As a lowly lieutenant Benwick is ambitious, keen to make some money and gain promotion in order for to marry his sweetheart, Fanny Harville. While at sea, Benwick learns of Fanny’s death.
‘Oh, shall we really be married at last?’
‘My darling Fanny, we will, I promise. Just a few more adventures at sea, and we shall have all the prize money we need in order to wed.’
‘But it is so long to wait, my love. It will be such a long engagement.’
‘Another twelve months will soon fly by, at the worst I shall be at sea for another two years, but I swear to you it will be worth the delay to our plans. I will have both promotion and fortune for all my endeavours. Fanny, by the time I’m finished I will shower you in gold coins!’
Nevertheless, he saw her shoulders droop for a moment, her dark hair falling in tendrils on the nape of her neck, accentuating the delicate bones and her creamy skin. He couldn’t bear to see her unhappy and turned her face towards his, only to see the tears misted in her eyes.
‘Time will soon pass, little Fanny, and then you shall have everything you desire.’
‘But I wish only for you; I do not require riches, you must know that.’
‘You mean to tell me you do not wish to be married to Captain Benwick? You do not wish for a barouche of your own and a house in town? What can you mean, Miss Harville?’
‘Of course, I should love to see you promoted, but I do not require material wealth, carriages or grand houses. I am very happy with plain old Lieutenant Benwick without a penny to his name, I assure you.’
‘Less of the old, if you please,’ he said with a laugh, taking her in his strong arms, and picking her up, Fanny’s slender frame easily engulfed by his broad figure. She was as light as a feather, he thought, like a beautiful wraith to his romantic imagination and he whirled her round until she laughed with sheer joy at the prospect of an exciting future with her handsome sailor.
Lieutenant Benwick recalled his conversation with Fanny Harville, the love of his life, and wept. Too late, it was all too late. When Frederick Wentworth had broken the news to him that very morning, he’d been in utter shock and disbelief, the terrible truth uttered in a few words which would change his life forever. Fanny was dead, gone in a moment. A sudden illness, raging into a putrid fever had taken her away from him forever. His eyes brimmed with tears, and he let them spill over his cheeks.
Just a few weeks ago, whilst at the Cape, Benwick had had his miniature painted, a present for Fanny at her request. He took the portrait out of its careful wrappings, and looked at a smiling young man with every hope for the future knowing that the woman he loved was waiting for him whilst his zest for hard work fuelled his ambitions. Promotion was within his grasp, but it all meant nothing now, he realised, without the woman he loved at his side. If only he’d listened to her. They could have been married, and she might have been here with him on this very vessel. Money and position had taken precedence and he couldn’t be more sorry for it.
It was incredible how the mind played tricks when at sea. Floating in the inky darkness, the swell of the sea rising and falling, Lieutenant Benwick was lulled into a world of memories every night only to wake sharply in the early light, drenched in sweat and bewildered by his anxious visions. His dreams were sometimes so vivid that he felt he could reach out in his narrow bed and touch sweet Miss Harville, her neat figure dressed in gauzy muslin, lavender perfume warm and fragrant on her skin, and so evocative, he awoke with her scent in his nostrils, thinking she was in the room. Was it just a coincidence that last night he’d woken thinking she called his name. He heard it three times, so clear, her voice like silver chimes or had he fooled himself as the ship’s bell rang. He could not bear to recall it; he did not want to believe her death was real, that he would never again see her in this world.
She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes:
Thus mellow’d to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.
Surely Byron had his beautiful girl in mind when he penned this poem, he thought, recalling how they’d read it together, Fanny blushing when Benwick coiled a raven curl round his finger as he whispered the words.
One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impair’d the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress,
Or softly lightens o’er her face;
Where thoughts serenely sweet express
How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.
And on that cheek, and o’er that brow,
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
But tell of days in goodness spent,
A mind at peace with all below,
A heart whose love is innocent!
‘We should have been married,’ he shouted into the empty stillness. ‘Oh, Fanny, if I could turn back the hands of time, there would be no hesitation, no postponement.’
What he would give to whisper again in her ear, to tell her of his love, and to place the gold ring he’d purchased at the Cape for their nuptials on her finger.
A sad tale this week, I’m afraid. Jane Austen only writes briefly of Benwick’s first love, but from her writing it seems he was a sensitive soul with a love of poetry. Jane mentions poetry by Sir Walter Scott, and Byron in Persuasion – the ‘romantic’ era was flourishing, and many of Britain’s greatest poets were writing at this time. I could imagine Benwick and Fanny reading some of Byron’s poems together and could not resist using, ‘She Walks in Beauty like the Night’.
I’ve included portraits of Charles Austen and his first wife, whose name was Fanny. Jane sent Charles a copy of ‘Marmion’ by Sir Walter Scott, whilst he was in Bermuda. She mentions this poem in Persuasion when Benwick meets Anne at a later point in the story. Amongst Benwick’s other favourites are ‘Lord Byron’s “dark blue seas”.
This is from the first line of The Corsair:
O’er the glad waters of the dark blue sea,
Our thoughts as boundless, and our souls as free,
Far as the breeze can bear, the billows foam,
Survey our empire, and behold our home!
These are our realms, no limits to their sway-
I hope you enjoyed the above!