“In an age when we are examining sexual predation and male power as never before, it may be revealing to cast a cold eye upon Jane Austen’s ogreish character, General Tilney,” writes Diana Birchall in today’s guest post for “Youth and Experience: Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.” Diana recently retired from her career as a story analyst, reading novels for Warner Bros Studios. She is the author of several Jane Austen-related novels, including Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma and Mrs. Elton in America, and of plays which have been performed at JASNA events as well as at Chawton House Library. She has also written a literary biography of the first Asian American novelist, Onoto Watanna (Winnifred Eaton), who was her grandmother. Originally from New York City, she lives in Santa Monica with her poet husband Peter, librarian son Paul, and their three cats Pindar, Martial, and Catullus.
A couple of years ago, Diana contributed a story called “Mrs. Elton’s Donkey” to my “Emma in the Snow” blog series, and when I hosted a celebration of Austen’s Mansfield Park, she sent me a story about “The Scene-Painter.” Welcome back, Diana! Thank you for your essay on General Tilney, and also for sharing with us, at the end of this post, an excerpt from your work-in-progress, The Bride of Northanger.
In an age when we are examining sexual predation and male power as never before, it may be revealing to cast a cold eye upon Jane Austen’s ogreish character, General Tilney. Jane Austen knew her ogres. As a young author she was as familiar with Gothic horror tales as her still younger heroine, Catherine Morland could be. General Tilney is her parodic Gothic villain, the ironic joke being that his sensibilities do not hark back to lurid crimes of the 15th century. Rather, he is a thoroughly modern man, chiefly interested in money, materialism, and his own superiority. Far from being confined to an historical romance, he is so prevalent a type, that we can see him in many places of power even today, as if two centuries had not passed since Jane Austen wrote him into existence.
Catherine, with her imagination full of “horrid” novels, and very little knowledge of the world, has not the experience to know what to make of such a man, and misreads him at every stage, which parallels her deluded assumption of Northanger Abbey as an edifice of Gothic fiction. Her artless assumptions are one of the first things Henry Tilney notices about her, evidently finding her innocence and simplicity refreshing after a lifetime of watching his father’s signature unpleasantness and double dealing machinations.
General Tilney’s premier technique for manipulation is a florid insincerity, using repeated, empty praise, protesting one thing while doing another. The reader (if not Catherine) sees through him quickly, his false graciousness revealing him as the domestic tyrant he is. His officiousness is sulfurously on display, as when proposing a family visit to Henry’s parsonage, he says airily: “There is no need to fix. You are not to put yourself at all out of your way” (Volume 2, Chapter 11). Then he quickly switches off that hokum, and dictates his own terms rigidly arranged down to the quarter hour.
Used to this sort of thing as Henry is, it is no wonder that Catherine’s innocence and honesty are as appealing to him, as perhaps, his profession as clergyman is a solace. He smilingly tells her: “How very little trouble it can give you to understand the motive of other people’s actions…. With you, it is not, How is such a one likely to be influenced, What is the inducement most likely to act upon such a person’s feelings, age, situation, and probable habits of life considered” (Volume 2, Chapter 1).
That is what he has witnessed all his life, and it explains why such a clever man should like a pellucidly simple girl: manipulative thinking like his father’s could not be farther from the workings of Catherine’s mind. Yet Catherine is increasingly bewildered by her own growing dislike of the delightful Henry’s father. She notices how his mere presence is a troubling damper to his children:
That he was perfectly agreeable and good-natured, and altogether a very charming man, did not admit of a doubt, for he was tall and handsome, and Henry’s father. He could not be accountable for his children’s want of spirits, or for her want of enjoyment in his company. (Volume 2, Chapter 1)
Catherine’s uneasiness about her future father-in-law fuels her Gothic fantasies, as in her imaginings she builds him into a murderer, who may have killed his wife. She connects him with the evil Signor Montoni of The Mysteries of Udolpho:
And, when she saw him in the evening, while she worked with her friend, slowly pacing the drawing–room for an hour together in silent thoughtfulness, with downcast eyes and contracted brow, she felt secure from all possibility of wronging him. It was the air and attitude of a Montoni! (Volume 2, Chapter 8)
In a way she is not wrong, for General Tilney, although wealthy himself, is a fortune-hunter, his motives not dissimilar from that of his prototype Montoni. He notes Henry’s liking for Catherine only as a way to promote the match and secure the fortune he believes her to possess, led on by the rattle of John Thorpe. When he learns from the same unreliable source that there is no fortune, he dismisses Catherine with shocking rudeness, proving that he cares nothing for her or his son’s happiness. He also shows his own credulity, in believing such a rattle as Thorpe in the first place. Even when he finally ungraciously assents to the marriage, he expresses himself in contemptuous terms, giving Henry permission for him “to be a fool if he liked it!” (Volume 2, Chapter 16). Yet he himself has been the fool, or the tool of one.
Jane Austen presents a masterly exhibit of masculine, patriarchal abuse of power in her magnificently hollow portrait of General Tilney. There is also a subtle element of sexual predation, as he woos Catherine through Henry. He treats his own daughter as a submissive and slave until she is elevated to Vicountess. And he makes love to Catherine with gross flattery and subterranean sexual appeal. Catherine sees that he is “a very handsome man, of a commanding aspect, past the bloom, but not past the vigour of life” (Volume 1, Chapter 10), as he looks at her with interest. “Confused by his notice, and blushing . . . she turned away her head.” Later, she breaks rules of propriety by bursting into the Tilneys’ drawing-room. Perhaps in response to this unconventional entrance, General Tilney, alone with her for the first time, grasps the opportunity for oily gallantry with a sexual tinge, alluding to the “elasticity of her walk” (Volume 1, Chapter 13).
Whatever General Tilney’s sexual predilections, he is not a byword for open misbehavior like the Admiral Crawford of Mansfield Park. Catherine never fears for her chastity at his hands, yet she is wrong again, for he throws her out with as much attack and as little concern as if she was a discarded sexual creature.
Catherine’s overbearing host turns out to be no Gothic fancy, but tyrant enough. She concludes that “in suspecting General Tilney of murder or shutting up his wife she had scarcely sinned against his character, or magnified his cruelty” (Volume 2, Chapter 16).
The critical attention of this ill-tempered man is a nightmare to anyone not his equal in status (“Dinner to be on table directly!” [Volume 2, Chapter 6]). Perhaps it is in rising to be a General that he imbibed martinet ways, bringing his command home to his family, and illustrating in his own person and home what tyranny is. He is gracious only to his perceived peers (“They are a set of very worthy men. They have half a buck from Northanger twice a year; and I dine with them whenever I can” [Volume 2, Chapter 11]).
Northanger Abbey was written after the French Revolution, and years of riots and unrest that affected Austen’s own family. We may wonder what General Tilney’s professional role was during these turbulent years, but Austen tells us almost nothing about his past. It may be that the readers of her day would not need to have the familiar explained.
A rare clue is when Mrs. Allen learns from a friend that the Tilneys are “very rich . . . [Mrs. Tilney] had a very large fortune; and, when she married, her father gave her twenty thousand pounds, and five hundred to buy wedding-clothes” (Volume 1, Chapter 9). In Georgian England, such an heiress would not have married a pauper. And a young and wealthy married man would not be likely to go out to fight in the American Revolution, or to the India of Warren Hastings.
However the General became a General, it is not the purpose of my inquiry to try to construe his career; we may infer that he at one time enjoyed power, and is now, in retirement, abusing it in his own family. With no more active work to do, and his own approach to old age, he occupies himself with consumerism and improvements of the most aggressive forward-thinking modernity, in amusing contrast with the fantasies of Catherine, who “cared for no furniture of a more modern date than the fifteenth century” (Volume 2, Chapter 8).
One of my favorite passages shows off the General’s materialism. With his taste for having the latest things, he is absurdly self-deprecating, and suggestive to Catherine:
The elegance of the breakfast set forced itself on Catherine’s notice when they were seated at table; and luckily, it had been the General’s choice. He was enchanted by her approbation of his taste, confessed it to be neat and simple, thought it right to encourage the manufacture of his country; and for his part, to his uncritical palate, the tea was as well flavoured from the clay of Staffordshire, as from that of Dresden or Sêve. But this was quite an old set, purchased two years ago. The manufacture was much improved since that time; he had seen some beautiful specimens when last in town, and had he not been perfectly without vanity of that kind, might have been tempted to order a new set. He trusted, however, that an opportunity might ere long occur of selecting one—though not for himself. Catherine was probably the only one of the party who did not understand him. (Volume 2, Chapter 7)
Here is a snippet from my own parody-of-a-parody work-in-progress, The Bride of Northanger:
“It is the happiest day I ever spent,” Catherine declared, as they sat down to tea at their own table, spread with their own new china set, General Tilney’s wedding-present, which Catherine had not before seen.
He was a connoisseur in china, as in many other things, and Catherine could not but admire the delicate gold-and-white dishes and cups, in their prettiness and abundance, however empty was the sentiment behind the sending.
“Happiness is a very proper state in a new bride,” observed Henry, “and I may take the opportunity to tell you that I am happy, too. Upon my word, my father did us well; that is a set that might last us all our lives, even if we have as large a family as yours.”
Catherine blushed at this reference, and then felt it ungracious to have a secret hope that using the china would not always make her think of the giver.
“The gold leaves are very pretty,” she said, taking up a cup. “I never saw any thing like these little symbols woven round the edges. What do you think they signify?”
“I do not know. I had not observed,” said Henry, examining a saucer closely. “You are right, however, they look almost like letters, do they not?”
“Not in any language I ever saw. Is it Russian? Is it Hebrew? Is it Arabic?”
Henry squinted at length, and finally said, “No. I perceive they are English letters, but they are so very small, I do not think they can possibly be read without a magnification glass. We have not one here. I should have to send to Cambridge for such a thing.”
“Well, I wish you would. If there is some secret writing on our china, I should like to know what it says. Do you think your father knows about it?”
“Most certainly. My father does nothing without deliberation. And he had this china made up especially for you—he told me so, in the letter that accompanied it. I can’t think what he means by this.”
“Perhaps the letters are a motto of some sort,” suggested Catherine. “My mother has a set of plates that have a blessing on them, and the words, Hunger is the Best Sauce.”
“Somehow I feel it is not that,” said Henry dryly.
The eyes of the young husband and wife met.
“’Tis very strange,” said Catherine. “Are you quite sure you cannot make out any words at all? I could not, but then I only know English.”
“It does not look like any thing else,” said Henry doubtfully, “it might be Latin, but so tiny…. Does this look like the letter T to you?”
“Not very much—oh, yes, perhaps it might.”
“I think it is English. T, C, I . . . something . . . L, A, M, I believe, only the size of pinpoints.”
“But that does not mean any thing, Henry.”
“I cannot tell,” he said slowly, “but I think the letters may be written backwards. Then it could be—Maledict. No, surely not. I cannot make out any more.”
He put the saucer down, rather hard.
“That does not sound much like a blessing,” Catherine faltered.
The young couple sat silent, as they each thought of what the words might mean, and what was the opposite of a blessing.
“I suppose I must write to thank your father,” said Catherine reluctantly, “but Henry, I hope you will not take it amiss if I say I prefer not to use this set of china.”
“No, I’d like to break every piece,” he said savagely.
Quotations are from the Oxford edition of Northanger Abbey, edited by R.W. Chapman, reprint edition of 1983.
Twenty-sixth 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 Kim Wilson, Susannah Fullerton, and Rohan Maitzen.