The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen compiled by editors Edward Copeland and Juliet McMaster. 2003 (originally printed in 1997).
I read this book a while back, but am only now able to write a review of it. This volume contains a brief biography of Austen’s life: her as a writer; essays on Northanger Abbey, Sense & Sensibility, and Pride & Prejudice; Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion; Austen’s short stories; the Austen letters; class-consciousness in her works; economy of the culture; religion and politics; her style in the novels; the significance of her juvenile works; and Austen cults/cultures.
I thought this book was…okay. Some of the essays had really interesting points about Jane Austen or her work.
While others seemed to rehashed old concepts that you already knew. Although, in this book’s defense I think that was mostly due to age as it was published almost twenty years ago. At the time of publication I’m sure all the ideas in were new concepts at the time and just have now just seeped into the general knowledge. I do think it is worth a read if you are looking for more information on Jane Austen or a deeper look into her works.
However, the essay that I did not care for was the one on Northanger Abbey, by Rachel M. Brownstein.
In Brownstein‘s essay she writes about how Northanger Abbey is a parody of the romantic genre that was popular at Austen’s time, that I agreed with.
Northanger Abbey in a way is a rewrite of The Female Quixote or The Adventures of Arabella by Charlotte Lennox. In fact, I agreed with a lot of what Browenstein wrote in her essay, such as how Austen made fun of the romantic tropes, and was quite snarky in her writing. Today she would have fit in on Youtube, right next to Nostalgia Critic or someone of a similar tone.
The part I disagreed with was what she wrote about Mr. Tilney.
In her essay she details that how Mr. Tilney is the most “feminine” of the Austen heroes because he is interested in muslin (something only for a woman), novels, and is dominated and intimidated by his manly father. I however, feel he is no less masculine than any other Austen man.
1)Interest in Muslin
Catherine has just met Mr. Henry Tilney who is unlike any man she has met or read in books. Instead of being tall, dark, and brooding; he is jovial, saracastic, witty, hilarious, etc. No reserve for him.
They begin on the subject of muslin by Mrs. Allen who is speaking on her muslin dress and how she would hate for it to be torn. It is a favorite of hers and cost but nine shillings a yard. Henry shares that he would have guessed that as he is a great judge of muslin, as he buys his own cravats and sometimes his sister’s gowns.
Now there are many ways to look at this conversation:
1. Henry is a Down to Earth Man
Henry Tilney is a middle son. He knows that like most middle children, he will not inherit as much as her older brother but instead is expected to make his own fortune or marry rich.
He chose the church as a profession, and while he will live comfortably he won’t be a millionaire, unless he marries a wealthy person. Depending on what living he is granted and who his patron is, he could have several servants or he might have to take care of a few duties himself. Also before he is married and has a wife to run the house, he will need to be in charge and know how best to budget and stay within his means.
He also might want to purchase the time of cravats he likes. Sometimes you can ask another to pick up a specific material or item, but that doesn’t always mean your servants will follow through. Maybe he likes a particular type and would rather pick it up himself?
2. Henry is a Good Brother
Eleanor Tilney is the youngest of the Tilney clan. She is very reserved and quiet; due to her father General Tilney’s tyrannical ways. We know that the father emotionally abused the mother with his attitude and temperament, being a vampire of spirit, and it is easily concluded that he did the same with his daughter. Because of this, Eleanor doesn’t have many friends, the only ones seeming to be her brother Henry, and then later Catherine.
The eldest Tilney, Captain Fredrick Tilney, is a lot like his father. He is no friend of Eleanor; leaving Henry to shoulder the big brother responsibilities and to be the protector of his sister. Like Mr. Darcy, there are probably a ton of different things he does for his sister, buying her clothing the least of it.
3. Henry is Being Sarcastic
This is most likely the real reasoning behind the conversation with Mrs. Allen. We know that Mr. Tilney has a wicked sense of humor. He is sarcastic, funny, and likes going against society (not 100% but a mini rebellion).
Right before this exchange he and Catherine are discussing her time in Bath, with Mr. Tilney sassily and snarkily making fun of how society expects such bland converstion (much of how Elizabeth does when she and Darcy dance in Pride & Prejudice).
“I [Mr. Tilney] 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.’
[Catherine Moreland] ‘You need not give yourself that trouble sir.’
[Mr. Tilney] ‘No trouble I assure you, madam.’ Then forming his features in 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!’ [said Mr. Tilney] with affected astonishment.
‘Why should you be surprised. sir?’ [asked Catherine]
‘Why, indeed!’ said he, in his natural tone. ‘But some emotion must appear to be raised by your reply, and surprise is more easily assumed…
This teasing continues for a while, with Catherine trying her best to withold her laughter.
So we know that Mr. Tilney is a kidder. He likes to joke around, and he likes to be sassy; it is easy to believe that his remarks on muslin are all just one big joke. That he actually knows nothing at all, but is just being sarcastic again.
Maybe he decided to play along with what Mrs. Allen is saying as he is in a silly/sarcastic mood, trying to make Catherine laugh once again. We know he likes to tease, and make fun of other’s foibles (eccentricities) so it is easy to conclude that.
Well, whether he knows his muslin, is a good brother, or just making fun. Mrs. Allen believes he knows his stuff, and that is good enough for me.
2) Dominated by His Father
How do I describe General Tilney?
He pretended to be sweet, charming, and kind to win the heart of a wealthy woman, but later revealed his true colors. He was tyrannical and insisted his way was always the right one or else. He held all the power and expected his children to bow to his will or find themselves with nothing.
How is this less than other Austen characters? Mr. Darcy isn’t dominated by a person, per say, but by society. He knows himself to be attracted to Elizabeth, but feels he cannot marry her as she isn’t in his class, nor does he want to be chained to her family. He does all he can to not want to be with her, but ultimately succumbs.
Edward Ferrars is just as dominated by the head of his family, although in this case it is his mother. Just like in the Tilney clan, you must do what Mrs. Ferrars says or risk losing it all. Edward’s mother wants him to follow a more elite career, while Edward wants to be a minister. He almost gives into his mother’s wishes; but luckily stays true to who he is.
And this was something that happened a lot back then. With inheritance being the key to living comfortably, and rich relatives holding the power, more often than not people always had to bend to their will.
3) Reading Novels
In the 18th century there was what historians call the “reading revolution”. With the printing press improvements that occured then and in the early 19th century, books could be printed more easily and cheaply. Reading and owning books became a huge phenomenon as more people had the ability to purchase them.
Everything from science, to books we now call classics, novels, romance, history, to cheap thrills, etc. Such romances like The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Monk were popular, but thought to be purposely explicit and exploiting, “women’s cheap novels” but were read by all.
While it would be unusual for Mr. Tilney to admit to reading them, it is not unusual for him to actually read them as most men did. But this admittance goes with his character as we have already seen that Tilney doesn’t feel the need to be reserved, or be constructed by societal norms, but is more open in his demeanor.
Besides as this is still a romance, whether parody or remake, and as Catherine is an avid book reader, her hero has to be as much a reader as herself. After all, there is nothing sexier then meeting a man who loves to read.
4) Never Makes a Move or Takes any Action Toward Catherine
In the essay, Brownstein declares that Mr. Tilney never had any romantic interest with Catherine, his relationship with her was all constructed or forced by his father, General Tilney. Yes, while Mr. Tilney is passive in the beginning of the novel and not the one to invite Catherine to his house (his dad does as he is trying to hook her) but what about that final scene? You know the one where he goes after Catherine and asks her to marry him risking everything for her?
Mr. Tilney is gone from the family home when Catherine is given the boot. When he returns and finds out what happened, he could have just let it go. Or he could have gone and apologized to Catherine, returning home and continuing the search for a wealthy bride. But does he do that? NO! He chooses to not only go after her, apologize for his family, but to also propose.
He is willing to throw his entire fortune away for her, not even knowing if she feels the same way about him. Unlike Edward Ferrars who is in a similar situation, Mr. Tilney doesn’t have an understanding with Catherine. He doesn’t even know if she will accept him, but he’s prepared to give it all up for her and even to to end up with nothing, having turned on his father who is not a forgiving man.
Mr. Tilney is the only Austen hero who throws all caution to the wind, and risks everything for the woman he loves.
Mr. Tilney…what else can I say about you?
You are definitely hero material
For more on Mr. Tilney, go to God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
For more on Northanger Abbey, go to Waiter, There’s Some Disney in My Jane Austen
For more on Jane Austen, go to Jane, Jane, Jane: A Jane Austen Biography