Fans of Jane Austen, who is your favorite Austen hero? The repentant Darcy, the honorable Knightley, the gallant Wentworth?
Did you think of Henry Tilney? He is overlooked because Northanger Abbey, a spoof of the gothic novel, is not usually ranked near the top among Austen’s novels. As I embark on a rereading of the six novels beginning with Northanger Abbey, the earliest written, it occurs to me that Austen created in Henry Tilney a feminist hero two centuries ahead of his time.
“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,” Henry’s sister Eleanor tells the heroine, Catherine Morland.
“In every power, in which taste is the foundation, excellence is pretty fairly divided between the sexes,” Henry himself says.
Unlike Pride and Prejudice’s Mr. Darcy, Henry doesn’t need to change. He is fine from the start. He is respectful toward Catherine from their first meeting, interested in what she has to say, and solicitous about making her comfortable. Some critics think the better-educated Henry lectures her, but his remarks can also be seen as helping her formulate her own opinions. Readers who note his sarcasm about female interests and abilities are missing the joke. Eleanor urges him to stop bluffing because Catherine “is not used to your odd ways.”
Henry is funny, intelligent, and well-read. His conversation is immensely entertaining; no other Austen hero has so much to say on so many topics. He thinks for himself and is unafraid to mock social conventions or oppose his tyrannical father. Catherine’s guilelessness attracts him. When she fears she has alienated him by suspecting his father of murder, Henry’s extra attentiveness assures her otherwise.
Women’s interests draw Henry’s respect. When Catherine says that gentlemen read “better books” than novels, he answers, “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.” He can even discuss the quality of the muslin used in dress making. “My sister has often trusted me in the choice of a gown,” he tells Catherine’s astonished guardian.
Because I think that even those who will never read a Jane Austen novel should not miss out on Henry Tilney’s sparkling conversation, I’m listing here my favorite Henry and Catherine scenes. You can find them in Project Gutenberg’s online edition of Northanger Abbey. They are understandable outside the context of the book.
Chapter 3, beginning with the second paragraph: Henry and Catherine’s first meeting at a dance, where Henry speaks about the typical chatter in Bath, women’s journal writing, and his knowledge of muslin
Chapter 10, beginning with “This was the last sentence by which he could . . . ”: Another dance; this time Henry compares dancing with marriage
Chapter 14, beginning at the start: Catherine takes a walk with Henry and Eleanor and is treated to his opinions on novels, the precise use of words, and landscape painting
Chapter 19, beginning with the second paragraph: Henry’s thoughts on jealousy and constancy in romantic relationships
Chapter 20, beginning with “‘And are you prepared to encounter all the horrors . . .’”: Henry’s teasing Catherine about the “horrors” — the scary aspects of an old castle — awaiting her at Northanger Abbey
Chapter 25, beginning with “‘I am sorry . . .’”: Henry consoles Catherine when she learns that her brother was jilted
Austen scholars have debated whether she was a feminist. I see no reason to doubt that Henry Tilney expresses Austen’s own opinions. In fact, from what her biographers tell us about her personality and attitudes, she may have created no other character, male or female, more like her.