So my Jane Austen journey is nearly over. As you may have guessed from the title, I have just completed Northanger Abbey which leaves only Mansfield Park left to read. As you may have also guessed from the title, I rather enjoyed this book’s male protagonist.
From what I can gather, Henry Tilney is not a favourite among Austen fans, or at least is considered no match for the likes of Mr Darcy or Captain Wentworth. This is a notion that completely dumbfounds me as I found him to be utterly charming from his very first exchange with Catherine Morland.
The Mr Darcys and Captain Wentworths of the world are fine, noble men, but spend far too much time brooding and acting coldly towards their prospective love interests, whereas Mr Tilney shows warmth and humour from the very start. I understand that Northanger Abbey is Austen’s first novel, but it seems interesting to me that the characteristics she bestows upon her first ‘hero’ are the same ones that belong to the rogues in later novels such as Sense and Sensibility’s Mr Willoughby, Persuasion’s Mr Elliott and, not forgetting, the wretched Mr Wickham. In reading the novels out of order, I was pleasantly surprised when the charming, open gentleman that Catherine first takes a liking to doesn’t turn out to be a scoundrel.
I think it likely that Austen’s depictions of silent, brooding men have been partly responsible for their over-representation in romantic stories today when, although we all feel as though we’d love a handsome and reserved Mr Darcy, would probably, in reality, much prefer conversing and joking with someone as quick-witted and amiable as Mr Tilney. Perhaps Jane Austen thought that her own voice was expressed too strongly via Mr Tilney, particularly his commentaries on reading and his playful joking about the nature of women, but I find it difficult to understand how her other male protagonists are so different to this initial hero (except, of course, in their propriety).
I only hope that as Catherine matures she can grow to appreciate and enjoy her husband’s wit as I’m sure so many of Northanger Abbey’s readers do.
“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.”
“It would be mortifying to the feelings of many ladies, could they be made to understand how little the heart of a man is affected by what is costly or new in their attire… Woman is fine for her own satisfaction alone. No man will admire her the more, no woman will like her the better for it. Neatness and fashion are enough for the former, and a something of shabbiness or impropriety will be most endearing to the latter.”
“I cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible.”
“… her heart was affectionate, her disposition cheerful and open, without conceit or affectation of any kind – her manners just removed from the awkwardness and shyness of a girl; her person pleasing, and, when in good looks, pretty – and her mind about as ignorant and uninformed as the female mind at seventeen usually is.”
The wit of Henry Tilney:
“Now I must give one smirk, and then we may be rational again.” Catherine turned away her head, not knowing whether she might venture to laugh. “I see what you think of me,” said he gravely — “I shall make but a poor figure in your journal tomorrow.”
“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.”
“Indeed I shall say no such thing.”
“Shall I tell you what you ought to say?”
“If you please.”
“I danced with a very agreeable young man, introduced by Mr. King; had a great deal of conversation with him — seems a most extraordinary genius — hope I may know more of him. That, madam, is what I wish you to say.”
“I shall be most happy to make her better acquainted with them.”
“No doubt; but that is no explanation of the present.”
“What am I to do?”
“You know what you ought to do. Clear your character handsomely before her. Tell her that you think very highly of the understanding of women.”
“Miss Morland, I think very highly of the understanding of all the women in the world—especially of those—whoever they may be—with whom I happen to be in company.”
“That is not enough. Be more serious.”
“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.”