Northanger Abbey: Our Hero Henry Tilney


JJ Feild as Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey 2007

“His name was Tilney. He seemed to be about four or five and twenty, was rather tall, had a pleasing countenance.”

In anticipation of the premiere on Sunday of the new adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel Northanger Abbey presented by Masterpiece PBS, I thought it helpful to introduce the hero Henry Tinley, and highlight some of his most insightful quotes and humorous passages from the novel.

I believe that Jane Austen has created her most charming, quirky, clever, and well-spoken male character of any of her heroes in Henry Tilney. In one of her few physical descriptions of her characters of any length, we are given more than a brief introduction.

The master of the ceremonies introduced to her (Catherine Morland) 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

If by some happy chance, you are reading the novel or viewing the adaptation for the first time, you have quite a treat in store for yourself. Henry is the unique voice of reason and witty humor throughout the novel. When he speaks, it is usually in conversation with our heroine Catherine Morland, and he is all about winning her respect with bright and insightful little nuggets on life philosophy or personal opinion on a variety of topics! In fact, his decided views of love, marriage, dancing, history, politics, and human nature make him quite possibly Jane Austen’s strongest male character, not only because we have no doubt of his mind, but the fact that he has absolutely no trouble expressing it.

Image of cover of Northanger Abbey DVD, BBC (1986)If you have previously read the novel, or seen the 1986 BBC adaptation starring Katharine Schlesinger as Catherine Morland and Peter Firth as Henry Tilney, you are well aware of his esteemable nature and are quite possibly already a fan. He is hands down my favorite Jane Austen hero. Why? Many of Jane Austen’s heroes have fine qualities, but in my estimation, none reach the level of Henry. For who could not fall in love with a man of such “pleasing countenance” and “lively eye”; – – who dances quite well, is passionate about expressing himself with alacrity, certitude, and acumen, and happily rescues our heroine? Who indeed?

Henry Tilney on the fair sex, marriage, and dancing:

“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.” Ch 3

“I consider a country-dance as an emblem of marriage. Fidelity and complaisance are the principal duties of both; and those men who do not choose to dance or marry themselves, have no business with the partners or wives of their neighbours.” Ch 10

“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.” Ch 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.” Ch 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.” Ch 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.” Ch 22

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

Henry Tilney on life’s pleasures, convictions, horrors, and principles:

“Very true,” said Henry, “and this is a very nice day, and we are taking a very nice walk, and you are two very nice young ladies. Oh! It is a very nice word indeed! It does for everything. Originally perhaps it was applied only to express neatness, propriety, delicacy, or refinement – people were nice in their dress, in their sentiments, or their choice. But now every commendation on every subject is comprised in that one word.” Ch 14

“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.” Ch 14

“It is as much as should be said of anyone. To be always firm must be to be often obstinate. When properly to relax is the trial of judgment;” Ch 16

“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?” Ch 20

“If I understand you rightly, you have 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?”  Ch 24

“You feel, as you always do, what is most to the credit of human nature. Such feelings ought to be investigated, that they may know themselves.” Ch 25

“I am come, young ladies, in a very moralizing strain, to observe that our pleasures in this world are always to be paid for, and that we often purchase them at a great disadvantage, giving ready-monied actual happiness for a draft on the future, that may not be honoured.” Ch 26

“But your mind is warped by an innate principle of general integrity, and therefore not accessible to the cool reasonings of family partiality, or a desire of revenge”. Ch 27

Felicity Jones as Catherine Morland and Carey Mulligan as Isabella Thorpe in Northanger Abbey (2007)

Mark your calendars and set your watches for the premiere of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, presented by Masterpiece PBS, Sunday, January 20th at 9:00 pm. Starring Felicity Jones as Gothic novel influenced Catherine Morland, and J.J. Feild as her hero, and ours, Henry Tilney. Watch out for the stellar performance by Carrie Mulligan as Catherine’s flip, hip mentor, Isabella Thorpe. You can read the review An Austen Heroine with a Fertile Imagination in the Los Angeles Times, and tune in to PBS for all the horrid and romantic escapades of our heroine in the making on Sunday, January 20th at 9:00 pm.

Read additional posts about characters and quotes in my Northanger Abbey blog archive, including my introduction to our heroine Catherine Morland entitled Northanger Abbey: Acquisition of Higher Delight. Check out my musing on that despot General Tilney at my other co-blog, Jane Austen Today, and round out the Northanger coverage at Jane Austen’s World’s post on the likable hero & heroine Catherine Morland & Henry Tilney.

9 thoughts on “Northanger Abbey: Our Hero Henry Tilney

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  1. Thanks for such an in-depth write-up on HT. Indeed, he just might be the ideal man in JA’s eyes…even Mr. Darcy has his faults. I’ve just posted a link to a timely interview of Andrew Davis, the screenwriter of this new NA, very interesting views he has about JA!


  2. Not JJ’s best picture up top there. He looks like someone just kicked his Newfoundland puppy.

    Can’t wait to hear all those wonderful lines in the film. :-D


  3. Northanger Abbey is my favorite Austen novel, at least most days.

    Lacking Miss Lizzie’s noble nature, I’m unable to forgive Darcy for being such a snob. He totally blew any chance he might’ve had with me in that priggish little speech and all the crapola about how his sentiments were so understandable and just.

    No Fitz, they weren’t. Not 200 years ago, and not today. Not with me. Lucky you’ve got Lizzie to console you for the loss, though you don’t deserve her, and she deserves much better than you.

    Trifling non-factor.

    Henry Tilney, on the other hand – now that’s swoon material!

    Despite having grown up in what can only be called an emotionally abusive home environment, he overcomes this and grows up to be not only a fine man of excellent moral character, but a funny, charming gentleman with whom it would have been immensely fun to chill.

    He’s even discerning enough to perceive that underneath Cathy’s complete ignorance of the world and its inhabitants, there resides a sharp mind all dressed and ready, just waiting to escape, and Henry’s just the dude to help her climb up without getting her petticoats all shredded on the rocks.

    The mini Cliff Notes nature of this adaptation was frustrating because some of the casting was so awesome!

    All the Tilney boys looked like they shared a gene pool, which rarely happens even in the best movies.

    Of course Thorpe swore! He was a boor, an oafish lout who today would be a contestant on Daisy of Love or Bad Girls Need Love Too.

    And at first, Cathy kindasortically liked him, in a by default kind of way. He was, after all, the first boy outside her family with whom she’d ever had so much as a conversation, and he was presented to her as a friend of her brother’s.

    She’s predisposed to like him, and has nothing to which she might compare him.

    It is much more to her credit that her aversion to him is not instantaneous, but a gradual but steady result of spending enough time with him, so that by dint of her own natural discrimination (in the old sense of the word) that she realizes he’s a total asshat.

    Isabella is, in my opinion, one of the great white trash characters of the Austen oeuvre. Right up there with Lucy Steele and that awful Mrs Elton!

    Your view of her may be more charitable, but mine awards her more literary importance. :)

    One of my most cherished what-if-Jane-didn’t-die-so-young fantasies is founded on my fond and whimsical notion that had she ever written even one sequel, Northanger would be the lucky novel!

    We know “what happened” to the main characters – nothing, other than they lived happily ever after, and sheltered life or not, if there was one thing Jane Austen knew about life, it was that an uneventful one is the Ultimate Grand Supreme of happily ever afters.

    For Cathy and Henry and Isabella and Unnamed Spouse, their only events would be of the blessed, squalling variety, who would, in turn, grow up, meet and marry the loves of their lives and plop their own squalling blessings into the aged laps of our heroine and her new nuclear fam.

    But what did the future hold for the creepy Thorpes? And Captain Tilney! To my mind, he alone is sufficient evidence that THIS would the one that got the sequel.

    Has there ever been, in ANY novel, a character that cried out any more piteously to be revisited!

    We know he’s not just a common, garden-variety manskank. He’s Henry and Isabella’s older brother for Chrissakes! He had more time with the late and saintly Mrs Tilney than they did – and more time with his trashy ass daddy, so we know there’s lots more layers to that onion.

    How long would he continue his swashbuckling ways and random hookup nights before settling down? And when he finally “grew up,” would he follow his father’s no-account footsteps in his personal life? Is that why he chose the profession he did? Or was that just the quickest and easiest route to get the hell away from his no-account sire? What would she be like, the lady who finally captured his heart? Would she be a sweet little nosegay like Cathy? Or a stately, elegant bird of paradise from some farflung hothouse?

    Or would he surprise us all, repent, and come save Isabella from her shame?

    If she had any. It’s never really spelled out to us just how much, if any, shame she actually had to be saved from.

    But yeah, you’re right. Jane wrote the words for a reason, and sadly these days, people aren’t that into words. It’s become de rigeur to apologize if one posts anything longer than a paragraph, as this is considered most inconsiderate to one’s readers, obliging them, if they are to know what one has said, to read.

    I wish somebody would adapt one of the novels – naturally I’d prefer it be my favorite, but I’d take any of them – and do it right. Go ahead and make it a mini-series in 48 3 and a half hour episodes if you need to, but once, just once, I’d like to see an adaptation of one of Miss A’s actual BOOKS, and not of somebody’s 8th grade book report or a $4.99 study guide of one.


  4. Hear, Hear to that last comment about the sloppy, couldn’t-care-less-about-the-details adaptations we are getting from the BBC. Each time one of them is screened here in Oz I read, or re-read the book. And each time I get increasingly frustrated by the divergences. So many of the variations seem quite unnecessary.


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