I've spent a lot of my time this summer reading for pleasure, and it's been fun. However, all good things must come to an end. Last Fall, I sent off a proposal for the 2010 JASNA general meeting, and it was accepted. Now I've got to write the paper. By August 1. Sigh.
Henry Tilney: Austen’s Feminized Hero?
In Northanger Abbey, Austen praises the novel form as she satirizes elements of the gothic novel, particularly the female gothic: the castle; the atmosphere of mystery and suspense; the inexplicable events; the powerful, tyrannical male; the woman in distress. Jane Spencer and other critics have noted an additional element: the weak hero. These critics claim that, in the eighteenth-century female gothic novel, the heroine triumphs over male authoritarianism by marriage to a “feminized hero,” achieving a union “where womanly virtue and patriarchal authority are no longer in conflict” (Rise of the Woman Novelist, 207).
This paper will explore the character of Henry Tilney as Austen’s clever acknowledgement and rebuttal of this feminization of the hero. Austen does “feminize” Henry. He is well aware of accepted female behaviors—“their delightful habit of journalizing,” for instance—and is eloquently able to describe the contents of the perfect feminine journal entry (NA 27). He “understands muslins . . . particularly well” and has often been entrusted with the choice of his sister’s gowns (28). He’s an avid reader of novels, although Catherine assumes that women read novels while “gentlemen read better books” (106). Yet Austen, in her other novels, discourages even hints of effeminacy and champions virtuous masculinity. So, how should readers view Henry’s “feminization”? Austen’s other heroines triumph, not by acquiring weak, feminized husbands, but by securing one who is both manly and virtuous. Is this true for Catherine also?