The REAL Henry Tilney?
By The High Priestess
"I sat next to Sydney Smith, who was delightful--I don't remember a more agreeable party." ~ Benjamin Disraeli
In late 1797, Jane Austen, her sister Cassandra, and their parents made a visit to Bath. They had connections there; Mrs. Austen's brother and his wife, the Leigh Perrots, lived there, and the Austens had courted and been married there. 1797 was the year of Cassandra's bereavement, when her fiancé Tom Fowle died of yellow fever during military service in the West Indies, and perhaps Mrs. Austen thought her daughter's grief would be alleviated by the gaiety of the resort town.
In 1797 Bath was still relatively fashionable and attracted a large crowd in the winter months. But that particular winter a gentleman was in town, a young clergyman who was acting as a tutor to the eldest son of a family from near Salisbury. His name was Sydney Smith, and he would go on to become one of the most celebrated wits of his day.
"He drew such a ludicrous caricature…that Sir James Mackintosh rolled on the floor in fits of laughter." ~ Lord John Russell
But in the winter of 1797, Sydney Smith was tutor to Michael Hicks Beach. The Hicks Beach family was related to the Bramstons of Oakley Hall in Hampshire, very near to Steventon, and the Austens were acquainted with the Hicks Beaches through that connection. And, as Irene Collins says, "Even without such information, the Master of Ceremonies would have regarded a clergyman-tutor as the very person to introduce to a clergyman's daughter had they coincided at an Assembly in the Lower Rooms" (163), much the same way that Mr. King introduced Henry Tilney to Catherine Morland, who was, like her creator, a clergyman's daughter.
There is no record stating that Sydney Smith and Jane Austen ever met, let alone that they might have danced together at an assembly. But, as David Cecil points out, Sydney Smith in 1797 was "tall, pleasant-looking and extraordinarily amusing in a vein of humour peculiarly his own." (79) As is Henry Tilney.
"Sydney at breakfast made me actually cry with laughing. I was obliged to start up from the table." ~ Thomas Moore
Henry Tilney is perhaps one of the most misunderstood characters in the Austen oeuvre; he has been called effete, sexist, and cruel. Most of these interpretations seem to arise from readers who take seriously his outrageous remarks. We never really know what Henry is thinking, although the authoress allows us the occasional slight glimpse into his mind; however, the hints are in general so small and subtle that it is easy for a reader to misinterpret his character. This can also be considered a necessary part of the plot, as Catherine is an inexperienced judge of human nature and we are left in the dark along with her.
However, if one accepts the possibility that Jane Austen met and was inspired by Sydney Smith, a comparison between the two can explain a great deal about Henry. For instance, Sydney Smith "delighted in talking nonsense on serious subjects and in producing strings of ludicrous images to prove his point; Henry Tilney's comparison between dancing and marriage was very much in his line." (Collins 163) W.H. Auden agrees, stating that Smith liked to "create pictures in what might be called the ludicrous baroque style."
Of course, Jane Austen always claimed that she did not base her characters upon real people. But it is the everyday minutiae of life that awaken the writer's muse. The smallest, most insignificant event can send our imaginations in a million directions. Is it impossible to believe that Jane Austen met a young, tall, very near to handsome clergyman, that they danced together, that they sat down to tea together? It is fun to imagine that "Sydney enjoyed himself at the expense of Aunt Leigh Perrot as Henry Tilney does at the expense of Mrs. Allen. He was noted for embarking on such conversations without malice aforethought and for being able to carry them off without causing offense." (Collins 163) And it impossible to believe that this meeting inspired Jane when, sometime during the next year, she created Henry Tilney? Is it too much of a coincidence? Perhaps. But Jane Austen's work is full of such coincidences. Life is full of such coincidences. And life inspires art.
"The only wit on record, whom brilliant social success had done nothing to spoil or harden." ~ Henry Fothergill Chorley
From my readings about Sydney Smith, however, he is not much like the Cultists' idealized version of Henry Tilney. Auden wrote that Sydney was "swarthy, sturdy tending to stoutness and suffering in later life from gout. Mentally, like so many funny men, he had to struggle constantly against melancholia: he found it difficult to get up in the morning, he could not bear dimly lit rooms." (vii) Attributes worthy of a Gothic hero, I would think, of a Heathcliff or a Rochester, but not of Da Man. Of course, one or two meetings in the crowded public rooms of Bath would not have revealed these facets of Sydney's personality to Jane. If she took from Sydney to make Henry, she only took what was best about him, and we can only thank her for that.
The interested scholar can find other literary inspiration for the Rev. Mr. Tilney as well. Northanger Abbey is nearly a point-to-point parody of Ann Radcliffe's novel The Mysteries of Udolpho; however, the noble Valancourt, the hero of Udolpho, has little in common with Henry. It seems that Jane Austen was more taken with Henri de Villefort, the witty and charming young gentleman whose family befriends the heroine after she escapes from the clutches of the evil Montoni. Consider the following offering by young Henri, from Volume III, Chapter X of Udolpho:
"'My dear Mademoiselle Bearn,' said Henri, as he met her at the door of the parlour, 'no ghost of these days would be so savage as to impose silence on you. Our ghosts are more civilized than to condemn a lady to a purgatory severer even, than their own, be it what it may.'"
Compare this to Da Man's remark from Volume I, Chapter XIV of Northanger Abbey:
"'Miss Morland, no one can think more highly of the understanding of women than I do. In my opinion, nature has given them so much that they never find it necessary to use more than half.'"
I like to think that the similarities between Henry and Henri is Jane's sly way of tweaking Mrs. Radcliffe, and of stating that she took the more interesting male character for her hero, rather than the weepy, emotional Valancourt. Jane is on record as disapproving of excessive sensibility, and Valancourt makes Marianne Dashwood seem positively phlegmatic.
And from whence came the name Tilney, and Northanger Abbey itself? They were probably found somewhat closer to home. As Park Honan points out, near Jane Austen's home town of Steventon, Hampshire, "Elms and beeches along the turnpike clung to banked hillside as 'hangers;' there would be a line of northerly hangers not far from Basingstoke and Tylney Hall, of Sir James Tylney Long, Bart." (7)
"He is a very clever fellow, but he will never be a bishop." ~ George III
In closing I wish to present, without comment, a short piece written by Sydney Smith. Take it as you will.
Definition of "A NICE PERSON"
A nice person is neither too tall nor too short, looks clean and cheerful, has no prominent feature, makes no difficulties, is never misplaced, sits bodkin, is never foolishly affronted, and is void of affectations.
A nice person helps you well at dinner, understands you, is always gratefully received by young and old, Whig and Tory, grave and gay.
There is something in the very air of a nice person which inspires you with confidence, makes you talk, and talk without fear of malicious misrepresentation; you feel that you are reposing upon a nature which God has made kind, and created for the benefit and happiness of society. It has the effect upon the mind which soft air and a fine climate has upon the body.
A nice person is clear of little, trumpery passions, acknowledges superiority, delights in talent, shelters humility, pardons adversity, forgives deficiency, respects all men's rights, never stops the bottle, is never long and never wrong, always knows the day of the month, the name of every body at table, and never gives pain to any human being.
If any body is wanted for a party, a nice person is the first thought of; when the child is christened, when the daughter is married--all the joys of life are communicated to nice people; the hand of the dying man is always held out to a nice person.
A nice person never knocks over wine or melted butter, does not tread upon the dog's foot, or molest the family cat, eats soup without noise, laughs in the right place, and has a watchful and attentive eye. (Smith 201-202)
Cecil, David. A Portrait of Jane Austen. New York: Hill and Wang, 1978.
Collins, Irene. "The Rev. Henry Tilney, Rector of Woodston." Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal, 20 (1998), pp. 154-164.
Honan, Park. Jane Austen - Her Life. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1987.
Smith, Sydney. The Selected Writings of Sydney Smith, ed. with an introduction by W.H. Auden. New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1956.
Copyright © 2000 by Margaret C. Sullivan. All Rights Reserved.