Reading Note:
Perfectly Interesting
2 October 2019

Captain Benwick had some time ago been first lieutenant of the Laconia; and the account which Captain Wentworth had given of him, on his return from Lyme before, his warm praise of him as an excellent young man and an officer whom he had always valued highly, which must have stamped him well in the esteem of every listener, had been followed by a little history of his private life, which rendered him perfectly interesting to the eyes of all the ladies. 

Captain Benwick’s “little history” turns out to be a politely ghoulish tale of love disconsummated by death, the death of Benwick’s fiancĂ©e. Somehow, “perfectly interesting” sounds a little ghoulish, too; the ears, if not the eyes, of all the ladies are moved by Wentworth’s claim that it would be “impossible for a man to be more attached to woman than poor Benwick had been to Fanny Harville, or be more deeply affected under the dreadful change.”  You can hear them sighing, all these centuries later, with an almost unseemly simulacrum of contentment.

Austen’s “perfectly interesting” is of course one of her tiny ironies, easily passed over by the dutiful reader; it is a demonstration of her faster-than-light eye-rolling. Did she just do that? It assures us that Austen, notwithstanding her warm regard for the milieu of well brought-up ladies, does not write fan fiction. 

Captain Benwick will almost scandalize Anne Elliot (with whom he flirts over poetry) when his affections shunt, with volcanic surprise, from Fanny Harville to Louisa Musgrove. Even Anne was “perfectly interested” there, for a moment. 

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