Henry Tilney, and Film Adaptations

I don’t know why I never came to that conclusion before, but Henry Tilney has got to be my favourite of all of Austen’s heroes. I mean, the guy is bloomin’ funny! None of the others have quite as much wit as Henry. Several of them have a sense of humour, and I believe Captain Wentworth is described as “lively”, if not “witty” (I’ll tell you when I get to him in my reading lineup), but you never really get the full evidence of either of it, like you do with the Tilneys. With Henry, it’s all in the dialogue; he can barely get his tongue out of his cheek long enough to convince Catherine that he’s not an utter rudesby, as his sister requests him to do. That’s also why, when Catherine goes off on her biggest flight of fancy and he tears a strip off of her for it, it’s so devastating; when joking Henry gets so serious, the impact is dramatic. It’s interesting that Austen’s first hero, created in her youth, is also the one I personally find most attractive – and that includes Mr Darcy, whom I don’t actually find all that amazing, Colin-Firth-in-wet-shirt notwithstanding.

Speaking of Colin Firth, or rather, of Austen film adaptations, after I finished reading Northanger I sat down and watched both movies back-to-back, the 1987 BBC version with Peter Firth (no relation to Colin) playing Henry, and the 2007 one with J. J. Feild doing the same (they’re just 90 min. each, so not that big a deal – not too much for one evening). It brought home once again that a movie can never do the book justice; also, that it really does no good to take your idea of the story from the movie. For example, both films have Catherine starting her diet of gothic horror novels long before she even gets invited to Bath by Mrs Allen – in the book, it’s Isabella Thorpe who introduces her to the genre. Also, both movies make changes to General Tilney’s character and story line (more successfully so in the 2007 version, I find). Neither film can let the General stand as he is, a despotic, unfeeling man, whose chief vice is his greed, but who pretty much gets his own way in the end after all. In the 1987 movie, they make him a compulsive gambler (even a somewhat charming one) who genuinely needs Catherine’s supposed fortune to pay for his extravagance, but very quickly relents and lets Henry marry her after all when the latter gives him a good scolding; in 2007, he is as villanous and scary as he appears to Catherine in the book, but he never gives in – his children defy him and marry whom they wish, and the film ends with a suitably gothic scene of the General stalking through his grounds against the backdrop of the Abbey dramatically silhouetted against roiling storm clouds torn asunder by flashes of lightning.

In the book, of course, the final solution comes about through the “saved by the bell” event of Eleanor Tilney’s boyfriend suddenly and without warning getting rich and titled, which allows the General to allow her to marry him and puts him in a good enough humour to forgive Henry, so he can go ahead and marry Catherine. No suitable remorse on the part of the General, no gothic loneliness among thunder clouds; he ends the story just as greedy and despotic as he is all through. His character never changes, and his wickedness is based purely on selfishness, overweening pride, and lack of consideration for others – and those vices, in Austen, are worse than any other. She is never so severe as in her characterisation of self-absorbed, arrogant, greedy middle-aged rich-or-titled people (General Tilney, Lady Catherine, Mrs Ferrars, Sir Walter Elliot…).

Those “saved by the bell” events, almost a deus ex machina, are very rare in Austen; I forgot that this story turns on one of them (and was a little disappointed, to be honest). Although, really, as in all other of her stories, it’s the character of her heroes and heroines which drives the story. If Henry were not such an honest, upright young man, and Catherine so truly sensible and real, all dropping dead of distantly related Viscounts in order to bring about inheritances and marriages wouldn’t help their relationship. It’s Henry throwing down the gauntlet to his father, refusing to knuckle under when it comes to treating a girl honourably, and riding ventre a terre to her rescue (well, okay, to apologise to her. Which comes to the same thing. What’s a ventre a terre, anyway?) which makes their relationship work. If he was more of a wooss, he’d give in to his father even over the girl he loves, as he has done all his life on matters less important; if he wasn’t as honest, he’d not feel as strongly honour-bound to make her his wife. And if Catherine wasn’t possessed of so much good common sense and principles, she would not learn her lessons about her silliness, and would, in short, not be the person she is and deserve the outcome (and the man) she gets.

Northanger Abbey is, in fact, an excellent example of a lesson in the hackneyed Disney adage, “Be true to yourself!” But first, as Catherine finds out, you have to figure out who that self really is.

Okay, next up: Sense and Sensibility.


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