Northanger Abbey: Volume II, Chapters 15 - 16 (30 - 31)

To Austen-l

Re: Why does Henry Tilney turn up at the parsonage?

As we all know, upon John Thorpe subtracting from Catherine the mythical wealth he had endowed Catherine with, General Tilney most unceremoniously kicks out her out: "and I want her out of here before I get up ..." or words to this effect are what the unhappy Miss Tilney had to hear. The General then forbids his son to think of Miss Morland as sweepingly as he had ordered him to think of her. But Henry does not desert his lady; rather, for the first time in his life, he refuses to yield, and off he goes on the next afternoon to propose to Catherine that day. The questions have arisen: why? and to what extent is this very different from conduct of young men today?

The latter is probably impossible to generalize about. That Tilney is as chivalric in his behavior as Catherine is a true heroine in hers (not according to Gothic nonsense, but according to the standard of kindness and constancy of heart) is clear. I would hazard a guess it has been, is, and will continue to be uncommon. Last semester when I taught this novel I received a moving "personal" journal from a student who said the novel was deeply engaging to her precisely because she had recently found herself going to a party with young people who were richer than her parents, had been attracted to and attracted a young and handsome guy who had at first seemed to love her; he visited her at her grandparents' home, which was "up" to his; but when she returned to the lower middle parental nest and he came to visit her there, and saw her public school, and met her normal circle of friends, he cut her dead when she next visited her grandparents. The girl suggested a humiliating moment. How different was Henry Tilney, said she. How unlike today's young man, said she. How unlike most days' young men, said her instructor to herself (me).

Why Henry did this Austen is at pains to explain. There is this summing up sentence, none of whose members should be ignored:

his [the General's] anger, though it must shock, could not intimate Henry, who was sustained in his purpose by a conviction of its justice. He felt himself bound as much in honour as in affection to Miss Moralnd, and believing that heart to be his own which he had been directed to gain, no unworthy retraction of a tacit consent, no reversing decree of unjustifiable anger, could shake his fidelity, or influence the resolutions it prompted (Oxford, Vol II, Ch XV, 248).

First, for affection. Henry begins to fall in love with Catherine because she is so clearly deeply engaged by him; if nothing else, he must admire her excellent taste. Thus our narrator after Catherine protests against Henry's slight sarcasm about her wishing he and his sister a pleasant walk after (it appeared) she had stood them up:

'But indeed I ddi not wish you a pleasant walk; I never thought of such a thing; but I begged Mr. Thorpe so earnestly to stop; I called out to him as soon as I saw you; now Mrs. Allen, did not--Oh! you were not there; but indeed I did; and if Mr Thorpe would only have stopped, I would have jumped out and ran after you.' Is there a Henry in the world who could be insensible of such a declaration? (I, XII, 93)

The sort of misunderstanding for which Catherine is not guilty, and ensuring scene between the two and a similar commentary are repeated at the theatre.

In both of the above one cannot avoid seeing Catherine's lack of hypocrisy and her fullness of heart; this sincerity and a kindness of heart is inculcated everywhere in the novel and it is the second motive for Henry's deep attraction to Catherine well before the General "orders" him to think of her as his wife. There are the two delightful scenes where Catherine begs him to tell his brother that Isabella is engaged, and warn his brother how he will be hurt. In the second he clearly sees neither his brother nor Isabella (that total bitch) has a heart, but that Catherine does; she is in pain for her brother; how many people are in pain for others' pain. And he goes deeper in: he says things like 'I will not say do not be uenasy,' because I know that you are so, at this moment but be as little uneasy as you can ... (II, IV, 152).

Austen has a good deal of fun with Catherine: Henry falls for her because she "listen[s] with sparkling eyes to everything he said; and, in finding him irresisstible, become[s] so herself" [II, I, 131]; or when they go for their wonderful walk and he lectures her on the beauties of the landscape and she is ready to dismiss Bath on his say-so: "Catherine did not know her own advantages--did not know that a good- looking girl, with an affectionate heart and a very ignorant mind, cannot fail of attracting a clever young man, unless circumstances are particularly untoward" [I, XIV, 111]. But she is clear on this: Henry first falls in love, and his loyalty to Catherine is a product of his real respect for her values and love for her heart as much as it is for his abhorrence of his father's betrayal, any shameless dismissal of of her deepened feelings and expectations over the long haul of her visit to Northanger. This is not to Henry, but to that boor and lout John Thorpe, but it shows Catherine's values which Henry understands: Catherine simply says: "to marry for money I think the wickedest thing is existence" [I, XV, 124}. She innocent of all the things Mary Crawford has learned, but to Austen--and Henry-- she's right.

So, if I understood Henry Crawford correctly-- and I may have not--it is not true that Henry Tilney turns up at the parsonage because he is honoring his father's implied promises above all. He is honoring those promises because his fidelity and affections had been gained at Bath, and then solidified at Northanger. As Austen says in the conclusion of her famous last sentence:

professing myself moreover convinced, that the General's unjust interference, so far from being really injurious to their felicity, was perhaps rather conducive to it, by improving their knowledge of one another, and adding strength to their attachment, I leave it to be settled by whomsoever it may concern, whether the tendency of this work be altogether to recommend parental tyranny, or reward filial disobedience [II, XVI, 252]

To repeat Austen's words, the knowledge was there before the General interfered (indeed he interferes we learn because he did observe his son's attentions to Catherine), so too the attachment. The General strengthened this; he didn't create it. And Henry's not an idiot; he has a "very considerable fortune" without Dad, "by marriage settlements ... [and] his present income ... an income of independence and comfort."

Ellen Moody

Re: Fay Weldon's Errors and a Purported Crush

This to Dorothy Gannon: when I referred to the possible mistakes Ms Weldon had committed in her _On First Reading_, I was remembering a posting Henry [Churchyard] wrote some time ago in which he pointed out some of these. And I always defer to Henry [Churchyard] :), except of course sometimes, as when he accuses me of a crush on Henry [Tilney], though I put it to the list, is not Henry [Tilney] the most flawless of Austen's heroes? What can we accuse him of? Is he a dolt? No. Preachy to witty girls? No. Is he saturnine? No. Is he arrogant? Never. Constant? Yes. Kind? Yes. Charming? Usually. He is young. I always make it a point to forgive people for being young; it's not their fault, I tell myself. It is true he does not suffer in the way Captain Wentworth, say, suffers. And it is true that the heroine must accept the less than exalted motive that her hero loved her because she, poor transparent child, couldn't hide her adoration of him. But are we not to be gay sometimes?

Austen gave Henry Tilney an independent comfortable income; she made him handsome, smart, and debonair; easy in social situations, able to dance divinely and talk too; well-read and up on the latest in the picturesque, keen on country walks; not a liar or hypocrite; with a sister as impeccable as he in all qualities a girl might want in a true friend. Not content with this she made him determined and strong enough to act in a morally upright and decent way; calm in his clear sightedness of obligations one has created; and then placed him in Catherine's way in Bath, equipped with a Radcliffian abbey no less. And then she poured into him as much of her gaiety and a youthful kind of comfortable wisdom and acceptance of life from a position of strength such a man might be supposed to be able to have. He is irresistible.

Ellen Moody

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Page Last Update 22 March 2003