Why Henry Tilney Is One of Jane Austen’s Best Heroes

JJ Feild as Henry Tilney wiping mud off of Catherine's face in Northanger Abbey.

It’s always Mr. Darcy this and Mr. Darcy that, but when are we, as a society, going to recognize that sunshine soft boy Mr. Henry Tilney also deserves fangirls screaming about him? It’s high time we start, friends—sweet baby angel unicorns have stood by long enough for the brooding, reserved men to continue reigning.

Northanger Abbey is Jane Austen’s most gothic adventure, but it’s simultaneously the sweetest. As much as many of us want to be Elizabeth Bennet (and some really are), we’re mostly Catherine Morland—the bookworms longing for more. If she were a character today, she’d be the one with a bookstagram account, championing for all kinds of stories to take up space in the romance sphere. And with that comes the softest hero. The best part of Henry Tilney as a character is his kindness, but concurrently, his humor and the ability to communicate openly.

Henry Tilney Is Wholesome—Wholly and Entirely

Henry Tilney smiling at Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey 2007.

In a myriad of ways, Northanger Abbey is a story that centers around various forms of communication. Whether through character interactions or the stories Catherine reads, the theme boils down to human connections and how they’re solidified. And with this comes Henry Tilney’s transparency as a character. He’s endearing when we first meet him—outgoing, kind, and so very warm right from the start. He doesn’t lace his sarcasm with malice or outright cruelty despite his heartbreaking upbringing, but instead, it’s a means to add light to all occasions.

So much of what we see in his personality comes out in his treatment of his sister, Eleanor and later, Catherine. Austen’s heroes are generally kindhearted regarding their siblings, but there’s also a detachment that’s present because of the era we’re in. Yet, with Henry Tilney, he’s entirely open with his sister, supportive of her, and he understands her even when his father doesn’t because he listens. And this very detail that he listens to people is what makes him stand out as a character.

George Knightley is an Austen man who listens, too—most of them do if we get technical in our analysis. Still, there’s something about the way that Austen weaves tenderheartedness into Tilney and how JJ Feild brings it out in 2007’s film adaptation. There’s a warmth in his eyes when he tells Catherine about Eleanor’s troubles and a gleam in his expression with every jest he tells. At the same time, even when he’s angry, he maintains much of his composure because he’s still taking the words in carefully.

Henry Tilney and Catherine Morland kissing in PBS' Northanger Abbey.

Men of the time understandably repressed their emotions, for they didn’t know any better. They weren’t allowed to grieve, mourn, and express their emotions freely. Still, there are parts of Henry Tilney open to those worthy of receiving those fragments of him. It’s easy to tell that he’s nothing like his father or brother when we meet them and note the stark contrasts. He’s entirely his own person, driven in more ways than one by his mother’s love and kindness.

Austen’s stories don’t give us much after the poetic love declarations, but it’s effortless to tell the kind of partners each man will be depending on how they choose to behave with the women throughout. Henry Tilney would be the type of partner who fully supports Catherine in any way she needs him to. He’d support her reading habits, believe her instincts, and protect her through everything because what he proves with his actions by going against his father’s orders is that he’d choose her no matter what. It’s what all the men do throughout the texts, but the difference is that Tilney loses far more when he does as a second son with no command.

He’s reasonable, earnest, wise, and loyal, making him the kind of hero Austen crafted with much more nuance than meets the eye. She wrote in a genuinely amiable hero while simultaneously giving him zeal and wit, exhibiting that kind people are just as capable of standing up for themselves and those they care for. She made sure to write a multifaceted man, contrasting the more one-dimensional portrayals of gentleness in fiction. Softness and sarcasm can go hand in hand. People often have rage, and no character (or person) is truly ever only one thing.

Northanger Abbey is available for digital purchase on Amazon or Apple TV.


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