May 17, 1999
Re: NA, Ch 19: 'He knows what he is about and must be his own master'
While I agree that it is most unlikely that Henry Tilney would urge anything on his brother from an idealistic or moral standpoint (he would be laughed at), there is nothing in the text to suggest Henry argued from any selfish standpoint either. He has in fact little to gain or lose from anything his brother might do _vis-a-vis_ a Miss Isabella Thorpe. She is nothing, no one. I don't notice the General noticing her. Who would? No one who had anything worldly in mind. Equally to the point we have not seen Henry do anything that is mean-minded; his character thus far is presented as witty, somewhat disillusioned, as someone who does not suffer fools too patiently (but does not overtly hurt them), as a kind brother to his sister, obedient enough son. He can repeat cant which makes fun of women (on letter- writing, as novel-readers), but in each instance his teasing is brought up short and ceases very quickly upon Eleanor's bringing in the gentlest of protests. He immediately turns round to say, for example, anyone who does not like Mrs Radcliffe must be stupid, or he is talking of the generality and what's said not of any particular individual. There is an urge to bad-mouth male characters in Austen I don't share.
The dialogue between Henry and Captain Tilney which we are not privy to is one we are not privy to. On Austen-l and in various published articles people discuss the reality that Austen never allows us to hear two men talking together where there is no woman present. The closest we get to this is a bit of reported dialogue between Sir Thomas Bertram and his son, Tom, over Tom's profligate ways, and Sir Thomas is very proper. We also overhear Darcy and Bingley talk, but again this is in public and it is conversation overheard by at least Elizabeth. Her mortification comes from her sense other overheard it too.
Austen said she didn't dramatise what she had not seen: what she had seen was enough to let her know that when women weren't present young men were profane, coarse, and anything but sentimental. If we are not inclined to be realistic about young men, she is in her way.
We are told by Henry precisely this: he has informed his brother that Miss Thorpe is engaged, and he has not tried to persuade him to do anything: 'He knows what he is about, and must be his own master' (Oxford NA, ed Chapman, 2:4, 150). This strikes me as similar to Catherine's behavior later in the book after General Tilney has thrown her out, she reaches home safely after all, and she must write Eleanor a letter. What to say. We are told that 'after long thought and much perplexity' she resolves the best, safest, and most efficacious thing is to say as little as possible. What one feels one must say out of conscience. Knightley does the same thing when he simply says to Emma after the chapter in which he watches Jane and Frank play alphabets, Has it ever crossed Emma's mind that Jane and Frank may have some undisclosed relationship no one else knows about? Nothing else. The warning note dropped. Make of it what you will. As is so common in the world, Emma hears it only through her ego, and grows indignant. The suavity and cynicism we see in Captain makes me suspect he's not emotional enough to be at all bothered. What is it his business if Isabella is engaged to Morland? Let Morland look to it. Perhaps the briefest of coarse comments was emitted from Captain Tilney and there was an end of it. But Henry had done his duty. Duty to whom? To his sense of what is right and decent to do. We see later on that he has a strong conscience (I mean when he defies his father and returns to Catherine) .
The one significant nugget Henry lets drop in his brief resume of his conversation with the Captain to Catherine is that his brother knows what he is about and is master of himself. Indeed. This is the truth about Captain Tilney that Isabella has failed to grasp. Except in the case of his egregiously bullying father whom Captain Tilney must obey (for the estate may not be entailed on the oldest son all that firmly), Captain Tilney does what he pleases. Even then the father's power is limited and the father knows it. Note that Captain Tilney comes and goes as he pleases; he does not get up early whatever fuss the general makes. He knew there might be a fuss. So what? He endures it, and tomorrow the bully will be gone. What's really interesting about Austen's characterisations are how life-like they are. How the characters are left -- as Lascelles and Dussinger both remarks -- with precisely that kind of serendipitious freedom we associate with normal life. They are not creatures of her plot. At any rate we are made to feel they are not.
To return to Isabella: her nets can only catch those whose emotions and decencies allow them to be caught. Among these are James and Catherine Morland. We can predict from the above line just what does happen: after a week's cool flirting, during which he is careful not to let drop the slightest weapon in words or gestures that Isabella could use against him to hold her to him, he will abscond. What's satisfying about this is we get a poetic justice (she deserves to be flat-left) which does not feel false; it comes right out of the characters themselves.
Addendum: Parallel with a Contemporary French novel.
There is a remarkable parallel between Henry's sentiment and one voiced in Sophie Cottine's Amélie Mansfield (first published 1803, and published in London in French in 1809): there are close parallels in character types, the situation and attitudes of the characters. This does not mean that Austen necessarily had Amélie Mansfield in mind even if it has even more striking parallels with Pride and Prejudice. What such parallels such is the participation of all Austen's books with the terrain of contemporary French novels and how Northanger Abbey should be considered a novel written in her later years and compared in aesthetic techniques and deeper attitudes to Emma and Persuasion, not a novel of her earlier years and compared in mood if not technique to Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility (it has often been shown that P&P and S&S show signs of their origins in epistolary narrative while Northanger Abbey does not.