Persuasions #6, 1984                                                                                                                                            Pages 10-12





Kenneth L. Moler

Department of English, University of Nebraska-Lincoln,
Lincoln, NE 68588-0333


One of the delights in reading Jane Austen lies in observing the extraordinary skill with which she manages to create distinctive “voices” for all her characters. Mary Bennet, Mrs. Norris and Miss Bates, for example, spring to mind as rather obvious examples of this kind of verbal craftsmanship. All three are (often annoyingly) loquacious speakers; but how different is the polysyllabic platitudinousness of Mary from the nervous, nagging staccato of Mrs. Norris, or from the garrulous disjointedness of Miss Bates’ speech patterns! A somewhat subtler instance of Jane Austen’s handling of “voice” is presented by General Tilney, in Northanger Abbey. The general’s verbal style is far less immediately striking than those of Mary Bennet or Miss Bates. There is nothing extreme in either vocabulary or speech rhythm. Instead, Jane Austen uses several unobtrusive habits of speech to create a voice that is subtly off-putting – one characterized by a sort of verbal deviousness that is the outward and audible counterpart of the man’s mental and moral deviousness. Two of the general’s special verbal quirks can be isolated and labelled as the Rhetorical Request and the Disingenuous Disclaimer.

General Tilney is a man who is most thoroughly accustomed to having things his own way, down to the minutest detail. In his dealings with people whom he wants to please, however, he attempts to hide the martinet behind the façade of a person sensitive and accommodating to others. The rhetorical request is a means by which he endeavours to make his own points or gain his own ends while pretending to refer to or consult someone else. He is a past master at putting his own words into other people’s mouths. We first see this verbal tactic at work in the scene in which Catherine receives her invitation to Northanger Abbey. The general enters as Eleanor Tilney is on the verge of asking Catherine to visit Northanger. He urges his daughter to broach the subject without delay – and proceeds to extend the invitation in his own distinctive manner.

After addressing (Catherine) with his usual politeness, he turned to his daughter and said, “Well, Eleanor, may I congratulate you on being successful in your application to your fair friend?”

I was just beginning to make the request, sir, as you came in.”

Well, proceed by all means. I know how much your heart is in it. My daughter, Miss Morland,” he continued without leaving his daughter time to speak, “has been forming a very bold wish. We leave Bath, as she had perhaps told you, on Saturday se’nnight. A letter from my steward tells me that my presence is wanted at home; and being disappointed in my hope of seeing the Marquis of Longtown and General Courteney here … there is nothing to detain me longer in Bath … Can you, in short, be prevailed on to quit this scene of public triumph and oblige your friend Eleanor with your company in Gloucestershire?”1

Eleanor, presumably, could not have been trusted to gild the invitation with sufficient flattery. Nor would she be sure to drop the impressive “marquis” and “general” into the speech. (Indeed, she has earlier referred to these gentlemen simply as “some friends he expected to meet here.”) Propriety, however, demands that the invitation come from Eleanor. The rhetorical request is the general's way out of this dilemma.

A similar tactic is employed when Catherine inquires about Woodston, Henry Tilney’s home.

Is it a pretty place?” asked Catherine.

What say you, Eleanor? – Speak your opinion, for ladies can best tell the taste of ladies in regard to places as well as men. I think it would be acknowledged by the most impartial eye to have many recommendations. The house stands among fine meadows facing the south-east, with an excellent kitchen-garden in the same aspect; the walls surrounding which I built and stocked myself about ten years ago, for the benefit of my son. It is a family living, Miss Morland; and the property in the place being chiefly my own, you may believe I take care that it shall not be a bad one. Did Henry’s income depend solely on this living, he would not be ill-provided for.” (pp. 175-76)

The tasks of boosting Woodston and making it clear that Henry has other sources of income are too important to be left in Eleanor’s hands. So after a feint in Eleanor’s direction the general launches the attack himself.2 The general even employs a form of the rhetorical request on Catherine. A few paragraphs later we find him attempting to maintain the pose of the accommodating host, while not losing his morning constitutional, by reading into her disappointed countenance “a judicious desire” to view the grounds of the abbey before tackling its interior (p. 177).

General Tilney is much concerned with the elegance and expensiveness of his possessions. On the other hand, the image that he wishes to present to the public is that of the plain, bluff old soldier who is indifferent to or unconscious of such things. The disingenuous disclaimer enables him, as he thinks, simultaneously to gloat upon or call attention to the objects of his pride, and to conceal his pride in them.

The dining-parlour was a noble room, suitable in its dimensions to a much larger drawing-room than the one in common use, and fitted up in a style of luxury and expense which was almost lost on the unpractised eye of Catherine, who saw little more than its spaciousness and the number of their attendants. Of the former, she spoke aloud her admiration; and the general, with a very gracious countenance, acknowledged that it was by no means an ill-sized room, and further confessed that, though as careless on such subjects as most people, he did look upon a tolerably large eating-room as one of the necessaries of life; he supposed, however, “that she must have been used to much better-sized apartments at Mr. Allen’s?”

No, indeed,” was Catherine’s honest assurance … The general’s good humour increased. Why, as he had such rooms, he thought it would be simple not to make use of them; but, upon his honour, he believed there might be more comfort in rooms of only half their size. (pp. 165-66)

It will perhaps be remembered that in the process of Catherine’s tour of the house later “the general could not forgo the pleasure of pacing out the length (of the dining-parlour) for the more certain information of Miss Morland, as to what she neither doubted nor cared for” (p. 185).

Fine china would appear to be one of the general’s passions; but when Catherine praises the elegance of his breakfast-set, he feels it necessary to protest his innocence of any “vanity of that kind”:

He was enchanted by her approbation of his taste, confessed it to be neat and simple, thought it right to encourage the manufacture of his country; and for his part, to his uncritical palate, the tea was as well flavoured from the clay of Staffordshire, as from that of Dresden or Sève. But this was quite an old set, purchased two years ago. The manufacture was much improved since that time; he had seen some beautiful specimens when last in town, and had he not been perfectly without vanity of that kind, might have been tempted to order a new set. (p. 175)

Perhaps the most delightful instance of the disingenuous disclaimer occurs in the scene where General Tilney drags Catherine through his magnificent kitchen-gardens, praising with faint damns all the way (pp. 178-79).

Of course, General Tilney’s verbal tactics do not quite work. The reader, like Catherine, senses something wrong in many of his speeches, although he does not go to the extreme of confusing rather commonplace hypocrisy with Gothic villainy. Analysis of some of the general’s key scenes lays bare the failure of his strategy – and the success of Jane Austen’s art.


1 The Novels of Jane Austen (London: Oxford University Press, 1933), Vol. 5, pp. 139-40. All page references are to this edition.

2 One should note General Tilney’s preference for “compounded negative” constructions: “Shall not be a bad one,” “would not be ill provided for,” “no endeavours shall be wanting on our side to make Northanger Abbey not wholly disagreeable.” Characters who employ this kind of construction frequently are always suspect in Jane Austen. Mr. Collins, for instance, delights in it.

Looking on her with a face as pallid as her own.

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