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Northanger Abbey: the case for the odd couple

Northanger Abbey, experienced through the eyes of naïve seventeen-year-old Catherine Morland, reads at times like a giggly high school locker conversation, filled with meaningful eye-rolling in the direction of the girl’s crush and much idle chatter about fashion and parties.

To be fair, though, while Catherine might lack the experience and sophistication of an older woman, she is not unintelligent. This is just as well, for the hero Austen has in mind for her is as bright as a pin! When we first meet Henry Tilney, we are told that he has lively, intelligent eyes and talks “with fluency and spirit”. Catherine, in contrast, appears rather two-dimensional. One wonders, if they had not been thrown together by the master of the ceremonies at the Lower Rooms in Bath, whether they would have been drawn to each other at all. We consider, indeed, at first, whether they are not perhaps a very poor match, and how on earth Austen will finagle the plot that these two characters should draw our support for their future together.

Certainly, neither our hero nor our heroine is unattractive. Furthermore, Catherine is described as good-hearted, even-tempered and cheerful, while Tilney is gentlemanlike and agreeable. If nothing else, with such pleasing qualities, they could at least be dear friends.

But soon the divide in their personalities is revealed. Henry Tilney uses language with great specificity and enjoys a good debate. He is playful and witty, and, at times, a terrible tease. Catherine observes that he indulges himself “a little too much with the foibles of others.” We are told: “There was an archness and pleasantry in his manner which interested, though it was hardly understood by her.”

Here, then, is where we question their suitability for each other. Catherine is a very simple girl, unable to understand complexities in others since she is so utterly without guile. Henry says to her: “How very little trouble it can give you to understand the motive of other people’s actions.” Catherine lacks the sophistication of thought and language that Tilney displays. She only wants to do the right thing, without always knowing what that is. We are told it is “painful to her to disappoint and displease.” Is she too simple a soul for him?

Interestingly, the budding relationship may have faded into nothing if it had not been for this very strong sense of simple honesty within Catherine. When she is overwhelmed by the powerful trio of James, Isabella, and Mr. Thorpe, ganging together to force their selfish expectations upon her, it is the horror of breaking a promise to the Tilneys that gives her the courage to stand up to the three bullies who supposedly love her. Catherine, always willing to give others the benefit of the doubt, is driven to question their choices and risk their displeasure by choosing to honor her arrangements with the Tilneys instead. Despite the intense discomfort she experiences in going against the expectations of others, she is even more disturbed by the thought of behaving dishonorably.

In her desperation to have the Tilneys think well of her, Catherine blurts out her undisguised insecurities and affections, her enthusiasm, admiration, regret. It is this utter lack of pretention that endears her further to the Tilneys. Henry warmly describes her as “open, candid, artless, guileless, with affections strong but simple, forming no pretentions, and knowing no disguise.”

But, even as their friendship is strengthened, we are reminded what opposites Henry and Catherine are. Henry likes to draw and has a good eye. Catherine has no skill for music or drawing. Still, he is happy to teach, and Catherine is willing to learn. Austen jabs at the ways of the world when she comments that “where people wish to attach, they should always be ignorant. To come with a well-informed mind, is to come with an inability of administering to the vanity of others…”. We are told “Catherine did not know her own advantages — did not know that a good-looking girl, with an affectionate heart and a very ignorant mind, cannot fail of attracting a clever young man…” We know Austen is laughing as she writes this. We also know it is true.

Despite Austen’s teasing comments that Catherine’s ignorance would flatter Henry’s ego, the author actually paints Henry as something of a feminist. He expresses the opinion that the talents of the sexes are fairly evenly distributed. He is not embarrassed to express his knowledge of the cost and quality of cloth and does not demean such conversation as lowly “woman’s talk”. Also, he suggests that “the person … who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.” This last comment particularly delights Catherine, who loves reading novels, but worries that an educated gentleman could surely gain no joy from such frivolous books. Instead of judging her love of thrillers, Henry amuses her by verbally conjuring up a scene of Gothic drama to entertain her.

It seems, on the surface, that Henry is quite perfect, and Catherine is lucky to hold his attention. What, then, does she bring to the table besides her guilelessness? Well, for one, she has been raised in a home with sensible parents and nine siblings. She has learned to be selfless and adjust to the needs of others. There is surprisingly little drama in her upbringing, as her parents are steady characters. Henry, on the other hand, has a conceited brother and a father with a short fuse and little appreciation for anything beyond the superficial. Henry’s beloved mother has sadly passed. It is only his sister who offers him any sort of worthwhile relationship. Perhaps this absence of close bonds is why he declares to Catherine that the principal duties in marriage must surely be “fidelity and complaisance” (affability). He feels that each spouse should “endeavor to give the other no cause for wishing he or she had bestowed themselves elsewhere.”

We can see then, where Henry’s needs lie. Catherine’s blatant devotion to him must be no small boost to his ego, but it is her tender and unfettered ability to love openly and think only the best of him that overcomes his fear of entering a marriage similar to that of his parents. Even at twenty-five years of age, Henry is cautious in romance. Austen stuns the reader outright when she announces, in the voice of the author: “… though Henry was now sincerely attached to [Catherine], though he felt and delighted in all the excellencies of her character and truly loved her society, I must confess that his affection originated in nothing better than gratitude, or, in other words, that a persuasion of her partiality for him had been the only cause of giving her a serious thought.”

Henry’s lack of initial interest beyond the amicable is gradually replaced with genuine affection. Though, for many weeks, he makes no move that might be construed as romantic, knowing looks pass between his sister and himself that speak of his deep fondness for Catherine. Even when Catherine overindulges her imagination — convincing herself that Henry’s father murdered Mrs. Tilney, his wife — and shares as much with Henry, his response is one of amazement rather than disapproval. He is neither angry nor harsh, asking her instead to use her reason better. Her mortification that she has so badly misjudged Henry’s father, and her contrite behavior which follows, is enough to draw her back into Henry’s good graces. In fact, he is rather more kind to her, pitying the misery she has imposed on herself.

It is clear by what measure his feelings have grown when he learns of his father’s harsh and unreasonable behavior toward Catherine. “Henry’s indignation on hearing how Catherine had been treated, on comprehending his father’s views, and being ordered to acquiesce in them, had been open and bold.” His father could not “shake his fidelity”.

In the end, Henry and Catherine are devoted to each other, despite our initial doubts as to their suitability for each other. What seemed like an unlikely match, turns out to be a wholesome one. One imagines, in future, that Henry will take the lead in most matters, but will do so gently and kindly. Catherine will hang on his every word and look for only the best in him. Truly, does it then matter if she is no great debater, as long as she admires her husband’s gift of elocution? Is there a need for them to share all interests? Perhaps, in this quiet, solid relationship, Austen seeks to show us that simple and sincere affection is enough. No need for the sparring between Elizabeth and Darcy. No need for love on the rebound, which wins fanny Price her Edmund. No need for years of languishing such as poor Anne Elliot must endure for heeding bad advice. No, Henry Tilney and Catherine Morland —such opposites on the surface — have fulfilled a need in each other, simply by being themselves, being true to themselves, and ultimately to each other.

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