Go Gothic with Northanger Abbey: Guest Blogger Margaret Sullivan Chats About Henry Tilney


Austen-esque author, web mistress, editrix and Team Henry Tilney Leader Margaret (Mags) Sullivan joins us today to chat about Jane Austen’s most charmingly endearing hero, Henry Tilney, affectionately know to many as da Man. Enjoy! 

“A Very Gentlemanlike Young Man” 

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. Northanger Abbey, Vol. I Chap. III 

What young lady at her second ball of the season wouldn’t feel herself in high luck to dance with Henry Tilney? A fellow who is charming, witty, intelligent, very nearly handsome, and shows a girl a good time? I know that many of my fellow Janeites, who joined Team Darcy early on and see no reason to switch, don’t really understand the dedication of Team Tilney. What’s so great about Henry Tilney? Let me count the ways. 

1. He’s funny. 

Don’t discount the importance of a sense of humor in an attractive man. Even though Catherine Morland doesn’t quite understand Henry’s odd ways at first, she is interested by them nonetheless. And she understands most of the time when he is teasing her and is not offended by it. She has older brothers, after all. 

Some Jane Austen scholars have been of the opinion that Jane Austen perhaps met Sydney Smith, a young clergyman who would later become famous for his wit, in her 1797 visit to Bath, shortly before she commenced work on Susan, the novel that would eventually be published as Northanger Abbey.  (See my essay on this at The Cult of Da Man.) There is no proof that Jane Austen met Sydney Smith, and even less that she used him as an inspiration for Henry; Austen said that she never based her characters on real-life people, and I believe her. But perhaps elements of Smith’s personality made their way onto the page, particularly Henry’s sometimes outrageous wit and word-nerdiness. 

2. He doesn’t patronize Catherine, and doesn’t lecture her, except on the picturesque. 

Henry is an intelligent, well-educated young man and doesn’t dumb down his conversation for Catherine. He knows fairly quickly that she is not stupid, but has not had much benefit of education; her mother, with so many little ones to tend to, was unable to take the pains Henry clearly has with his own sister’s education. (Surely you don’t think Eleanor got her smarts from her father?) 

Henry is very much a proper teacher, not only giving Catherine information but teaching her to learn to trust her own judgment, which he has recognized early on is pretty good. When Catherine is confused or doesn’t understand something, rather than just telling her what he wants her to know, Henry, like a good teacher, asks her a series of questions designed to allow Catherine to think through her own opinion-almost always with excellent results. Even the famous scene when he encounters her outside his mother’s room is in this Socratic model: 

“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 everything open? Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?”  

Emphasis mine, of course; Henry knows that Catherine knows better, and is simply reminding her of that. There’s no meanness in his questioning; he is gentleness itself. (Ironically, the only film version of this scene that has got that right is Wishbone!) 

And can we have a brief swoon over the “Dearest Miss Morland” part? Thanks! *swoooon* 

3. He’s a good big brother. 

There’s a telling bit of dialogue buried in the scene in which Eleanor and Catherine take the late Mrs. Tilney’s favorite walk: 

She stopped for a moment, and then added, with great firmness, “I have no sister, you know — and though Henry — though my brothers are very affectionate, and Henry is a great deal here, which I am most thankful for, it is impossible for me not to be often solitary.”  

Notice that Eleanor thinks first of Henry as her affectionate brother. Frederick, it seems, does not spring so immediately to her mind; though he can’t be all bad to have earned Eleanor’s loyalty. Jane Austen had big brothers (and one “particular” little brother), and many of the brother figures of her books have affectionately teasing relationships with their sisters: Charles Musgrove, also described as “really a very affectionate brother,” teases Anne Elliot, his sister by marriage, in the most big-brotherly way imaginable about Captain Benwick’s interest in her; Tom Bertram, to whom Fanny Price was made a sort of little sister, “made her some very pretty presents, and laughed at her.” It is not a great jump, particularly to those of us who have had affectionate big brothers ourselves, to think that perhaps Jane Austen’s relationship with her own brothers was in this mold as well. That the Austens were a tight-knit family does not admit to a doubt; they did not always necessarily get along perfectly, but what family does? Even Eleanor gets annoyed with Henry when he makes off to the hermitage walk with her own copy of Udolpho. The relationship between Eleanor and Henry is affectionate and real, and clearly both treasure it. 

In the early days of their friendship, Henry teases Catherine, treating her more like a sister than a girlfriend. Perhaps her own initial interest in Henry comes from the similarity to the relationships with young men that Catherine has known best in her life: her big brothers. A more mature type of love develops later on both sides. 

Another comment from Eleanor is equally telling of her relationship with Henry, and anticipates Catherine’s relationship as well: 

“But I do assure you that he must be entirely misunderstood, if he can ever appear to say an unjust thing of any woman at all, or an unkind one of me.”  

4. He’s comfortable with intelligent women. 

Actually Henry is comfortable with all women; he even manages to convince Mrs. Allen that he is knowledgeable about muslins! Even to have such a conversation indicates a level of knowledge of women and their concerns that speaks well for Henry. What does John Thorpe speak to Catherine about? Himself, his gig, his horse, his success at the hunt, his dogs. Henry asks Catherine what she thinks of Bath and draws her out to talk about her home and family. He talks to women about what interests them. That’s very smart, and very sexy. 

5. He’s endlessly quotable. 

We are still astonished that film adapters seem to leave out most of Henry’s best lines from their films. 

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

“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 every thing. 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.” 

“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. Witness myself, at this present hour. Because I am to hope for the satisfaction of seeing you at Woodston on Wednesday, which bad weather, or twenty other causes, may prevent, I must go away directly, two days before I intended it.”

“Go away!” said Catherine, with a very long face. “And why?”

“Why! — How can you ask the question? Because no time is to be lost in frightening my old housekeeper out of her wits, — because I must go and prepare a dinner for you, to be sure.” 

“I see what you think of me,” said he gravely — “I shall make but a poor figure in your journal tomorrow.”

“My journal!”

“Yes, I know exactly what you will say: Friday, went to the Lower Rooms; wore my sprigged muslin robe with blue trimmings — plain black shoes — appeared to much advantage; but was strangely harassed by a queer, half-witted man, who would make me dance with him, and distressed me by his nonsense.” 

Mr. Tilney was very much amused. “Only go and call on Mrs. Allen!” he repeated. “What a picture of intellectual poverty! However, when you sink into this abyss again, you will have more to say. You will be able to talk of Bath, and of all that you did here.” 

“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.” 

“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 fire-place 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 curtseys 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.”

“Oh! Mr. Tilney, how frightful! — This is just like a book!” 

“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.” 

6. He likes dogs. Big dogs. Big drooly dogs. And smaller, active dogs as well. 

At the further end of the village, and tolerably disengaged from the rest of it, stood the parsonage, a new-built substantial stone house, with its semicircular sweep and green gates; and, as they drove up to the door, Henry, with the friends of his solitude, a large Newfoundland puppy and two or three terriers, was ready to receive and make much of them. ~ Volume II, Chapter XI 

My good friend Karen Lee, a dog breeder and exhibitor with decades of experience, wrote a little bit about Henry’s dogs for the Cult of Da Man site. 

The Newfoundland puppy reveals something very likeable in Henry Tilney’s nature and one might expect its presence in Northanger Abbey to have been deliberate effort by Jane Austen to render his character even more personable to the reader. The terriers were useful in and of themselves and would be a normal sight at any country home, but as Henry Tilney was not a waterman his acquisition of a breed which had no practical purpose on a country estate shows that he valued his dogs for their companionship and not just as working animals. 

How can you not love a guy who loves his doggies? 

7. He likes to read trashy novels. 

“But you never read novels, I dare say?”

“Why not?”

“Because they are not clever enough for you — gentlemen read better books.”

“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid. I have read all Mrs. Radcliffe’s works, and most of them with great pleasure. The Mysteries of Udolpho, when I had once begun it, I could not lay down again; — I remember finishing it in two days — my hair standing on end the whole time.” – Northanger Abbey, Vol. I, Chap. XIV

At that time, novels were looked down upon as being trashy reading-books that were all story and no reflection. For Henry to admit not only to reading such books, not only to enjoying them, but to have read many of them, is quite an admission; and he makes it so easily. Only a man comfortable in his own intelligence would do that. Obviously he would have earned Jane Austen’s approbation, as the Austens, she wrote, were novel-readers and not ashamed of it; clearly it earned Catherine Morland’s as well. Just imagine having Henry Tilney to read Mrs. Radcliffe’s charming novels to you! Catherine probably felt herself in high luck once again. 

8. Okay, so we’re shallow: the boots and the great coat. 

I still remember the first time I read this passage from Vol. II, Chap. XI: 

…and her heart was still bounding with joy when Henry, about an hour afterwards, came booted and great coated into the room where she and Eleanor were sitting… 

Booted and great coated…it still makes me wibbly! Remember, we already heard that the capes of Henry’s great coat were “innumerable.” Great coats had all those capes to keep the rain off, but imagine how lovely and broad-shouldered they made the gentlemen wearing them look! And his boots were probably well-broken-in, tough but soft leather, nicely polished. Jane Austen painted a lovely word picture there: a picture of sheer unadulterated masculinity. Then Henry makes a joke and is super sweet to Catherine and says he is sad to go, “for I had much rather stay.” If you can’t fall in love with Henry Tilney after that scene, you are made of stone. Keep your wet shirts and your big guns; that is sexy on wheels. 

9. He’s just plain interesting. 

Though Northanger Abbey is a parody of The Mysteries of Udolpho and other Gothic and sentimental novels of the time, the hero of Udolpho, the Chevalier de Valancourt, is not much like Henry Tilney. Valancourt is broody, mysterious, kind of wimpy about telling a girl how he feels, and loses his fortune at the gaming tables. Some hero! 

In her 1998 introduction to the Oxford World’s Classics edition of Udolpho, Terry Castle notes of some minor characters, “Henri and Blanche De Villefort, the count’s grown-up children, curiously prefigure Henry and Eleanor Tilney, the witty brother and sister who befriend the credulous Catherine Morland in Austen’s novel. Like his Tilney namesake, Henri de Villefort has the teasing manner we associate with Austen heroes; and Blanche, who has just left a convent, is firmly opposed to ‘monkish’ doom and gloom.” (xii) 

We don’t find it curious at all. Obviously Henri was more interesting to Jane Austen than the rather wet Valancourt, and perhaps she found someone like him would make a better hero; if one takes it that way, it makes the parody of Udolpho all that much more hilarious. 

There are many more ways and reasons to love Mr. Tilney, and we are sure Catherine Tilney found new ones every day.  Why do you love Henry Tilney, Gentle Reader?


Further Reading

  • Visit Margaret (Mags) Sullivan’s blog AustenBlog
  • Visit the Cult of da Man, the ultimate Henry Tilney website
  • Visit Margaret (Mags) Sullivan’s website Tilneys and Trap-doors
  • Read my post on Northanger Abbey: Our Hero Henry Tilney

Future event posts
Day 08 – Oct 14          Group Read NA Chapters 11-14
Day 09 – Oct 15          Guest Blog – Kali Pappas
Day 10 – Oct 16          Group Read NA Chapters 15-17
Day 11 – Oct 19          Book Review – OWC NA 

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