I was hoping Margaret C. Sullivan would write about Henry Tilney for my blog series celebrating 200 years of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, and I’m delighted that she said yes. Maggie is the author of The Jane Austen Handbook and Jane Austen Cover to Cover and she has contributed to the anthologies Jane Austen Made Me Do It and The Joy of Jane. For my blog series “Emma in the Snow” she wrote about “Miss Bates in Fairy-land,” and for my Mansfield Park series she analyzed “The Manipulations of Henry and Mary Crawford.”
She is the Editrix of AustenBlog.com and the creator of Mollands.net. She spends her days as the web content manager for a large international law firm and her evenings “watching ‘base ball’ and thinking up adventures for Henry and Catherine that I swear I will write someday.”
Thank you to Sarah for her invitation to participate in this online event, and the opportunity to discuss my favorite Jane Austen character, and even defend him against what I consider to be mistaken impressions. (And we always want to guard against first, ill-considered impressions, don’t we, Janeites?)
There is a persistent idea that I often hear and read about Henry Tilney: that he lectures Catherine Morland, that he is condescending to her, even in some more extreme statements that he is an example of toxic masculinity. This of course is nonsense; nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, Henry empowers Catherine to learn to trust her own very good instincts. He sees the generosity and goodness of her heart early on. In fact, I think that is what makes him fall in love with her, along with, as the Authoress herself points out, that Catherine so obviously likes him, but that is a subject for another essay.
I know that many reading this, knowing me as the internet’s premier defender of Da Man (as I named Henry Tilney many years ago, because HE IS DA MAN), are rolling their eyes and saying, “There goes Mags off about Tilney again.” There is, perhaps, a suspicion that I might be a trifle biased. But I have thought about this subject, paraphrasing another Austen hero, more than most women, and I have no reason to reverse my original position on Mr. Tilney. He is Jane Austen’s wittiest, most intelligent, best-read, and most delightful hero, and he is entirely sympathetic to women. He is a wonderful brother, and I think will be a wonderful husband, too. Much of the expression of my Tilney-love online might be a trifle tongue-in-cheek, but my sincere admiration for Henry Tilney that started on my first read of Northanger Abbey has continued to this day more than twenty years later. (And I didn’t admire Catherine Morland at all at first—I thought the delightful Henry could do so much better—but I’ve come to love her as Henry himself has, by seeing her through his eyes.)
As an example of this widespread misunderstanding about Henry Tilney, I’d like to discuss the scene in which Henry encounters Catherine exiting his mother’s room at Northanger Abbey, which happens in Volume 2, Chapter 9.
Many interpretations of this scene portray Henry as angry and hectoring. The film versions of the novel may lead to this perception. In the 1980s BBC version, Henry (Peter Firth) enters his mother’s room waving a riding crop and pointing at Catherine (Katharine Schlesinger) with it. As he says his lines, he advances on Catherine menacingly, nearly whispering his lines, backing her up; the camera is often on an extreme close-up of his face, his eyes wide, making him look a little scary.
In the more recent version from 2007, Henry (JJ Feild) also advances menacingly on Catherine (Felicity Jones), his mood ranging between anger and disbelief and back to anger again. For some of his lines, the point of view originates from behind Catherine, below her left ear, pointing up at Henry and making him seem taller and more menacing. In both cases, Henry is portrayed as a hovering, dangerous, dare I say Montonian, presence.
But I don’t see the scene that way. Let’s examine it. (Pray forgive the long passages—Jane Austen’s words convey the scenes better than any paraphrase.)
As soon as she enters the late Mrs. Tilney’s room, Catherine knows that her Gothic novel-fueled runaway imagination has steered her wrongly.
On tiptoe she entered; the room was before her; but it was some minutes before she could advance another step. She beheld what fixed her to the spot and agitated every feature.—She saw a large, well-proportioned apartment, an handsome dimity bed, arranged as unoccupied with an housemaid’s care, a bright Bath stove, mahogany wardrobes and neatly-painted chairs, on which the warm beams of a western sun gaily poured through two sash windows! Catherine had expected to have her feelings worked, and worked they were. Astonishment and doubt first seized them; and a shortly succeeding ray of common sense added some bitter emotions of shame. She could not be mistaken as to the room; but how grossly mistaken in everything else! … She was sick of exploring, and desired but to be safe in her own room, with her own heart only privy to its folly; and she was on the point of retreating as softly as she had entered, when the sound of footsteps, she could hardly tell where, made her pause and tremble. To be found there, even by a servant, would be unpleasant; but by the General, (and he seemed always at hand when least wanted,) much worse!—She listened—the sound had ceased; and resolving not to lose a moment, she passed through and closed the door. At that instant a door underneath was hastily opened; some one seemed with swift steps to ascend the stairs, by the head of which she had yet to pass before she could gain the gallery. She had no power to move. With a feeling of terror not very definable, she fixed her eyes on the staircase, and in a few moments it gave Henry to her view. “Mr. Tilney!” she exclaimed in a voice of more than common astonishment. He looked astonished too. “Good God!” she continued, not attending to his address, “how came you here?—how came you up that staircase?”
“How came I up that staircase!” he replied, greatly surprized. “Because it is my nearest way from the stable-yard to my own chamber; and why should I not come up it?”
Catherine recollected herself, blushed deeply, and could say no more. He seemed to be looking in her countenance for that explanation which her lips did not afford. …
“…My mother’s room is very commodious, is it not? Large and cheerful-looking, and the dressing closets so well disposed! It always strikes me as the most comfortable apartment in the house, and I rather wonder that Eleanor should not take it for her own. She sent you to look at it, I suppose?”
“It has been your own doing entirely?”—Catherine said nothing—After a short silence, during which he had closely observed her, he added, “As there is nothing in the room in itself to raise curiosity, this must have proceeded from a sentiment of respect for my mother’s character, as described by Eleanor, which does honour to her memory. The world, I believe, never saw a better woman. But it is not often that virtue can boast an interest such as this. The domestic, unpretending merits of a person never known, do not often create that kind of fervent, venerating tenderness which would prompt a visit like yours. Eleanor, I suppose, has talked of her a great deal?”
“Yes, a great deal. That is—no, not much, but what she did say, was very interesting. Her dying so suddenly,” (slowly, and with hesitation it was spoken,) “and you—none of you being at home—and your father, I thought—perhaps had not been very fond of her.”
“And from these circumstances,” he replied (his quick eye fixed on her’s), “you infer perhaps the probability of some negligence—some—(involuntarily she shook her head)—or it may be—of something still less pardonable.” (Volume 2, Chapter 9)
Henry picks up pretty quickly what is going on. He knows Catherine’s enjoyment of Gothic novels, and his quick mind makes the connection between the romance of an ancient, though refurbished, abbey—indeed, he told Catherine a silly story on the way to Northanger based on that knowledge—and he realizes she has taken it too far.
Throughout the novel, when Catherine applies to Henry for knowledge, with her charming combination of naivete and lack of guile, he has employed the Socratic method with her. Instead of telling her what to think or do, he asks a series of questions designed to make her think for herself and learn to trust her instincts. Catherine does have good instincts—she initially dislikes John Thorpe, for example, but does not trust this feeling. He is her brother’s friend! He is Isabella’s brother! She, Catherine, must be wrong about him. Of course she is quite correct, but she hasn’t yet learned to trust her instincts. Henry seems to realize this, and attempts to help her grow and learn, to question that which should be questioned. (It is possible that he already has performed the same service for the self-possessed, mature Eleanor, who might not always have been that way.) He does the same in this scene.
“But your father,” said Catherine, “was he afflicted?”
“For a time, greatly so. You have erred in supposing him not attached to her. He loved her, I am persuaded, as well as it was possible for him to—We have not all, you know, the same tenderness of disposition—and I will not pretend to say that while she lived, she might not often have had much to bear, but though his temper injured her, his judgment never did. His value of her was sincere; and, if not permanently, he was truly afflicted by her death.” (Volume 2, Chapter 9)
Here, Henry is imparting facts to Catherine. That is different from lecturing, and his tone is matter-of-fact. He even admits, knowing that Catherine has spent time with General Tilney, that the General lacks “tenderness of disposition.” He does not attempt to deny something she has had the opportunity to observe for herself. To do so certainly would have been condescending.
“I am very glad of it,” said Catherine; “it would have been very shocking!”—
“If I understand you rightly, you had formed a surmise of such horror as I have hardly words to—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. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you—Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them? Could they be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing, where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay every thing open? Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?” (Volume 2, Chapter 9)
He knows what she is implying, and he is surprised, certainly. Is he angry? Perhaps a little, but I don’t get a sense of that from the paragraph above, and he is definitely not menacing or malicious. Henry does not lecture Catherine. He encourages her to use her common sense and her good instincts, which he knows she has, to look into her heart and understand the truth. He points out that they are not characters in one of Mrs. Radcliffe’s novels—”Remember that we are English, that we are Christians”—by which he means Protestants, of course, rather than the French and Italian Roman Catholics who people The Mysteries of Udolpho, whose religion, from a good Protestant viewpoint, contains elements of superstition that a reasonable person would not entertain (a viewpoint Mrs. Radcliffe herself would have supported).
They had reached the end of the gallery; and with tears of shame she ran off to her own room. (Volume 2, Chapter 9)
I suspect this is where many readers get their annoyance with Henry. He yelled at her and made her cry! No, not really. He does not yell, or lecture, or hector. He is gentle. He calls her Dearest Miss Morland. Catherine is not crying because Henry is mad at her. She is crying because she is ashamed of herself. “Tears of shame.” It’s right in the text, as are so many things with Jane Austen when you look for them.
But don’t just take my word for it. A real history and literature scholar has written most eloquently about this scene and offered a tremendous analysis. In her essay “The Rev. Henry Tilney, Rector of Woodston” (Persuasions 20 ), Irene Collins writes of Henry Tilney as an Anglican priest. (Something else people think about Henry Tilney is that he is a lousy priest. Go read that essay and be disabused of that notion forever.) Professor Collins was an expert on the Anglican clergy of Jane Austen’s time—her book Jane Austen and the Clergy is required reading for those seeking to understand the clergymen of Jane Austen’s novels, who are not a homogenous bunch at all. In this essay, she opines that in the scene from Northanger Abbey excerpted above, Henry is actually acting in his capacity as an Anglican priest by helping Catherine understand the “secret sin” she has committed. Jane Austen, in the prayers published after her death, asks for assistance with these secret sins. Prof. Collins writes,
Secret sins were described at some length by Jane Austen’s favorite sermon writer, Archbishop Thomas Sherlock. In a discourse entitled “On self-examination,” he listed them as “sins committed in ignorance, sins we have fallen into through habit, and sins we have simply forgotten.” Though seemingly trivial, they may have done harm to others without one’s knowledge; thinking ill of a fellow creature was particularly mentioned. Hence, Sherlock warned, “for every idle word, how soon soever it slips from our memory, for every vain imagination of the heart, how soon soever it vanishes away, we shall give an account on the day of judgement” (Knox 276-80). To avoid so serious a climax we should review our conduct at the end of each day and ask God to forgive whatever he had seen amiss in it. Jane Austen clearly took this advice to heart. In each of the prayers she wrote for family use at Chawton, there are petitions asking God’s forgiveness for secret sins. Indeed, they are the only kind of sin she mentions.
This certainly applies to Catherine’s “sin” against General Tilney, of considering him a possible murderer or wife-abuser. The Anglican church had done away with confession before a priest, as Prof. Collins’ essay points out, but confession as a private conference with God was important, and the steps remain the same: examine your conscience, understand you have sinned, repent the sin, and promise to sin no more, upon which the sin is forgiven and removed from your spiritual permanent record. Henry, by asking Catherine a series of questions as he does, is assisting her to examine her conscience and understand her secret sin, which before encountering him she had already decided to forget about. He is acting as a good priest should.
The part of about repentance comes in Chapter 10. Well, it starts at the end of the scene already described, when Catherine runs away with tears of shame. Not tears of sorrow, because she thinks her chances with Henry are gone forever, though she does; not tears of terror because he berated her, because he didn’t; but tears of shame. In the following chapter, the narrator tells us,
The visions of romance were over. Catherine was completely awakened. Henry’s address, short as it had been, had more thoroughly opened her eyes to the extravagance of her late fancies than all their several disappointments had done. Most grievously was she humbled. Most bitterly did she cry. It was not only with herself that she was sunk—but with Henry. Her folly, which now seemed even criminal, was all exposed to him, and he must despise her forever. The liberty which her imagination had dared to take with the character of his father, could he ever forgive it? The absurdity of her curiosity and her fears, could they ever be forgotten? She hated herself more than she could express. (Volume 2, Chapter 10)
The conscience has been examined; the sin discovered, admitted, and repented; and she has determined to not commit the same sin again.
She did not learn either to forget or defend the past; but she learned to hope that it would never transpire farther, and that it might not cost her Henry’s entire regard. Her thoughts being still chiefly fixed on what she had with such causeless terror felt and done, nothing could shortly be clearer, than that it had been all a voluntary, self-created delusion, each trifling circumstance receiving importance from an imagination resolved on alarm, and every thing forced to bend to one purpose by a mind which, before she entered the Abbey, had been craving to be frightened. She remembered with what feelings she had prepared for a knowledge of Northanger. She saw that the infatuation had been created, the mischief settled long before her quitting Bath, and it seemed as if the whole might be traced to the influence of that sort of reading which she had there indulged. …
Her mind made up on these several points, and her resolution formed, of always judging and acting in future with the greatest good sense, she had nothing to do but to forgive herself and be happier than ever…. (Volume 2, Chapter 10)
Despite the narrator’s light tone, this is not a small point. This is Catherine’s “Till this moment, I never knew myself.” She is learning throughout the novel, but this is the biggest lesson she learns. And who has taught her—or, more properly, led her to enlightenment? Henry Tilney; who, by the way, lets Catherine know that her sin has been expunged and forgotten:
The formidable Henry soon followed her into the room, and the only difference in his behaviour to her was that he paid her rather more attention than usual. Catherine had never wanted comfort more, and he looked as if he was aware of it. … Henry’s astonishing generosity and nobleness of conduct, in never alluding in the slightest way to what had passed, was of the greatest assistance to her…. (Volume 2, Chapter 10)
The spiritual slate has been wiped clean. Go forth, Catherine, and sin no more.
I hope that the readers who have hung in there with this long essay will view Henry Tilney in future more generously, as Henry himself acted with Catherine Morland. As you re-read the novel, pay attention to his interactions with Catherine. They range from nonsensical semi-flirtation (when they first meet at the Lower Rooms) to big-brotherish teasing (the walk at Beechen Cliff) to concerned friend (when he advises her about her reservations about Isabella and Captain Tilney), and, so often, are in the form of an engaged series of questions, either to draw her out or to lead her to knowledge. He listens to her. That’s more than her own family and so-called friends ever do.
Henry pays Catherine the compliment of not dumbing down his conversation, and he does not condescend to her; indeed, I would say that Henry and his sister Eleanor are the only characters in Northanger Abbey who do not condescend to Catherine, or worse yet, attempt to hoodwink her. Though he often fills the role of a teacher, the only thing Henry lectures Catherine about is the picturesque. Unlike many other Janeites, I have no doubt that Henry and Catherine will have the happiest of marriages, and that he will not grow tired of her, especially as she blossoms under his care into a fully formed adult and develops the confidence that being thoroughly understood, loved, and appreciated gives every woman.
Quotations are from the Cambridge edition of Northanger Abbey, edited by Barbara M. Benedict and Deirdre Le Faye (2006).
Eleventh in a series of blog posts celebrating 200 years of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. To read more about all the posts in the series, visit “Youth and Experience.” Coming soon: guest posts by Sara Malton, Kim Wilson, and Dan Macey.