Hi, love your insights! I was hoping you could help me appreciate Henry Tilney. I want to love him and like that he's one of the few 'charming', playful Austen males who's not a cad, but he seems so smug and condescending to me. Some of what is supposed to be playful banter towards Catherine comes across as so patronizing. And at the end we even hear he never felt anything for Catherine until he was flattered by her obvious crush on him. I have trouble seeing him truly respecting her. Thanks!
Hello and thanks, anon!
Henry Tilney, like all heroes, is a mixed bag. To have him be instantly smitten by Catherine (who is admittedly young and somewhat ignorant and not all that particularly talented or beautiful, even if she is a good little soul,) would be leaning too close to what I think Austen was consciously trying to avoid in Northanger Abbey–which is a light satire of Gothic novels of the time, where of course the romantic interest would be drawn to the heroine’s charms almost immediately. Henry is more like a 20-something guy we’ve all met in our lives–one with a tendency towards being a smug asshole. I feel it’s important we acknowledge this and don’t try to excuse it, necessarily, because he needs character growth, too. He’s one of Austen’s younger heroes, though he is not the youngest, but certainly apart from his dad being kind of a dick and the loss of his mother, (not an uncommon set of circumstances in a Pre-Penicillin Patriarchy,) hasn’t really encountered any struggles in his life. He’s got a home and a job he likes, and is independent enough to mostly do as he pleases in terms of fucking off to Bath for funsies when he feels like it.
He is a condescending dick to Catherine from time to time, and we are meant to see it. Not that one should Give Dickbags a Chance, but this is the 18th century, and given Catherine’s own personal growth arc focused on being a better and wiser human being, we can hope that Henry follows a similar path, though his shifts are of less interest to the narrator as Catherine is her primary focus. We are assured that they are happy together, in the end, and it may be presumed that the influence of Catherine’s open affection inspires deeper feeling in Henry, which is not necessarily a bad thing. As Austen wrote elsewhere, few people have courage enough to be really in love without a little encouragement, and Catherine’s principle charm lies in her lack of pretense and obvious liking for Henry. If his own vanity then helps him to appreciate a girl who clearly appreciates him, it’s still a foot in the door of Love.
Theirs is by no means a perfect romance, but the story of two young un-extraordinary people who, by accidents and their own folly, wind up with something kind and understanding between them that deepens into a true attachment. And sometimes, that’s okay. Henry doesn’t need to be a saint, he just needs to grow up a little, and so does Catherine. His quickness will broaden her innocent understanding as they spend their time together, and he will not so easily be able to sneak things past her once she is used to his ways and knows of his tendency towards condescension in some of his teasing; and her forgiving good-nature will no doubt soften some of his more barbed wit as they get older, together. I was sassy as hell in my younger years, but I know I said some really cruel things, too; (still do! work in progress!) and I would not go back to it for all the glories of roasting someone who didn’t really deserve it, simply to stroke my own ego over my cleverness. I think Henry is going through that process, and Catherine will help him to do it, as he will help her out of her naive shell and to become the more worldly and witty mature woman she is capable of being.