Northanger Abbey's Henry Tilney is Jane Austen's best leading man
I can see it now – women clutching their “I heart Darcy” totes to their chest, gasping in shock and indignation at this headline. For the 200-odd years Jane Austen has been with us, Pride and Prejudice’s Fitzwilliam Darcy has reigned supreme as her most desirable leading man – a fact amply assisted by Colin Firth and his portrayal of the Regency-era hero as a lake-diving, wet shirt-wearing heartthrob.
But I’m here to tell you, cinematic lake diving aside, you’re wrong. Mr. Darcy isn’t Austen’s best hero. One of her lesser-known gentlemen is: Mr. Henry Tilney – the bookish, amiable clergyman of Northanger Abbey.
Yes, I too swoon each time I hear Darcy’s proposal – the clipped-tone confession of “In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.” Admittedly the point of Pride and Prejudice is that both characters overcome their assumptions and personal faults to realize they are perfect for each other – but this doesn’t change the fact that Darcy is elitist, judgmental, and kind of an ass.
Though Henry Tilney was one of Austen’s earlier creations and Northanger Abbey was completed in 1803, it wasn’t published until after Austen’s death in 1817 alongside Persuasion. All of Austen’s novels possess a hearty degree of satirical skewering, but Northanger Abbey is the only one that is an outright satire – spearing the popularity and tropes of the Gothic novel. Out of that archness and winking tone arises Henry Tilney – a kind, witty, thoughtful, handsome hero (who stands in stark contrast to the tortured souls at the center of most Gothic novels).
When we (and the heroine Catherine Morland) first meet Tilney, he is immediately appealing. Austen describes him as “rather tall” with a “pleasing countenance” and “intelligent and lively eye.” Beyond that, he talks with “fluency and spirit” and has “an archness and pleasantry in his manner.” Unlike Darcy, who doesn’t pay Elizabeth Bennet the basic courtesy of dancing with her upon their first meeting, Tilney is warm and considerate. He not only dances with Catherine (who is new to town), but he also carries on a conversation with her in which he seems genuinely captivated by her life and interests – he uses his wit and sarcasm to rib her, but never in a cruel way. Then he admits to having knowledge of (and interest in) fabric and women’s fashion, just after declaring, “excellence is pretty fairly divided between the sexes.” Tilney is a proto-feminist. Full stop.
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He shows his forward-thinking manner and his respect for the minds of women in an oft-quoted passage from the novel. Though Catherine is an ardent lover of Gothic novels, such as those by Anne Radcliffe, she assumes Henry won’t have read them, saying “they are not clever enough for you – gentlemen read better books.” Tilney retorts, “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.” The phrase, taken out of context, has been plastered across a litany of Austen merchandise as a rallying cry for bibliophiles (especially bookish women) in the intervening centuries. Here, Tilney stands against a pervasive bias that still exists today– because something, be it a novel, film, or television show, is defined as being created for the interest of women, it must be somehow lesser.
Tilney is a romantic hero and Catherine’s ideal match largely because he does not dismiss or belittle the interests and pursuits of women. He enjoys reading novels; he is good at selecting women’s clothing; and he is not afraid to declare these things proudly to a woman of relatively new acquaintance. He is straightforward, earnest, and refreshingly progressive in his stance (if he were alive today, he would absolutely bristle at the word “chick lit”).
He so appreciates and relishes Catherine’s love of Gothic novels that he uses it as a means of connecting with her further. When they are on their way to visit the titular Northanger Abbey (his family home), he feeds her imagination, joking that the house is full of “horrors.” He’s not humoring her; he genuinely enjoys the banter and is equally as familiar with the tropes of the Gothic novel as she is. When Catherine takes it a step further and starts to believe the house holds dark secrets, Tilney does not humiliate her or castigate her for her vivid imaginings – he rationally and calmly asks her to re-examine her train of thought. She is embarrassed all the same, but not through any deliberate shaming or outrage of his. He handles the situation with his characteristic even-keeled affability and mild bemusement.
Mr. Darcy is a classic alpha male and has provided the blueprint for many a romantic hero since. He initially rejects Elizabeth Bennet callously; he bristles at her family members and her upbringing; he calls her appearance “tolerable;” and outright tells her the very idea of falling for her was repulsive to him. This is not to say other men in Austen’s novels aren’t quieter and cut from a similar “beta” cloth as Henry Tilney – Edward Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility drives Elinor to despair because he’s so non-demonstrative. But Edward (and other heroes of his ilk in Mansfield Park and elsewhere) comes with the baggage of a prior relationship, and his inability to speak up for himself causes others undue amounts of pain. Tilney suffers no such lack of backbone or emotional puerility.
When Henry’s father unceremoniously casts Catherine from Northanger Abbey while he is away, Tilney does not bow to parental pressure or even give Catherine much time to doubt him. He goes to her home to ensure she has returned safely, apologize for the way she was treated, and propose marriage. Here there is no grand romantic proclamation, at least not one we’re privy to as readers. Instead, Austen describes Henry as delighting in the “excellencies” of Catherine’s character and loving her company. Henry’s affection and desire to marry Catherine don’t arise from a sudden romantic outburst, but rather a gradual meeting of two minds that promises “perfect happiness.”
In 2017, the dam is breaking (at least in some circles) on mistreatment of women and casual sexual harassment and abuse; women are not only saying “me too,” but also “Enough. We will stand for this no longer.” Mr. Darcy can keep his “negging” tactics to himself, thank you very much. Eventually Darcy tells Elizabeth “one word from you will silence me forever” – so he does begrudgingly lessen his controlling, haughty nature for the sake of love. And yet, the notion of a man who is worn-down into realizing he loves a woman who is against everything he expected for himself is not nearly as satisfying as one who is warm, thoughtful, kind, and progressively minded from the get-go. Romance novelist Sarah MacLean wrote movingly in the Washington Post of how the 2016 election caused her to scrap her latest alpha male hero in favor of one who was an “alpha feminist” – someone who does not scoff at or reject female power and pastimes.
Austen created this man in Henry Tilney 200 years ago. At a time where we could use more kindness, more listening, more respect, and a passionate advocate for equality, this bookish, witty, intuitive, patient, sympathetic, and understanding man is far more romantic and sexy than any tantalizing glimpse of Darcy’s wet shirt.