What are readers of Northanger Abbey to make of Henry Tilney, one of Jane Austen’s two marriage-age male characters bearing the Christian name of her favorite and most rascally brother? Witty, playful, laid-back, girl-friendly, knowledgeable about muslins and gowns, Henry Tilney is unique among the men who end up married to a Jane Austen heroine though related in certain ways to some of them. Is he a gentler, kinder hero? Or a heroine with a Y chromosome? The term “beta male,” originating in ethological studies of hierarchies among wolves and other pack animals and now loosely applied in various ways to humans in contemporary popular discourse, accurately characterizes him in several ways.
In a pack, the alpha male and alpha female are the strongest of their sexes. Alpha males are leaders who eat and mate before other pack members do—until and unless deposed by a more powerful challenger. In human groups, the alphas are, as in wolfpacks, competitive and charismatic leaders. They characteristically excel in attaining what their cultures (or packs) value. Among humans, that generally means wealth, prestige, and attractive sexual partners. Cultures like that of Austen’s England might seem particularly suitable for description according to this ethological model because patriarchy, a well-defined if mobile class system, and the optional but widespread legal practices of primogeniture and entailment among the landed classes combined to create a formal alpha status within families or social groups. Men privileged by the system could, like alpha wolves, engross resources (“eat”) and marry (“mate”) much more freely and advantageously than men with inferior family or social positions could. In a human pack such as Jane Austen’s preferred collective subject of scrutiny—“3 or 4 Families in a Country Village” (9 September 1814)—an individual possessing socially determined alpha status might sometimes have innate alpha traits, and in such a case nurture certainly would intensify what was also natural. But in other cases a man born to alphadom might be beta by temperament or training. Or a man with less-than-alpha social circumstances and personal advantages might aspire to, and attempt to impersonate, alpha status.
When the concept of “beta male” is carried over into human societies, its range of meanings is variable and sometimes self-contradictory. The term “beta male” might indicate the second most prestigious member of a group, the understudy or backup to the alpha—as would be the case for second brothers in landed families with entailed estates. In other usages, beta stands in opposition to alpha, with the beta male’s values being radically different from the alpha’s. The second of three contemporary definitions of the term in the online Urban Dictionary stresses this oppositional sense: “betas are wingmen, collaborative and conciliatory. . . . The beta has poetry in him, and a touch of youthful idealism. He’s sure of who he is, and not constantly trying to prove his value in materialistic terms. . . . There’s something rebellious about the beta male; he challenges the social order rather than succumbing to it. The beta male doesn’t buy in to the basest stereotypes about male behavior.”
The ensuing interpretation focusing on Henry Tilney’s personality development in terms of several components—birth order, family dynamics, profession, and socioeconomic status—will be using the term “beta male” eclectically, with explicit recognition that it describes Henry’s position within his family and society but also characterizes his personality and values. This portrait of a hero as beta male will show how Henry Tilney compares with other bachelors paired with Austen heroines or precluded from espousing them. It will also aim to illuminate how he fits into the Austen categories of unmarried clergymen and younger sons of the country-house class.
Let’s begin with some facts about Henry Tilney before proceeding to speculations. He’s the second son of landed gentry: General Tilney of Northanger Abbey, Gloucestershire, and his nine-years-dead wife, who was a 20,000 pounder. He’s the middle child, with an older brother, Captain Frederick, and a younger sister, Eleanor. He’s twenty-four or twenty-five at the start of the novel and is in holy orders. He holds a handsome family living as the rector of Woodston, a “populous village” about twenty miles from Northanger, where, with a Newfoundland dog and two or three terriers, he inhabits a “new-built substantial stone house” with grounds much improved by his father (212). We learn neither the exact income of Henry’s parish nor the amount of money devolving on him from his mother’s fortune and his father’s largesse, though the General claims to Catherine that either alone would offer him financial independence. And it’s easy to see that the family lives in style. So even though some details are vague, it’s evident that Henry would be a highly desirable match for a girl with Catherine’s modest endowments. Indeed he’d be the sort of catch the young Charles Darwin’s flirtatious friend Fanny Owen termed a “shootable.”
In Mansfield Park the narrator discloses details and back-story for Henry Crawford even as the characters of the novel are forming and revising their subjective impressions of him. In the case of Northanger Abbey’s Henry, readers observe almost entirely from Catherine’s point of view. We are seldom told things she doesn’t know or given an explicit objective supplement to her markedly subjective and generally naïve impressions and reactions. Austen’s goal here is that we recognize for ourselves Catherine’s misapprehensions and her growth in independent judgment—we, like Catherine, are obliged to learn the occasional difference between what’s said and what is, to understand how facetiousness, hypocrisy, or mere human inconsistency complicate a trusting, literal approach to life. Early on, when scenes are dramatically rendered or are examined from Catherine’s viewpoint, we learn to have our irony detectors switched on because this Henry is as at least as playful as is his Crawfordian counterpart, though playful in an intellectual rather than a seductive way.
Wit and verbal play connect Henry Tilney with such other Austen characters as Wickham, Willoughby, and Frank Churchill as well as with his namesake Crawford. His clerical profession connects him with Mr. Collins, Mr. Elton, Dr. Grant, and Charles Hayter—and also, if aspiring parsons count, with Edmund Bertram and Edward Ferrars. The last two most closely resemble him in winning the hands of principal female characters. The former is also like him in being a second son; and both Edmund and Edward are, like Henry Tilney, beta males. That’s not necessarily so true of the non-clerical men who, along with Henry and Edmund, comprise Austen’s gallery of second sons or younger brothers: Colonel Brandon, Colonel Fitzwilliam, John Knightley, and Captain Wentworth.
When considered as a member of any of these categories, Henry Tilney seems something of an outlier. He’s alone among the wits in not being inclined to trifle with female feelings. He’s unique among the clergymen in having a lively spirit allied with good humor. He and Edmund, who strictly speaking is merely a clergyman-to-be until the very end of Mansfield Park, constitute a professional minority among the second or younger sons. One of the great pleasures of reading Austen is that, while working within an extremely consistent genre, she doesn’t repeat herself. Every character, even one with many apparent similarities to others in the Austen gallery, is a one-off. This recognition leads a reader to conclude that Jane Austen imagined her fictive microcosms as peopled by individual humans whose distinctive traits are consequences of unique contingencies: accidents of birth, nurture, environment, and experience. So Henry Tilney is as he is when we and Catherine meet him because the contingencies that have shaped him are unlike those shaping anyone else. We, like Catherine, gradually learn what some of those contingencies are. Some are told us, some are there to be inferred. But how we come to understand Henry Tilney as a man, a brother, a son, a rector, an acquaintance, a friend, a declared and accepted lover, also depends on another set of contingencies, those we as individual readers bring to the table. My Henry Tilney may be very different from yours—and both of our Henrys may vary markedly from Catherine’s.
Chapter Three of the first volume offers Catherine’s first acquaintance with Henry Tilney, who subverts the conventions of polite discourse by exposing them as conventions. In late twentieth- or twenty-first-century genres, this sort of pleasingly arch fellow would probably be, or become, the heroine’s gay confidant:
“I have hitherto been very remiss, madam, in the proper attentions of a partner here; I have not yet asked you how long you have been in Bath; whether you were ever here before; whether you have been at the Upper Rooms, the theatre, and the concert; and how you like the place altogether. I have been very negligent—but are you now at leisure to satisfy me in these particulars? If you are I will begin directly.”
“You need not give yourself that trouble, sir.”
“No trouble I assure you, madam.” Then forming his features into a set smile, and affectedly softening his voice, he added, with a simpering air, “Have you been long in Bath, madam?”
“About a week, sir,” replied Catherine, trying not to laugh.
“Really!” with affected astonishment.
“Why should you be surprized, sir?”
“Why, indeed!” said he, in his natural tone—“but some emotion must appear to be raised by your reply, and surprize is more easily assumed, and not less reasonable than any other.—Now let us go on. Were you never here before, madam?”
“Indeed! Have you yet honoured the Upper Rooms?”
“Yes, sir, I was there last Monday.”
“Have you been to the theatre?”
“Yes, sir, I was at the play on Tuesday.”
“To the concert?”
“Yes, sir, on Wednesday.”
“And are you altogether pleased with Bath?”
“Yes—I like it very well.”
“Now I must give one smirk, and then we may be rational again.” (25-26)
Because the two principals are perfect strangers when introduced, and because Jane Austen doesn’t habitually resort to having her characters smitten by love before interacting with the eventual beloved object, and finally because toward the end of the novel the narrator baldly informs us that “his affection originated in nothing better than gratitude, or, in other words, that a persuasion of her partiality for him had been the only cause of giving her a serious thought” (243), readers who have finished the book must conclude that this facetious first encounter is artful performance without a “serious thought” behind it, Henry Tilney freshening up the requisite social commonplaces that would otherwise bore a person of his lively sensibility. He does so by controlling the conventional discourse for his own amusement.
The “archness and pleasantry in his manner” that interests Catherine even as it baffles her might strike readers in different ways—and might be played by an actor for various effects. Is this witty, convention-subverting, conscious-of-self-consciousness air an indication of ingratiation or of aggression? Does the polished gentleman flummoxing an ingénue some seven years his junior like women or dislike them? Does his deliberately transparent controlling of the encounter rise out of ease or unease, confidence or insecurity? Catherine simply can’t tell—but after Mrs. Allen interrupts the tête à tête and the conversation redirects itself to an interchange between Henry and Mrs. Allen on gowns and muslins, Catherine begins to get the point and fears “that he indulged himself a little too much with the foibles of others” (29). He intuits as much from her body language and, by asking her thoughts, provokes the naïve Catherine to an utterance of Delphic ambiguity generated by her confusion but ostensibly taken by him for subtlety:
“What are you thinking of so earnestly?” said he, as they walked back to the ball-room;—“not of your partner, I hope, for, by that shake of the head, your meditations are not satisfactory.”
Catherine coloured, and said, “I was not thinking of any thing.”
“That is artful and deep, to be sure; but I had rather be told at once that you will not tell me.”
“Well then, I will not.”
“Thank you; for now we shall soon be acquainted, as I am authorized to tease you on this subject whenever we meet, and nothing in the world advances intimacy so much.” (29)
Although they dance again, this is the last reported conversation between the two before Henry mysteriously disappears from Bath—though not from Catherine’s thoughts, and perhaps not her dreams.
Henry’s reappearance, “as handsome and as lively as ever,” adds the charm of competition to that of mystery, for he’s now accompanied by “a fashionable and pleasing-looking young woman, who leant on his arm” (53). Biochemistry makes Catherine blush—but she’s soon relieved by Henry’s “smiling tribute of recognition” (54) and by her own conclusion that though “he had never mentioned a wife, . . . he had acknowledged a sister” (53)—a reasonable if somewhat optimistic hypothesis, plausible yet not definitive, especially because Catherine’s other reason for thinking Henry single is more obviously fallible: “he had not behaved, he had not talked, like the married men to whom she had been used” (53). How representative a sample might that set of married men be?
As Catherine’s time in Bath continues, we are privileged to see a girl little accustomed to thinking for herself gradually learn to exercise her native sound judgment and become something of an independent thinker, partly under her own steam and partly under Henry’s tutelage. This process is easier for her due to the blatant self-contradictions perpetually committed by John Thorpe, a striking human example of an insecure, low-prestige male aspiring to alpha status and badly imitating superficial alpha behaviors. Any reasonable person would soon learn to distinguish between what’s asserted and what’s true when listening to Thorpe’s self-contradictory bluster on the subject of his horse, his gig, drinking habits at Oxford, or most anything.
But Mr. Tilney is crucial to Catherine’s sharpened discernment, particularly for some of the finer points—and in this regard he seems a bit like yet another Henry who falls for the object of his pedagogy, Professor Higgins of Shaw’s Pygmalion and the spinoff musical My Fair Lady. Like Henry Higgins, Henry Tilney seems to take for granted the rightness of his instructing a young, unsophisticated female pupil. Should we see this as patriarchial privilege with a smile on its face but a scepter, ruler, or riding crop at the ready? Do apparent benevolence and evident humor mask a condescending attitude toward women? In Higgins’s case yes; in Tilney’s, almost certainly no. But neither is Henry Tilney feminized in his easy teacher-pupil relation with Catherine. He’s not Henry Higgins polishing Eliza Doolittle—but even less is he Emma Woodhouse molding Harriet Smith. A growing affection for and affinity with Catherine, eventually blended with dutiful compliance to a greedy if misinformed father’s wishes that he court her, makes Henry Tilney’s Pygmalionesque polishing of his Regency Galatea a complex project that morphs over time and that blends evolving proportions of detached self-amusement, serious concern for Catherine, and romantic self-interest.
The project’s first phase also blends sound instruction—mainly though not exclusively a matter of aesthetics rather than ethics, manners rather than morals—with outrageous irony and humor that could well confuse a literal-minded auditor. A prime example might be the well-known passage in which Henry, while dancing with Catherine, wittily interprets what they’re enacting, spinning out a delightful and plausible analogy in which partnership in a country dance is nothing less than a pro tem marriage:
“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 chuse to dance or marry themselves, have no business with the partners or wives of their neighbours.”
“But they are such very different things!—”
“—That you think they cannot be compared together.”
“To be sure not. People that marry can never part, but must go and keep house together. People that dance, only stand opposite each other in a long room for half an hour.”
“And such is your definition of matrimony and dancing. Taken in that light certainly, their resemblance is not striking; but I think I could place them in such a view.—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 that he or she had bestowed 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 any one else. You will allow all this?”
“Yes, to be sure, as you state it, all this sounds very well; but still they are so very different.—I cannot look upon them at all in the same light, nor think the same duties belong to them.”
“In one respect, there certainly is a difference. In marriage, the man is supposed to provide for the support of the woman; the woman to make the home agreeable to the man; he is to purvey, and she is to smile. But in dancing, their duties are exactly changed; the agreeableness, the compliance are expected from him, while she furnishes the fan and the lavender water.” (77)
The blend of playful wit and penetrating good sense in Henry Tilney’s share of this dialogue, his skill at anticipating and scripting Catherine’s responses, and his improvisational versatility all prove typical of his Bath relations with Catherine. He strikes much the same tone on the excursion to Beechen Cliff when he admits, though a man, to being a fan of Mrs. Radcliffe’s Gothic novels and observes in his facetious defense of history: “‘That little boys and girls should be tormented . . . is what no one at all acquainted with human nature in a civilized state can deny; but in behalf of our most distinguished historians, I must observe, that they might well be offended at being supposed to have no higher aim; and that by their method and style, they are perfectly well qualified to torment readers of the most advanced reason and mature time of life. I use the verb ‘to torment,’ as I observed to be your own method, instead of ‘to instruct,’ supposing them to be now admitted as synonimous’” (109).
What Henry offers Catherine in this early phase of their acquaintance is sometimes instruction in the guise of delight, and sometimes delight in the guise of instruction. His bravura instance of the latter comes in the parodically proleptic passage where Henry anticipates and thereby invokes the abbey-mad Catherine’s reactions to Northanger with his descriptions of “‘Dorothy the ancient housekeeper,’” “‘gloomy passages,’” a “‘ponderous chest which no efforts can open,’” the secret subterranean passageway to the chapel of St. Anthony, the “‘large, old fashioned cabinet of ebony and gold,’” the manuscript “‘memoirs of the wretched Matilda’” (158-60). But playful extemporizations of this sort coexist with more serious teaching-and-learning opportunities in the first half of the novel, as for instance when Catherine is confused about why Isabella, having said she wouldn’t dance, does so with Captain Tilney. Henry makes an oblique but serious point about the limitations of assuming that other people’s motivations are identical to one’s own. Catherine becomes even more perplexed, and then receives a more facetious lesson:
“I do not understand you.”
“Then we are on very unequal terms, for I understand you perfectly well.”
“Me?—yes; I cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible.”
“Bravo!—an excellent satire on modern language.” (132-33)
Then this jocose series of remarks turns into more straightforward teaching: “‘Well then, I only meant that your attributing my brother’s wish of dancing with Miss Thorpe to good-nature alone, convinced me of your being superior in good-nature yourself to all the rest of the world’” (133). Notice how at the very end Henry, who has been uncharacteristically earnest, feels the need to revert to humor and invokes self-conscious hyperbole that in other men would be mere conventional flattery, as he describes Catherine’s good nature as superior “‘to all the rest of the world.’”
How is poor ingenuous Catherine to take Henry when he’s in his whimsical or ironic vein? Eleanor’s sisterly reaction to him, fond but not passively deferential, offers a bit of a guide. Indeed Henry, I would argue, has formed his easy way with younger women on his relations with his sister, who since their mother’s death has counted on him, beta male of the Tilney pack, for sympathy and support unavailable from the General and his elder son the Captain, the alphas of their respective generations. This is not to say that Henry becomes a substitute sister. Rather, he’s a bit like Darcy and Crawford in being a congenial brotherly friend and counselor to a sisterless, motherless sister who depends on him as the primary companion and advisor in her life—closer to Crawford as far as playfulness goes, more Darcylike in his solid reliability. In his persistent didactic impulses toward Catherine, he’s like a younger, much more frivolous George Knightley exerting his penchant for instructing and improving young women on a much more biddable Emma, or like an older, already ordained Edmund Bertram refining the ideas and building the self-confidence of a naïve but congenial young woman he’s not yet viewing as a matrimonial object.
Henry Tilney’s resemblances to Darcy, Knightley, and Crawford, all manly men in their different ways, show that he’s no heroine with a Y chromosome, nor even a feminized hero, but rather a man who likes women, knows what women are like, and is comfortable in their company on their terms. How has he come to be this way? Because the narrator has left much of the Tilney family’s back-story mysterious, to be discovered gradually and with wildly uneven accuracy by Catherine during her stay at Northanger Abbey, we along with Catherine are obliged to make many conjectures, though there’s a fair amount of explicit or implicit information to ground these suppositions.
We can conclude from mediated observation—as we watch Catherine, over repeated encounters with the Tilney family, see evidence that she fails to understand—that the siblings endure a tyrannical father. That’s evident from their invariable obedience to his orders and acquiescence to his preferences, as well as from their subdued behavior in his presence. Having so domineering a father would repress many a sensitive son—but like other younger sons of the landed gentry in circumstances where primogeniture and possibly entailment of estates prevail, Henry has other reasons to develop as a gentler kind of person. He’s known from early days that his socio-economic lot will be inferior to his brother’s. That brother, military like his father, does not show himself to be any less selfish than the General is—and at one point Eleanor inadvertently admits to Catherine that only one of her brothers is “’very affectionate’” (180)—so it’s obvious that Eleanor, who lost her mother while still at school, would have only one place to turn for sympathy, to the beta brother.
It seems very likely that Henry first developed at least some of his lady-pleasing traits—notably the expertise in muslins, possibly though not certainly his informed pleasure in novels and in picturesque views—because he understands that Eleanor, lacking a sister or mother, needs someone in the family to take an interest in the things that interest women. By default, that has to be him—and although it’s quite possible that the sister and brother are kindred spirits anyway (think of the mentally and emotionally congenial Crawfords), Eleanor’s need would certainly encourage Henry’s development along such lines. So would his clerical vocation. Clergymen, much more than estate-owners, military officers, or barristers, would need to cultivate empathy for women, who would constitute presumably half of their parishioners and probably more than half of their church-goers.
Henry Tilney as presented in Northanger Abbey is a man always seen in feminine company. Our direct view of him is almost always mediated by Catherine’s; and she sees him only in the rarefied environments of ladies and gentlemen at leisure together. It’s clear enough, though, that he has manly qualities that would serve him well in more robust environments and professional or personal realms where Catherine, in the course of the novel, doesn’t go. Henry’s graces in the ballroom are complemented by his finesse in handling the reins of carriage-horses. Catherine, who’s experienced John Thorpe’s incompetence in both spheres, notices that “Henry drove so well,—so quietly—without making any disturbance, without parading to her, or swearing at them” and concludes that “To be driven by him, next to being dancing with him, was certainly the greatest happiness in the world” (157). His modest, tasteful improvements to the grounds at Woodston bespeak his good start at being a responsible steward of his rectorial property—a trait that, ironically, he shares with two much less attractive Austen clergymen, Dr. Grant and Mr. Collins. We don’t have the privilege of seeing him actively at work amongst parishioners; but by the less-than-zealous Anglican standards of his age, Henry can be imagined a conscientious clergyman in that, despite the General’s orders that he remain at Northanger to attend on the ladies, he leaves them for a couple of nights due to “the engagements of his curate at Woodston” (221).
Most important, he’s man enough to stand up to his overbearing father when it’s right to do so. True, Henry is obliquely courting Catherine at the General’s behest—but presumably only because his own feelings concur with his father’s wishes. When Henry learns that the General, again misinformed by John Thorpe but now undervaluing Catherine’s station nearly as much as he had previously overvalued her, has packed her off in unattended disgrace to her parents and now demands his son’s acquiescence in dropping her, Henry displays “open and bold” indignation against the father “accustomed on every ordinary occasion to give the law in his family” (247). Henry feels himself “bound as much in honour as in affection to Miss Morland, 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” (247). In short Henry has the guts and the honor as well as the income to propose marriage despite his father’s vehement disapproval.
Having seen Henry Tilney as a pleasantly whimsical companion in the genteel dissipations of Bath and as the facetious foreteller of Catherine’s gothic fate at Northanger, we should now look at a few instances of his interactions with Catherine on his home turf. That is where, in Austenworld, virtuously manly men generally appear to best advantage. The alpha males Darcy, Knightley, Sir Thomas Bertram, even Mr. Palmer all are at their best at home, at their worst away. Henry, who doesn’t hold sway of the abbey he inhabits when not ministering to Woodston, is not necessarily a better or more pleasing man at home—indeed, it’s debatable whether “home” is his bachelor parsonage or Northanger—but he’s different. The Northanger-centered part of the book contains ironies Catherine misses, facts and moods she misinterprets, mystifications not clarified until the narrator’s valedictory tidying up: but Henry’s behavior toward Catherine is no longer full of impersonally “arch pleasantry” in the way it was at Bath. The pleasantry is personalized, and the point behind ironies is serious beyond Catherine’s modest imaginings. The scene where Catherine claims that she’s “‘just learnt to love a hyacinth’” is typical:
“And how might you learn?—By accident or argument?”
“Your sister taught me; I cannot tell how. Mrs. Allen used to take pains, year after year, to make me like them; but I never could, till I saw them the other day in Milsom-street; I am naturally indifferent about flowers.”
“But now you love a hyacinth. So much the better. You have gained a new source of enjoyment, and it is well to have as many holds upon happiness as possible. Besides, a taste for flowers is always desirable in your sex, as a means of getting you out of doors, and tempting you to more frequent exercise than you would otherwise take. And though the love of a hyacinth may be rather domestic, who can tell, the sentiment once raised, but you may in time come to love a rose?”
“But I do not want any such pursuit to get me out of doors. The pleasure of walking and breathing fresh air is enough for me, and in fine weather I am out more than half my time.—Mamma says I am never within.”
“At any rate, however, I am pleased that you have learnt to love a hyacinth. The mere habit of learning to love is the thing; and a teachableness of disposition in a young lady is a great blessing.” (174)
Henry’s most important assertion in this passage, “‘[t]he mere habit of learning to love is the great thing,’” is not verbally ironic. Its irony lies in the widely different particular contexts in which his generalization might be applied: “‘learn to love a rose’”? or “learn to love me”? Similarly, when Catherine hears by letter that Isabella Thorpe has jilted James in hopes of snaring Henry and Eleanor’s brother Frederick, Catherine’s naively honest interpretation provokes his irony. But “‘Prepare for your sister-in-law, Eleanor, and such a sister-in-law as you must delight in!—’” (206) is not dazzling verbal play of the sort that characterized him at Bath but simply stated dramatic irony—words that Eleanor and Catherine, given their different levels of understanding what’s in play at Northanger, understand in radically different ways. And Henry is not being ironic at all when he goes on to advise Catherine, “‘You feel, as you always do, what is most to the credit of human nature.—Such feelings ought to be investigated, that they may know themselves’” (207).
Perhaps Henry’s most fervently felt, purely candid bit of advice to Catherine comes when he’s nearly caught her in the act of exploring his late mother’s room and, in his quick way, has intuited her overheated gothic suspicions of his father:
“If I understand you rightly, you had formed a surmise of such horror as I have hardly words to——Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you—Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them? Could they be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing; where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay every thing open? Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?” (197-98)
No verbal play in this passage. No controlled and controlling attempts at education. Just a decent, rational, moderate beta male’s heartfelt argument that gothic cruelties of the sort she’s hypothesized are impossible in a civilized, self-policed milieu like theirs: English, Christian, governed by the standards of decency, religion, and law.
The playful literary ironies inherent in this situation come two pages later, and they are articulated not by Henry but by the narrator chronicling Catherine’s humiliation in the brilliantly funny passage that begins “Charming as were all Mrs. Radcliffe’s works, and charming even as were the works of all her imitators, it was not in them perhaps that human nature, at least in the midland counties of England, was to be looked for” (200). In her abject self-examination Catherine grants Henry’s claims to be true in the part of the world she’s seen first-hand. She concludes that in middle England “there was surely some security for the existence even of a wife not beloved” and that “among the English . . . in their hearts and habits, there was a general though unequal mixture of good and bad” (200). Amusing as it is to laugh at Catherine’s commonsensical recognition of her romance-fueled folly, the ultimate irony of this passage becomes evident only at the novel’s conclusion, when Catherine’s banishment from Northanger comes closer to gothic melodrama than Henry’s beta-male moderation could imagine possible, and Austen’s readers, like the lovers, must recognize that the sins of General Tilney are different in degree rather than kind from the Mediterranean transgressions reported on Mrs. Radcliffe’s pages. Facing this fact is what wrenches Henry Tilney from his habitually cooperative, laidback beta behaviors and allows him to assume, when he needs to, the alpha status of romantic heroism.
Austen, Jane. Jane Austen’s Letters. Ed. Deirdre Le Faye. 3rd ed. London: Oxford UP, 1995.
_____. Northanger Abbey. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd ed. London: Oxford UP, 1969.
Urban Dictionary. http://www.urbandictionary.com