Henry Tilney: Austen's Feminized Hero?

Article excerpt

IN NORTHANGER ABBEY, Austen praises the novel form as she satirizes elements of the gothic novel, particularly the female gothic: medieval edifices; an atmosphere of mystery and suspense; inexplicable events; discovered fragmented narratives; the powerful, tyrannical male; the woman in distress. Jane Spencer and others have noted an additional element: the feminized hero. These critics claim that, in the eighteenth-century female gothic novel, and especially in the novels of Ann Radcliffe, the heroine triumphs over male authoritarianism by marriage to a "feminized hero," achieving a union "where womanly virtue and patriarchal authority are no longer in conflict" (Spencer 207). The companionate model of marriage, therefore, replaces the authoritarian, patriarchal model.

That Austen recognized this additional characteristic of the female gothic is not surprising. Even in her youth, Austen was a perceptive reader. Her Juvenilia, with its satire of excessive sensibility and its clever twists of literary motifs, is ample proof. Additionally, Austen's writings confirm that she is a socially conscious author, broaching important topics such as class, inheritance practices, imperialism, the role of clergy, and gender relations. But Austen's internalization of the national angst embodied in the emerging novel form finds deeper expression than mere lighthearted satire of the gothic. General Tilney plays Austen's version of the villain, an evil patriarchal figure, and Henry can be viewed as her clever acknowledgement of the feminization of the hero, characteristic of the female gothic. However, even though Austen's comic wit shines in her acknowledgement of the feminized hero, Henry is much more than another opportunity for Austen to parody the female gothic. He is a complex character, a hero who demonstrates that a heroine can achieve a companionate union through marriage to a strong man, if his strength is coupled with integrity.

Michael McKeon, in The Origins of the English Novel, 1600-1740, argues that the new novel form documents Britain's growing "discord of internals and externals, of virtue, status, wealth, and power" (150). In other words, while earlier literary forms assume a connection between aristocracy and virtue, the new novel form does not; in fact, the novel challenges that assumption and locates virtue and honor in the character of the individual rather than in his patrilineage or rank. The innocent Catherine's early impressions of Henry's father illustrate the traditional assumption. In Bath she finds herself "earnestly regarded by a gentleman who stood among the lookers-on, ... a very handsome man, of a commanding aspect, past the bloom, but not past the vigour of life," and from Henry she learns that this man is the General, his father (NA 80, emphasis mine). Later, however, when she is subjected to the oppressive atmosphere surrounding General Tilney at Milsom-street, she is "puzzled" and cannot "account for" the collective unease: "It could not be General Tilney's fault. That he was perfectly agreeable and good-natured, and altogether a very charming man, did not admit of a doubt, for he was tall and handsome, and Henry's father" (129). That he is handsome and Henry's father certainly contribute to her desire to think well of him, but she is also swayed by the fact that he is a gentleman and in a respected position of authority.

Because of these long-established symbols of honor and virtue, she believes that General Tilney should be a good man. Instead, he is not a particularly virtuous person, and his motives are much the same as other patriarchs in gothic novels: he wants the heroine's money, and he plans to get it through subterfuge ending in Catherine's marriage to his son. He has "designed her for his daughter in law" (244). Later, when Henry's father discovers that Catherine is not a rich heiress and brusquely sends her on her way, she finds it "incomprehensible" that "so well-bred" a man could do something "so grossly uncivil" (226). …

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