Thursday, 4 March 2010


The master of the ceremonies introduced to her  a very gentlemanlike young man as a partner; his name was Tilney. He seemed to be about four or five and twenty, was rather tall, had a pleasing countenance, a very intelligent and lively eye, and, if not quite handsome, was very near it. His address was good, and Catherine felt herself in high luck. (Chapter 3)

The male hero in Northanger Abbey is Henry Tilney, introduced by Jane Austen in chapter 3 with the words above.
Do you remember what I wrote about the male characters in Sense and Sensibility? In that novel the male characters are indefinite, colourless. Especially Brandon and Edward. Jane didn't pay much effort at painting them. Too few strokes. Well, Willoughby is different. She spends so many pages to make Elinor and all of us re-think our negative opinion of him. About 50 pages - the last ones - are clearly especially meant to get to that purpose! But what does darling (perverse?) Jane do after spending words and words to make us all understand Willoughby's reasons? She invites the reader not to believe he will leave the rest of his life in sorrow. And gives us a wink! I love perfidious Jane and ... Willoughby, of course.

What about Henry Tilney then?  He is a very well drawn character, one of the strongest among Jane Austen's heroes. We know much about him and his personality since he speaks his mind a lot in the novel, especially - if not exclusively- in his conversations with the young heroine.

He  comes to rescue Catherine,  like every sensitive brave hero in Gothic tales,  but not from a devilish villain , he saves her   from her imagination , inexperience and naivety which might have  led her to an uncertain dull future or to a very negative epilogue (similar to that of Isabella Thorpe).
The comparison with the gothic taste comes easily to my mind since it is the target of Austen masterful irony all through Northanger Abbey.

(cover blurb for the 1965 USA printing of Northanger Abbey
which was marketed as a gothic novel (rather than a gothic parody) from

(doesn't the Mr Tilney in the photos resemble the Regency portrait of a gentleman at the beginning of this post?

Now, let's try to know Henry Tilney from his own words

His attitude to women

“I should no more lay it down as a general rule that women write better letters than men, than that they sing better duets, or draw better landscapes. In every power, of which taste is the foundation, excellence is pretty fairly divided between the sexes.” Chapter  3

“Come, shall I make you understand each other, or leave you to puzzle out an explanation as you can? No – I will be noble. I will prove myself a man, no less by the generosity of my soul than the clearness of my head. I have no patience with such of my sex as disdain to let themselves sometimes down to the comprehension of yours.” Chapter 14

“Miss Morland, no one can think more highly of the understanding of women than I do. In my opinion, nature has given them so much that they never find it necessary to use more than half.” Chapter 14

“No man is offended by another man’s admiration of the woman he loves; it is the woman only who can make it a torment.” Chapter 19

“At any rate, however, I am pleased that you have learnt to love a hyacinth. The mere habit of learning to love is the thing; and a teachableness of disposition in a young lady is a great blessing.” Chapter 22

“The world, I believe, never saw a better woman. But it is not often that virtue can boast an interest such as this.” Chapter 24

His satire of gothic novels

Catherine Morland:

" must be so fond of the abbey! After being used to such a home as the abbey, an ordinary parsonage-house must be very disagreeable."

Henry Tilney:

He smiled, and said, "You have formed a very favourable idea of the abbey."

Catherine Morland:

"To be sure, I have. Is not it a fine old place, just like what one reads about?"

Henry Tilney:

"And are you prepared to encounter all the horrors that a building such as ``what one reads about'' may produce? -- Have you a stout heart? -- Nerves fit for sliding panels and tapestry?"

Catherine Morland:

"Oh! yes -- I do not think I should be easily frightened, because there would be so many people in the house -- and besides, it has never been uninhabited and left deserted for years, and then the family come back to it unawares, without giving any notice, as generally happens."

Henry Tilney:

"No, certainly. -- We shall not have to explore our way into a hall dimly lighted by the expiring embers of a wood fire -- nor be obliged to spread our beds on the floor of a room without windows, doors, or furniture. But you must be aware that when a young lady is (by whatever means) introduced into a dwelling of this kind, she is always lodged apart from the rest of the family. While they snugly repair to their own end of the house, she is formally conducted by Dorothy, the ancient housekeeper, up a different staircase, and along many gloomy passages, into an apartment never used since some cousin or kin died in it about twenty years before. Can you stand such a ceremony as this? Will not your mind misgive you when you find yourself in this gloomy chamber -- too lofty and extensive for you, with only the feeble rays of a single lamp to take in its size -- its walls hung with tapestry exhibiting figures as large as life, and the bed, of dark green stuff or purple velvet, presenting even a funereal appearance? Will not your heart sink within you?"

Catherine Morland:

"Oh! But this will not happen to me, I am sure."

Henry Tilney:

"How fearfully will you examine the furniture of your apartment! -- And what will you discern? -- Not tables, toilettes, wardrobes, or drawers, but on one side perhaps the remains of a broken lute, on the other a ponderous chest which no efforts can open, and over the fireplace the portrait of some handsome warrior, whose features will so incomprehensibly strike you, that you will not be able to withdraw your eyes from it. Dorothy, meanwhile, no less struck by your appearance, gazes on you in great agitation, and drops a few unintelligible hints. To raise your spirits, moreover, she gives you reason to suppose that the part of the abbey you inhabit is undoubtedly haunted, and informs you that you will not have a single domestic within call. With this parting cordial she curtsies off -- you listen to the sound of her receding footsteps as long as the last echo can reach you -- and when, with fainting spirits, you attempt to fasten your door, you discover, with increased alarm, that it has no lock."

Catherine Morland:

"Oh! Mr. Tilney, how frightful! -- This is just like a book! -- But it cannot really happen to me. I am sure your housekeeper is not really Dorothy. -- Well, what then?"

Henry Tilney:

"Nothing further to alarm perhaps may occur the first night. After surmounting your unconquerable horror of the bed, you will retire to rest, and get a few hours' unquiet slumber. But on the second, or at farthest the third night after your arrival, you will probably have a violent storm. Peals of thunder so loud as to seem to shake the edifice to its foundation will roll round the neighbouring mountains -- and during the frightful gusts of wind which accompany it, you will probably think you discern (for your lamp is not extinguished) one part of the hanging more violently agitated than the rest. Unable of course to repress your curiosity in so favourable a moment for indulging it, you will instantly arise, and throwing your dressing-gown around you, proceed to examine this mystery. After a very short search, you will discover a division in the tapestry so artfully constructed as to defy the minutest inspection, and on opening it, a door will immediately appear -- which door, being only secured by massy bars and a padlock, you will, after a few efforts, succeed in opening -- and, with your lamp in your hand, will pass through it into a small vaulted room."

Catherine Morland:

"No, indeed; I should be too much frightened to do any such thing."

Henry Tilney:

"What! Not when Dorothy has given you to understand that there is a secret subterraneous communication between your apartment and the chapel of St. Anthony, scarcely two miles off? Could you shrink from so simple an adventure? No, no, you will proceed into this small vaulted room, and through this into several others, without perceiving anything very remarkable in either. In one perhaps there may be a dagger, in another a few drops of blood, and in a third the remains of some instrument of torture; but there being nothing in all this out of the common way, and your lamp being nearly exhausted, you will return towards your own apartment. In repassing through the small vaulted room, however, your eyes will be attracted towards a large, old-fashioned cabinet of ebony and gold, which, though narrowly examining the furniture before, you had passed unnoticed. Impelled by an irresistible presentiment, you will eagerly advance to it, unlock its folding doors, and search into every drawer; -- but for some time without discovering anything of importance -- perhaps nothing but a considerable hoard of diamonds. At last, however, by touching a secret spring, an inner compartment will open -- a roll of paper appears: you seize it -- it contains many sheets of manuscript -- you hasten with the precious treasure into your own chamber, but scarcely have you been able to decipher ``Oh! Thou -- whomsoever thou mayst be -- into whose hands these memoirs of the wretched Matilda may fall'' -- when your lamp suddenly expires in the socket, and leaves you in total darkness."

Catherine Morland:

"Oh! no, no -- do not say so. Well, go on."

But Henry was too much amused by the interest he had raised to be able to carry it farther; he could no longer command solemnity either of subject or voice, and was obliged to entreat her to use her own fancy in the perusal of Matilda's woes. Catherine, recollecting herself, grew ashamed of her eagerness, and began earnestly to assure him that her attention had been fixed without the smallest apprehension of really meeting with what he related. "Miss Tilney, she was sure, would never put her into such a chamber as he had described! -- She was not at all afraid." (chapter 20)

In chapter 14, he himself had admitted he had read THE MYSTERIES OF UDOLPHO by Mrs Radcliffe for his own pleasure (go and read the passage HERE )


In Northanger Abbey, the fact that Henry Tilney is in that profession seems, at first to be - as for  Edward Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility - very casually introduced: he is "a clergyman, and of a very respectable family in Gloucestershire", but his dancing, his teasing of Catherine, his appearance, are much more important. But Henry defies conventions, worldly ambition and his father's anger to marry Catherine and is in this sense, a very satisfyingly romantic hero. It is noticeable that his sense of duty towards his parish is firm: he makes a point of being in residence for "the parish meeting" and for the Sunday services. Somehow these touches of attention to duty seem to point forward to the Henry who can come to an "open and bold" breach with his father for Catherine's sake, can part from him in "dreadful disagreement" and can act with "reason ... conscience ... justice ... honour ... fidelity". Powerful language, indeed! Is there about Henry Tilney a suggestion of a maturity, even at 26, which has something to do with the beliefs he quietly professes? Finally, in the scene where he opens Catherine's ideas to "the extravagances of her late fancies", and in her reflections following it, does not Henry speak with a wisdom, a sanity, a tender loving patience that is not afraid to mention, clearly and simply and without embarrassment, religious faith:

"Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? "Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians ... Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?"


Henry Tilney, of course, would have a hard task at competing with Mr Darcy or Captain Wentworth in a which- is- your -ideal -Austen- hero.
Anyway, I think he has always been underestimated. He is a brilliant young man:  he is fond of   reading (even novels!) and is both intelligent and understanding, he also has a wonderful sense of humor . Last but not least,  he is handsome and  loyal, brave enough to defy conventions and parental proscriptions.

"Perfidious Jane" has not been so terrible to the male universe this time, hasn't she? Have you ever considered Henry Tilney as your ideal Austen hero? Why? why not?

Sources and references


Katherine said...

I love Henry Tilney's sense of humor! He is, indeed, often overlooked as is Northanger Abbey. Thank you for the post!

My favorite heroes are:
1. Mr. Knightley
2. Captain Wentworth
3. Henry Tilney

Anonymous said...

Tilney is one of my favourite Austen heroes. The first is Darcy, but Tilney and Knightley are fighting for the second place on my regard...

Kris said...

I love Tilney! He is and always will be one of my favourites. He is just so much more normal... not arrogant at all. he is intelligent, funny and stable. In the movie, he is very handsome too, so that was an added bonus :)


The Lady Enchantress said...

Thank you for this post! I love Tilney best of all the Austen heroes, and I agree he's a liitle underappreciated compared to the likes of Darcy.