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|Why Dick Musgrove? Why fat sighings?
Written by Rachel G
(10/11/2011 2:00 p.m.)
In previous posts I have expressed my distaste for JA's harsh treatment of Dick Musgrove and the apparent callousness of her jokes about Mrs Musgrove's grief and fat sighings. I have been wondering what her purpose was in writing about these as she did.
The story of 'Persuasion' is principally about Anne and, crucially, about her relationship with Captain Wentworth. Most of the rest is there to provide context and to illuminate and develop that central theme, including Dick M and his mother's fat sighings. There are two passages to consider - the "Poor Richard" paragraphs at the end of chapter six, and the "fat sighings" scene in chapter eight with Anne, Frederick, and Mrs M. on the sofa. I'll take them in order.
In the "Austen's Prose" thread I outlined JA's long slow build-up to the extraordinary intensity of Anne and Frederick's brief encounter at Uppercross. Each time FW is mentioned Anne's anxiety is ratcheted up a notch until by the time they actually come face to face she is quivering and humming with tension like a tightly wound wire. I believe the first purpose of Dick Musgrove in ch.6 is to contribute to this build-up with a sustained passage in which the Captain is repeatedly mentioned, and we learn that he will certainly be invited to Uppercross, thus piling the pressure on Anne.
The end of Ch.6 also gives us a glimpse of the Captain's life at sea: his responsibility for adolescent midshipmen, some of them useless; the sort of Captain who takes time to make even the useless ones attend to the schoolmaster and write letters home, but whom they still regard as a "fine dashing fellow".
Finally, the account of Dick Musgrove (troublesome, hopeless, stupid, unmanageable, thick-headed, unfeeling, unprofitable) is as it is because JA needs it to be that way in order to make the sofa scene in C.8 work. The description has to be very negative so that we fully understand why the 'real' Dick Musgrove was the sort of midshipman every Captain wishes to be rid of. It also needs to be a shockingly harsh account so that the facts of the case are lodged unforgettably in the reader's memory. We are being set up so that troublesome Dick comes vividly to mind the next time he is mentioned. If his description had been left until Ch.8 it would have been a clunky distraction from the smooth account of the evening in the drawing room at Uppercross.
The scene on the sofa has been discussed elsewhere. It's purposes are to illustrate the Captain's character and to show us how attuned to him Anne is. This pair have history together so she instantly understands what is behind the "momentary expression in Captain Wentworth's face .... a certain glance of his bright eye, and curl of his handsome mouth".
I think Dick Musgrove had to be a pain and a waste of space to heighten the comic dissonance between Mrs M's view of him and the Captains,and to provide the reason for the Captaim's momentary amusement. I now think that the "fat sighings" are meant to add a further layer of comic dissonance to the scene in the contrast between the stereotypical idea of fat people as always jolly and Mrs M's genuine sorrow. We know that the Captain is a wit, and doubtless he would be alive to the potential humour of that "unbcoming conjunction", just as he could surely be very witty indeed at Dick Musgrove's expense. But he does not, and instead we see his kindness and consideration.
I'm posting this at the top of the board because it brings together ideas from several earlier threads.
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