PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.34, NO.1 (Winter 2013)

Henry Tilney: Queer Hero of Northanger Abbey

Sarah Eason


Sarah Eason (email: is a teaching assistant at Abilene Christian University working on an M.A. with an emphasis in British literature, particularly Shakespeare studies and the Victorian novel.  Her thesis explores the intersections between Christianity and mythology in fantasy literature.


on a dark night, Catherine Morland treads silently to an ominous cabinet in the eerie ruins of an abbey, searching for secrets of murder and deceit.  This is the most characteristically Gothic scene in Northanger Abbey, and it is also a perfect example of Jane Austen’s parody of other Gothic novels, particularly those of Ann Radcliffe.  Northanger Abbey has everything a Gothic novel needs:  a heroine, a hero, a villain, and an eerie setting.  And yet, there is something queer happening in the margins of a story that is both Gothic and a parody of the Gothic.  It is this queerness, resurfacing throughout the novel, that causes the reader to pause; it is a queerness found, out of all places, in the protagonist, Henry Tilney.


Austen’s use of parody results in a novel that refuses to yield itself easily into any set genre.  At times, the novel seems to follow the Gothic storyline perfectly, offering secrets, scandal, and a damsel in distress.  At other times, however, its parodic tone deliberately disrupts the flow of this series of events, shifting the reader’s attention abruptly from the Gothic to the comedic.  Parody also functions as a device that directs our attention to something similar happening with the characters themselves—particularly Henry Tilney, whose gender performance resists categorization in much the same way the novel resists genre categorization.  At times, he performs as the masculine hero, but at others he clearly identifies with feminine characteristics.  Shifting between these roles depending on the situation at hand, Henry does not fall neatly within the binary gender system.  Rather, he falls into the “other” space of the queer.


Before delving into examples of Henry’s ambiguous gender performances, it is essential to clarify what it means to be a queer literary character.  Queerness, literarily speaking, is not a synonym for homosexuality, but rather points out the tensions between normative and non-normative sexualities, resisting a gender binary and questioning the logic of gender categorization.  It attempts to illuminate normative gender as a constructed concept and examines the consequences of not adhering to a normative gender performance.  William Hughes and Andrew Smith agree with this definition:  “Gothic is not, and never has been, an exclusively homosexual genre.  Its queerness, therefore, is more than a matter of encoded sexual preferences and identities. . . . To be queer, when taken outside of the sexual connotations of that term, is to be different” (2).


Gothic literature, moreover, is an excellent space in which to examine these “different” sorts of gender performances because the Gothic by definition points out tensions in seemingly “normal” heterosexual narratives.  It allows for characters whose actions, thoughts, and desires do not fall within what normative society deems acceptable behavior.  In fact, critics for decades now have considered the Gothic to be a queer genre for these reasons.  Dale Townshend says that “Gothic queerness, much like the work of queer theory itself, resists and disrupts the restrictive nineteenth-century distinctions between the heterosexual and the homosexual through a foreground of desires that are anchored permanently in neither one nor the other” (30).  Hughes and Smith define the queerness of the Gothic in terms of a pattern of tensions:  “To be queer in Gothic terms . . . is to juxtapose the familiar with the unfamiliar, the rational and the supernatural, the past and the present, the acceptable and the condemnable” (2).  It is to juxtapose the normative and the non-normative.  This same juxtaposition occurs in Northanger Abbey, where Austen weaves together the proper societal values of Bath and the macabre secrets of a haunted abbey.  She does so through both the trope of parody and through Henry Tilney, the queer protagonist.


Although scholars have applied queer theory to Austen texts before, little has been said on the subject of Henry or Northanger Abbey as a whole.  Nevertheless, Henry bears similarities to other Austen characters who perform ambiguous genders.  Edward Kozaczka, for example, claims that Persuasion’s Anne Elliot is “not queer in the sense that she experiences same-sex desire but rather because she gives pleasure to herself and refuses to relegate her mind and body to the present moment” (“Queer Temporality”).  Because she rebels against the expectations of her heterosexual society, she is queer.  Henry, too, resists societal expectations although scholars have been reluctant to acknowledge this tension.  They have instead categorized him with terms such as the “feminized” hero, claiming that his sensitivity enables Catherine Morland to enter into a romance free from patriarchal oppression.  Stephanie Eddleman, for example, maintains that a feminized hero is a key component to the Gothic romance:  “The actual feminized heroes of the female gothic novel are men of sentiment.  They act spontaneously, display excessive emotion, are often vulnerable, and sometimes even become victimized themselves” (68).  Henry certainly meets this definition, acting spontaneously (and often contradictorily) in his interactions with Catherine, flitting back and forth between solemnity and sarcasm at random:  “there was an archness and pleasantry in his manner which interested, though it was hardly understood by her” (NA 25).  Additionally, he is controlled on a psychological level and victimized by his tyrannical father, General Tilney, whose authority is just as oppressive to Henry as it is to women such as Catherine and Eleanor.  His sensitivity, however, is often counteracted by masculine performances for which the term “feminized” leaves no room.  His paradoxical nature begs a deeper examination of his character, implying that he may not fit consistently within the feminine or the masculine spheres.


The tension in Henry’s gender identity is clear as Henry performs different roles with Catherine and his father.  Under General Tilney’s eye, Henry is a strained, tense man; Catherine thinks it strange that “instead of seeing Henry Tilney to greater advantage than ever, in the ease of a family party, he had never said so little, nor been so little agreeable” (129).  With Catherine, however, Henry comes alive with wit and charm, mocking societal customs.  After inquiring of Catherine about her time in Bath, asking all of the appropriate questions that he finds utterly trivial, Henry says, “‘Now I must give one smirk, and then we may be rational again’” (26).  Catherine, unused to such sarcasm, reacts confusedly to this ambiguous behavior:  “Catherine turned away her head, not knowing whether she might venture to laugh” (26).


Eddleman has explained this performance of Henry’s as a recognition of Catherine as “an appropriate recipient of his wit.  Her friendly disposition and naïveté combine to make her the perfect ‘straight man’ for his comic routine” as he keeps her “off-balance yet continually coming back for more” (69).  It is important to recognize, though, that Henry repeatedly knocking Catherine off-balance reflects Henry’s own off-kilter identity, which neither he nor Catherine (nor the reader) can ever fully grasp.  He strives to conform to normative expectations, seeking his father’s approval, chastising Catherine for her macabre fantasies, and making all of the conventional arrangements to receive company at his house in Woodston.  There are numerous situations, however, in which Henry struggles to break free from these expectations in a performance of his own, as is clear from his conversation on muslins with Mrs. Allen, his teasing of Catherine, and his ultimate decision to marry her despite his father’s disapproval.  In his struggle between these performances, Henry becomes an off-kilter, ambiguous, and consequently marginalized character.


Previous scholarship has certainly noticed Henry’s feminine characteristics, but in an effort to define Henry as a normative hero, much of that scholarship depicts Henry as a predominantly masculine character who, though possessing feminine qualities, does not identify as feminine.  Eddleman makes this distinction of Henry:  “Although Henry is ‘feminized,’ he is definitely not effeminate.  He is well aware of accepted female behaviors” (68) but “operate[s] within the ‘gendered moral framework’” (69).  Henry’s ability to perform so convincingly with various female characters, however, suggests that his expertise on “feminine” behaviors goes much deeper than a simple awareness of or familiarity with these behaviors.  His knowledge of fashions, fabrics, journal writing, and even feminine internal dialogue are more than just a surface-level parody of women; the fact that Henry is able to accurately depict even the minutest details of femininity proves he relates to and identifies with femininity in these circumstances.  This identification is apparent when, for example, he dictates quite realistically what an upper-class woman would write in her journal:  “‘went to the Lower Rooms; wore my sprigged muslin robe with blue trimmings—plain black shoes—appeared to much advantage” (NA 26).  Later, when Mrs. Allen obtrusively asks if Henry likes Catherine’s dress, he replies, “‘It is very pretty, madam, . . . but I do not think it will wash well; I am afraid it will fray’” (28).  Catherine is quite shocked by this response:  “‘How can you,’ said Catherine, laughing, ‘be so ——’ she had almost said, strange” (28).  Henry himself admits to Catherine that he is “‘not so ignorant of young ladies’ ways as you wish to believe me’” (27), a further admission of his own self-acknowledged feminine identification in this scene.  On the surface level, he parodies this femininity; but he performs his role with such ease that Catherine finds it shocking and thus off-putting.  As she listens to him discuss muslins with Mrs. Allen, Catherine fears that Henry “indulged himself a little too much in the foibles of others” (29).  The “foibles of others” that he indulges in are, without exception, always the affairs of feminine characters.


While it is true that Catherine idolizes Henry, she stubbornly resists many of his attempts to correct her language.  When Henry criticizes Catherine’s imprecise use of the word “nice,” she exclaims, “‘I did not mean to say any thing wrong; but it is a nice book, and why should not I call it so?’” (108).  Thus, even when Henry attempts to exert masculine authority of opinion and judgment over women such as Catherine, he is often unsuccessful.  Judith Wylie supports this notion, explaining that Henry’s “attempts to transform Catherine into a reassuring feminine figure by correcting her language and taming her imagination are initiated in a manner that further reveals his ‘odd ways,’ the distance between his wobbly self-identity and the gendered role he is expected to play” (140).  This “wobbly self-identity” is the very thing preventing him from fitting neatly within the specific gendered moral framework.  At times, he identifies with a femininity that completely unhinges the security of the masculinity he performs in other instances.  He even describes himself as “‘a queer, half-witted man’” (NA 26), jokingly acknowledging that others may perceive him as such and subtly implying that he may not even know how to categorize himself.  His gender performance is, all in all, rather ambiguous when viewed in the light of a gender binary system.


Henry’s gender performance can be more easily interpreted in light of Judith Butler’s performative acts theory.  Butler explains that gender is a performance, much like a role in a theatrical play; the act of performing a gender is to be that gender.  In other words, one is a gender only to the extent that one performs that gender “through a series of acts which are renewed, revised, and consolidated through time” (903).  Through this repetition of performative acts, Henry actualizes his gender, underscoring the idea that “gender is in no way a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts proceed” (900).  Furthermore, Butler argues, “if the ‘reality’ of gender is constituted by the performance itself, then there is no recourse to an essential and unrealized ‘sex’ or ‘gender’ which gender performances ostensibly express” (907).  The performance is the reality.


Thus, Henry, in his ballroom scenes with Catherine, is not merely feminized; he is the feminine-identifying hero.  Knowing that Henry performs for Catherine in the ballroom—on the surface level, parodying societal customs; on a deeper level, performing a feminine gender—we can now see how his language, facial expressions, and subject matter all contribute to his role.  For example, he displays an uncanny knowledge of muslins in his conversation with Mrs. Allen.  When she asks him if he knows the fabric, he responds, “‘Particularly well. . . . I gave but five shillings a yard for [a gown], and a true Indian muslin’” (28).  Wylie explains that this conversation actually allows Henry to cross-dress, figuratively, into the feminine:  “Rather than being a fixed signifier of a stable gender affiliation, clothing has the potential to disguise, alter, or even reconstruct the wearer’s identity. . . . It plays upon the fixity and the fluidity of gender construction” (131).  Henry cannot physically dress as a female, but he can perform the role.  Thus, when Mrs. Allen exclaims, “‘Do you understand muslins, sir?’” (28), she is really marveling at the fact that our hero has successfully maneuvered into the feminine sphere.


But Henry is also apt to play the masculine hero when society calls for it.  When his father subtly challenges Henry to perform his masculine gendered role as a suitable host for his guests at Woodston, for example, Henry valiantly rises to the challenge, leaving for Woodston “about an hour afterwards” (210).  Catherine is confused:  “‘the General made such a point of your providing nothing extraordinary:—besides, if he had not said half so much as he did, he has always such an excellent dinner at home, that sitting down to a middling one for one day could not signify’” (211). In his reply to Catherine, Henry’s reservations about his performance are evident:  “‘I wish I could reason like you, for his sake and my own’” (211).  This seeming contradiction of gendered performances actually illuminates the fact that Henry’s gender performance does not fit within the feminine/masculine binary of normative society.  In possessing characteristics both feminine and masculine, Henry performs a gender uniquely his own; neither his feminine nor his masculine performance is his essential identity or a rigid, insurmountable boundary.  For this reason, he passes from one performance to the other with a degree of fluidity (albeit, a painful fluidity at times).  His gender is ambiguous to the reader because in constantly displacing it, his identity is ambiguous to Henry himself, as normative society prevents him from acknowledging the existence of his non-binary gender.


The more time Henry spends with Catherine, the more comfortable he becomes performing this ambiguous gender, for the reason that Catherine allows him to.  Marginalized as a woman, Catherine does not hinder Henry’s performance, even his most feminine-identifying performances, and for this reason he finds himself attracted to her.  As with the conversation about muslins, Henry “exercises his penchant to verbally cross-dress almost every time he is alone with Catherine” (Wylie 142).  On their way to Northanger Abbey, Henry indulges in describing a very feminine, Gothic fantasy to Catherine.  His goal, as with his conversation about journal writing and muslins, is to tease Catherine for her feminine imagination.  The result, however, is that he illuminates his own strong identification with these feminine characteristics.  He asks Catherine, “‘And are you prepared to encounter all the horrors that a building such as ‘what one reads about’ may produce?—Have you a stout heart?—Nerves fit for sliding pannels and tapestry?’” (157-58).  For several pages, he elaborates on this fantasy.


Although his performances are not strictly feminine, Henry Tilney does seem to perform femininity more often and with greater ease than he does masculinity, especially around Catherine.  In fact, his overtly masculine performances rarely elicit a positive reaction from Catherine or other females in the novel.  For example, when he later chastises Catherine for indulging in the very ideas he conceived, asking, “‘Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?’” (198), Catherine flees the room in tears.  Not only is this chastisement a little unfair of Henry after encouraging her imagination, but it is an attempt on Henry’s part to exert a more masculine dominance over Catherine and over imaginative powers associated with the feminine.  Henry ultimately realizes that these overtly dominant performances are unnecessary with Catherine, even if they are necessary with others, and that his own gender identity is much more complex, a mixture of characteristics society normally associates with both the masculine and the feminine.


Because Henry occupies the space of the queer “other,” he is often marginalized by the other men in the novel, namely General Tilney and John Thorpe.  These men, along with Henry’s brother Frederick Tilney, are quite aggressive in their masculinity; they are alpha males who constantly feel the need to exert themselves as such.  During Thorpe’s first encounter with Catherine, he shows no interest in her unless it is directly related to impressing her with his own accomplishments.  He talks only of his horse and gig (46) or delivers “nothing more than a short decisive sentence of praise or condemnation on the face of every woman they met” (48).  In a similar fashion, General Tilney dominates Catherine’s attention at the beginning of her stay at Northanger, entreating her to praise the size of his rooms (166).


These men are upholders of normative gender definitions and punish those who are not members of dominant, masculine society in order to maintain order and their own security.  Both Catherine, a woman, and Henry, an ambiguous male, become threats and thus targets of these men and what Eve Sedgwick terms their “compulsory heterosexuality.”  That is, they demand of Henry a normative masculine performance because an ambiguous performance threatens to expose the foundations of their society as nothing more than a construct.  As Butler says, “There is no preexisting identity by which an act or attribute might be measured. . . . Genders, then, can be neither true nor false, neither real nor apparent” (908).  Henry attempts to oblige them in several instances and exert his dominance, but he is repeatedly unsuccessful in his attempts.  For example, when he tries to correct Catherine’s use of the word “nice,” his sister Eleanor makes him the butt of the joke, saying, “‘You are more nice than wise’” (108).  Many other attempts to identify as a strictly masculine hero fail likewise.


Eve Sedgwick’s concept of homosocial desire helps us further understand Henry’s unsuccessful attempts to identify as masculine.  Sedgwick explains that male-male relationships in many literary works (including Gothic fiction) are “homosocial,” not of a romantic nature in and of themselves, yet projecting their possible feelings for each other onto a female.  In order to see this connection, we must shift our focus “temporarily from the historicity of men’s bonds themselves to the historicity of women’s relations to men’s bonds” (135, emphasis mine).


This triangulation of desire could explain the paradoxical nature of Henry’s role as the queer protagonist.  While his relationships with other men in the novel are generally negative and Henry cannot relate directly to Thorpe, for example, he can compete against him for Catherine.  This competition is evident when he asks Catherine to dance and Thorpe, believing Catherine is already his personal property, confronts her about it:  “‘Hey-day, Miss Morland!’ said he, ‘what is the meaning of this?—I thought you and I were to dance together’” (75).  Although Henry comes up to Catherine after the confrontation and admits, “‘That gentleman would have put me out of patience, had he staid with you half a minute longer’” (76), he never has direct contact with Thorpe.  Instead, they communicate through their mutual pursuit of Catherine.  Sedgwick explains that “female sexuality itself . . . is meaningful in the novel chiefly within the context of the exchange of power and of symbolic goods between men,” and that the novel ends “regularly and fittingly, with the banishment of the woman, in an ‘affair of honor’ between men” (146).  It is possible, in this light, to see that when Henry finds in Catherine a woman who allows him to perform an ambiguous gender, he also sees in her the mechanism by which he can relate to masculine-identifying males and minimize his ostracism within the masculine sphere.  Winning Catherine’s love becomes Henry’s primary means of successfully performing within that sphere.


The success of this performance, however, is short-lived.  When General Tilney discovers that Catherine is not as rich as Thorpe portrayed her to be—the idea of which insults the General’s masculinity and threatens his authority—he violently banishes Catherine from Northanger Abbey.  Even though Thorpe is the one who has deceived the General, it is Catherine, the woman, who is perceived as a threat to the normative system and is consequently blamed by the father figure.  General Tilney views this “queering” of societal norms as a direct attack to his authority.  Transitively, Henry is also blamed; his courtship of Catherine is interpreted as an attempt to usurp traditional boundaries and customs.  Here, homosocial desire no longer allows him to move unpunished and unnoticed within the masculine sphere because Catherine is no longer the coveted object of desire.  The subsequent confrontation between Henry and General Tilney is pivotal because Henry realizes he must choose between his father’s normative expectations and Catherine, another marginalized character.  Ultimately, Henry’s anger at Catherine’s oppression becomes the motivation he needs to free himself from his own oppression:


The General, accustomed on every ordinary occasion to give the law in his family, prepared for no reluctance but of feeling, no opposing desire that should dare to clothe itself in words, could ill brook the opposition of his son, steady as the sanction of reason and the dictate of conscience could make it.  But, in such a cause, his anger, though it must shock, could not intimidate Henry, who was sustained in his purpose by a conviction of its justice.  He felt himself bound as much in honour as in affection to Miss Morland.  (247)


Gayle Rubin explains the connection present in the oppression of marginalized characters:  “The suppression of the homosexual component of human sexuality . . . is a product of the same system whose rules and relations oppress women” (qtd. in Sedgwick 3).  Henry identifies with Catherine’s punishment:  no longer objectifying her or attempting to control her language, he now accepts his social punishment—his disinheritance—in order to be with her.  According to Wylie, in this pivotal moment, Henry breaks “from his oppressive father and fashion[s] an identity that combines attributes culturally gendered as both masculine and feminine:  honor, fidelity, gratitude, and sympathy for others” (144).  When he chooses to be with Catherine, Henry chooses to accept his own gender ambiguity.


According to Eddleman, when Catherine marries Henry, she “triumphs over male authoritarianism and achieves a union where womanly virtue and patriarchal authority are no longer in conflict by marriage to a true hero, one who is both manly and virtuous” (71).  If Catherine triumphs over marginalization through her marriage, then by transitive property, it logically follows that Henry also triumphs over his own oppressed state through the union.  This argument is strengthened by Townshend’s description of the Gothic marriage as an event “in which hero and heroine are united to one another in a monogamous, peculiarly asexual emotional bond” (13).  This description aligns with the narrator of Northanger Abbey’s begrudging admission that Henry only became interested in Catherine after he realized she loved him first:  “I must confess 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).  Theirs is not an erotic, intensely passionate love; rather, it is a relationship based on mutual identification in an oppressive situation.  Yet, while their love is not as much for each other as for what they can accomplish together, this motivation does not invalidate the significance of the match in the least.  Just as Kozaczka claims that Anne and Wentworth, in Persuasion, “despite forming a heterosexual union, . . . challenge the sexual politics prevalent in England during the early nineteenth century,” so does Catherine and Henry’s successful union challenge the structures of their society by uniting two marginalized individuals.


Ultimately, it is essential to realize that Henry’s queerness is but one component of the larger-scale parodic function of the novel.  Building from our earlier definition of “queer” as anything “disrupting the social discourses” (Townshend 31) and applying this definition to the literary trope of parody as used in Northanger Abbey, parody itself could be considered a queer trope.  Tara Ghoshal Wallace describes the function of the parodic narrator of the novel as keeping “both the narrative and the reader . . . off-balance” (262).  This off-balance world is reminiscent of Mikhail Bahktin’s concept of topsy-turvy carnival, “both outside and inside ordinary, civilized space” (Wylie 132), and, arguably, outside and inside the normative sphere.  Specifically, the narrator juxtaposes a parody of the Gothic romance with some elements that constitute an actual Gothic romance.  On the one hand, it is laughable to think of General Tilney as a psychopathic murderer; on the other hand, he does turn out to be a villain of sorts.  Catherine “heard enough to feel, that in suspecting General Tilney of either murdering or shutting up his wife, she had scarcely sinned against his character, or magnified his cruelty” (247).  In this way, the narrator shakes our confidence.  According to Wallace, “the effect is to disrupt the reader’s expectation of sustained mockery. . . . At no point can [the reader] confidently assert that this is the real tendency of the work, or this the author’s final intention. . . . Northanger Abbey refuses to yield a stable vision” (271).


Northanger Abbey, then, lures us into believing we can comfortably categorize it as “parody,” only to suddenly shift across the boundary into a different genre, producing tension for the reader.  If there were any doubts as to this effect, the narrator openly admits an ambiguous intent in the final sentence of the novel:  “I leave it to be settled by whomever it may concern, whether the tendency of this work be altogether to recommend parental tyranny, or reward filial disobedience” (252).  Henry’s and Catherine’s queering of normative structures through their defiance of General Tilney is set against General Tilney’s efforts to uphold his normative authority.  The narrator’s admission at the end of the novel that this authority has, in fact, played an important role in bringing Henry and Catherine together through their mutual suffering creates a conflicted reaction for the reader.  In the end, this tension we feel mirrors the tension felt as the queer protagonist Henry Tilney shifts between feminine and masculine performances, ultimately breaking free from associations with either.  In doing so, he performs a gender uniquely his own.



Works Cited


Austen, Jane.  Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.  Ed. R.W. Chapman.  3rd ed.  Oxford: OUP, 1969.

Butler, Judith.  “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution.”  Literary Theory: An Anthology.  Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan.  2nd ed.  Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004.  900-11.

Eddleman, Stephanie.  “Henry Tilney: Austen’s Feminized Hero?”  Persuasions 32 (2010): 68-72.

Hughes, William, and Andrew Smith.  Introduction.  Queering the Gothic.  Ed. William Hughes and Andrew Smith.  New York: Manchester UP, 2009.  1-10.

Kozaczka, Edward.  “Queer Temporality, Spatiality, and Memory in Jane Austen’s Persuasion.”  Persuasions On-Line 30.1 (2009).

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky.  Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire.  New York: Columbia UP, 1985.

Townshend, Dale.  “‘Love in a Convent’: Or, Gothic and the Perverse Father of Queer Enjoyment.”  Queering the Gothic.  Ed. William Hughes and Andrew Smith.  New York: Manchester UP, 2009.  11-35.

Wallace, Tara Ghoshal.  “Northanger Abbey and the Limits of Parody.”  Studies in the Novel 20.3 (1988): 262-73.

Wylie, Judith.  “‘Do You Understand Muslins, Sir?’ Fashioning Gender in Northanger Abbey.”  Styling Texts: Dress and Fashion in Literature.  Youngstown, NY: Cambria, 2007.  129-48.


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