Thursday, 28 April 2016

Jane Austen's Charles and Mary Musgrove

The brilliance of Jane Austen's depiction of a particular marriage in Persuasion should not be overlooked. The marriage of Charles and Mary Musgrove has a little in common with the marriage of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, especially in the scene in Bath where Charles teases his wife by insisting that he intends to go to the theatre on the evening when she eagerly looks forward to accepting her sister's invitation to meet Mr. Elliot and Lady Dalrymple. It is reminiscent of Bennet's feigned intention of not visiting Mr. Bingley.

Charles Musgrove is a delightful creation. He is not very bright and his life consists mainly of simple, self-centred pleasures, notably those afforded by guns; but he is warm-hearted and can admire the qualities in people quite unlike himself.

One can feel a little sympathy for Mary because she is such an unhappy person with some reason. Mary Musgrove is about 23 years old. She was about 10 when her mother died and never handsome in a family where beauty mattered. Lady Russell prefers Anne to herself. Since Elizabeth never married, Mary would never have been able to enter a wider society. At about 19, she married a man who preferred her sister, and into a family where the members were blindly partial to one another and would always view her as an outsider and a second choice.

She has sensed doubts about other people's acceptance of her in part because she is not a first object to anyone. It is understandable that a young woman brought up with so little affection might think herself ill-used when surrounded by evidence of it in a family where she can never fully share it, and where another would have been clearly preferred. It is easy to consider the incredible folly of Mary Musgrove as a character, but her circumstances are pitiable, the more so because her options and resources are so much more limited than Anne's.

The party are in Lyme in November. The sea is cold on that part of the English coast at the time. However, Mary goes sea-bathing. She also visits Charmouth.

Jane Austen shows how useless Mary is as a 'nurse', compared with what Anne would have been. While her sister-in-law lies seriously ill, supposedly nursed by her, Mary goes out enjoying herself. Jane Austen writes, that, during her stay in Lyme, Mary 'found more to enjoy than to suffer'.

Mary's sea-bathing is probably part of her pose as an invalid. It probably involved being taken into the sea at an early hour in a bathing-machine and then being rapidly but briefly immersed in the cold water. This was a fashionable therapy at the time and, as such, would have appealed to her.

Here is a delightful example of Mary Musgrove's hypocrisy. In her letter to Anne (Chapter 18) she comments that "Mrs. Harville must be an odd mother to part with [her children] so long. I do not understand it." Later, we hear, "I can leave [my children] at the Great House very well, for a month or six weeks." 

By the way, Jane Austen slips a private joke into their story. Mary married Charles Musgrove on Dec. 16, 1810, which was of course Jane Austen's 35th birthday.