to marry her out of duty, might Anne and Benwick not have been thrown together a good deal? Benwick would certainly be in love with her; he is already well on his way. But the reader is certain Anne would never care for him. Her heart belongs to Wentworth exclusively.
Austen often seems to encourage us to rank her couples at the end of the novel, with those who barely tolerate each other like Mr. and Mrs. Bennet or Charlotte and Mr. Palmer near the bottom (the absolute nadir, an infernal circle occupied by the divorced Rushworths and the adulterous Admiral Crawford) and those who have companionate marriages near or at the top, such as the Crofts and the Gardiners. The heroines’ marriages fall in that upper realm, with their blending of romance, esteem, and common love of what is right. Anne’s guess about Louisa and Benwick sails us near to this territory of good-hearted and intelligent people, for we know their story is romantic and their personalities set on pleasing: we hear from Charles how eagerly Benwick reads poetry to the prostrate Louisa,2 and we know from Anne how cheerful Louisa’s disposition is. Louisa’s little imperfections and Captain Benwick’s perhaps partly dramatized suffering strike Frederick as not what he would want for himself—or what he would want to be himself—as he speaks with Anne in the Octagon room. But he agrees that the two young people have good principles.
Anne and Frederick do not argue about their views of this secondary couple whose coming together is the deus ex machina that permits their own final reunion. After Frederick speaks, Anne has no more time to think about the two who have provided the literal level of their conversation, for she is swept away by the moral and anagogical meanings! Responding even before he does to the clear applicatio to their own situation, Anne’s cheeks are red, and her confusion turns into delight. They forget Louisa and Benwick, and so do the readers. Something more important is afoot.
If we evaluate the predictions of all the speakers on the subject in the novel, we cannot lodge Louisa and her sailor-rhapsode in the pantheon of Austen marriages we all envy, no matter how sunny Anne’s outlook, for there stands Captain Wentworth’s growing realization that Benwick, for all his gloominess and protestations, does not have the constant heart his friends assumed he did. Right before Frederick’s proposal, Austen allows our beloved Captain Harville to say of his sister, “‘she would not have forgotten him so soon’” (252). The departed Fanny would have been more like Anne or Wentworth and would have found it hard if not impossible to dislodge the image of her beloved from her heart. As marriages in Austen novels go, Louisa Musgrove and James Benwick are probably going to be happier than the Collinses and Charles and Mary Musgrove, and happier far than the Bennets and Anne Elliot’s poor mother. The reader, who has no other means of knowing, relies on Anne’s optimism and acknowledges Captain Wentworth’s concerned good wishes in coming to this conclusion. But the Benwicks will never be as happy as Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth, whose future happiness, the narrator tells us, is assured. Whereas Louisa and Benwick are all but forgotten in the concluding chapters of the novel, we follow Anne and Frederick to a quiet walk
where the power of conversation would make the present hour a blessing indeed; and prepare it for all the immortality which the happiest recollections of their own future lives could bestow. . . . There they returned again into the past, more exquisitely happy, perhaps, in their reunion, than when it had been first projected; more tender, more tried, more fixed in a knowledge of each other’s character, truth, and attachment; more equal to act, more justified in acting. (261)
Such delight and such assurance are the reward Austen gives only to the couple who cannot be consoled when “‘hope is gone’” (256)
2I wonder if, in joining the two while Louisa is bed-ridden after her coma, Austen has not created a “deathbed” scene for Benwick’s benefit. He was never able to see Fanny before her death. In such a reading, Louisa would be a kind of substitute for Fanny in a way Anne Elliot could not be. It is interesting that she is referred to (along with the fainting Henrietta) as a “dead young lady” after the fall at the Cobb (120). If Austen were thinking in this way, Louisa became the perfect match for Benwick because of her injury.