an uncommon hero…

Having thought about it a bit more, I find that my favorite Jane Austen novel, Northanger Abbey, is very closely followed by Persuasion and Mansfield Park. The only real difference is personal preference, for I dearly love these other two… but one character in Northanger draws me in more than any other. So, I can’t really recommend it more than the other two, or at least, I try not to.

Persuasion and Mansfield Park, being less known (or less popular, maybe) than Austen’s other novels, should definitely be read and considered more. These two books have less conflict than P&P, S&S, and Emma, but they don’t need all the dramatics to make a good story. If you love any novel of that era, from Jane Austen to Charlotte Brontë to Elizabeth Gaskell, then these two books (as well as Northanger) are definitely for you. Don’t overlook them.

Now, back to my favorite… and the reason that it is my favorite. It shouldn’t really be hard to figure out, if you consider my love of words and reading. At least, that’s where it started for me.

Henry Tilney is one of Austen’s most talkative leading men, and I’m going by the book here, not the movie. There are marvelous passages with words from her other heroes, and don’t we all adore these scenes? But you can’t accuse Darcy of being talkative. Mr. Knightley is to the point and tends to tell Emma off over things that she does, but, in general, his words are fewer, and to the point. The rest of them have their conversations with their respective heroines, but the concentration of the story is not on what the men say, but more often, on what they do.

Catherine Morland is a young, innocent girl, embarking upon her first trip into society, when she goes to stay with her friends in Bath. Upon being introduced to Henry Tilney, she finds him to be lively, able to talk with fluency, pleasant, and a bit of a tease. But though Catherine is very ignorant about many things, he only teases her. He never makes a mock of her (you always get the feeling that he’s laughing with her). Moreover, he is kind and has excellent manners, easily putting those around him at ease. And as he is in his mid-twenties, he is comfortable in society and able to laugh over its foibles, and share the amusement with Catherine.

When faced with the insipid and monotonous conversation that always comes from Catherine’s chaperone, Mrs. Allen, we find that Tilney’s manners are very good indeed. Darcy would have acted bored. Henry Tilney shows what it is to be a true gentleman, carrying on a conversation with her, and even if he found her amusing, he never rolls an eye in her presence.

A behind-the-scenes clip for the Northanger Abbey movie implies that there eventually develops a love triangle between Catherine, Tilney, and John Thorpe, who enters the scene not long after this. But this is really a ridiculous statement, as there is no competition right from the start. I still haven’t figured out when Tilney seriously began to consider Catherine, but Catherine never took an interest in Thorpe, not in the slightest. Why would you? For after the description I’ve given you of Henry, why would you fall for someone who is loud, obnoxious, deceitful, rude, never talks but he brags, and never brags about anything but things that don’t interest Catherine in the slightest? There can be no comparison between John Thorpe and Henry Tilney, and there can be no love triangle, when there is no competition.

Mr. Tilney leaves Bath, intending to fetch his father and sister, and so Catherine is left to be surrounded by the society of the Thorpes. With no thoughts worth having, their family does nothing better than introduce Catherine to more novels. For above all things, she loves to read gothic novels.

Austen (who obviously has nothing against a good novel) begins this book with the intent of telling us a tale of a girl, loaded with imagination and romantic aspirations, who cannot fall into those tales of horror from Mrs. Radcliffe’s books, because she is living in the real world. Austen goes out of her way to point out the normalcy of Miss Morland’s upbringing and the calm, reasonable characters of her parents. Romance may come, but it will not be in the form of murders, abductions, and gothic horror. But then, Catherine is innocent enough to not know this.

“I consider a country-dance as an emblem of marriage. Fidelity and complaisance are the principal duties of both; and those men who do not choose to dance or marry themselves, have no business with the partners or wives of their neighbors.” –Henry Tilney, Northanger Abbey

When Henry Tilney comes back into Catherine’s life, we see the start of one of the most interesting conversations I’ve ever read. Tilney discusses the symbolism between marriage and dancing, and unable to keep up with him, Catherine insists that there are no similarities. But he continues to enlighten her ignorance, believing that if she doesn’t understand yet, she will eventually. He does not “dumb it down” for her.

“You will allow that in both, man has the advantage of choice, woman only the power of refusal; that in both, it is an engagement between man and woman, formed for the advantage of each; and that when once entered into, they belong exclusively to each other till the moment of its dissolution; that it is their duty, each to endeavour to give the other no cause for wishing themselves elsewhere, and their best interest to keep their own imaginations from wandering towards the perfections of their neighbours, or fancying that they should have been better off with anyone else.” –Henry Tilney, Northanger Abbey

With such a definition of dancing and marriage, I already want to marry this man. Would that our modern world believed in his definition of marriage. Belonging exclusively to one another, endeavoring to look for the best interest of their partner, and not let their imaginations go wandering? Tilney could’ve been a marriage counselor, in another time and place.

I will jump farther ahead into the book, as otherwise, I’ll go over every detail, and I really don’t have the time for it. Anyone familiar with the story will know that the movie versions generally pitch the climax at the same place. Catherine has so much imagination that she imagines Tilney’s father capable of the utmost cruelty, and while visiting Northanger Abbey, she goes in search of proof. Of course, Henry catches her in his mother’s room, and gives her an earful over it, and she is rightfully awakened from her dreams, and completely crushed about it.

But in the movie, usually, Henry goes away, Catherine ends up being banished from Northanger, by Tilney’s father (for reasons unknown, at first), and the next time they speak, is when they are reunited at her home.

In the book, however, Catherine’s adventure in Mrs. Tilney’s room is not nearly at the end of the story. Catherine is crushed that Henry has seen how silly and childish she can be, and wishes that she would never have to see him again. But instead, Henry hasn’t left, and she has to face him that very evening. And if nothing else leans you in his favor, I think this to be one of the kindest acts in literary history. Instead of ignoring her and crushing her with his polite indifference, he knows her well enough to realize how much she’s in need of comfort. And he responds in the only way a gentleman could, by talking to her, drawing her out, and doing his best to make her comfortable again.

Do you see? Even before he begins to love her, he treats her just as he does when he dances with her, and just as he practices what he preaches, concerning the similarities of dancing and marriage. But he takes it a step further, as he obviously isn’t married to her, and he began as her friend. He looks out for her best interest, putting her first and himself second. Which is really showing her love (love is an action, which you can show to anyone!), even when it wasn’t yet romantic love.

Austen mentions, near the end of the book, an interesting note on the love story of these two. That Henry Tilney never fell in love with Catherine, until he realized that she cared for him, first. He saw her as a friend, a charming acquaintance, and then realized that her heart was his, and from there, he came to see her as more than a friend. I like this, because it holds with the idea that you can be friends with a person, before you fall for them, rather than being attracted at first sight. I love the line that says that “finding him irresistible, she became irresistible herself”. She was young and innocent enough to not know how to hide her feelings, so he reached out for a heart that was already his.

And finally, in skimming over a good portion of the book, with plenty of conversation, I didn’t even mention Tilney’s love of reading and words. So, here goes. Jane Austen gave into Henry Tilney’s hands (or mouth) the immortal words, “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.” I could base my love of Henry Tilney on those words alone.

But he doesn’t stop there, he continues on to talk about reading books from start to finish, staying up all night, with his hair standing on end. What Austen hero has ever done this? And then he proceeds to tease Catherine over her use of the word “nice”. I’ve heard that discussion, even in this day and age. The word used to mean “neat or tidy”, and now it means everything that we want it to. I have some other wordy friends that go even further into these discussions than I do.

The talk continues into history, education, and then art… where they leave both Catherine and myself behind. I know very little about art, but after just a taste of Tilney’s conversation, I’d never want him to stop talking, either.

Speaking of stopping, I need to call a halt. There you have it, my many reasons for considering Henry Tilney to be epitome of a gentleman, with not a dull bone in his body. His kindness, intelligence, wit, and charm would win over any girl… and here I am, in real life, and in the wrong century.

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