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Saturday, January 19

Northanger Abbey's General Tilney: A Real or Imagined Tyrant?

The PBS presentation of Northanger Abbey airs this Sunday, and I am looking forward to Liam Cunningham’s performance as that dastardly despot, General Tilney, who can be included as one of Jane Austen’s Bad Daddy’s.

Opinions of this potentate vary so greatly that accounts of him “puzzle me exceedingly”. When the novel was first published with Persuasion, an anonymous review of both novels appeared in the magazine the British Critic in March of 1818. I understand that during the early 1800’s it was common for reviews to be published anonymously. Really? That seems so impersonal and sheepish. What’s the point of a review if you can’t point a finger at the critic?

“Northanger Abbey is one of the best of Miss Austen’s productions, and will every way repay the time and trouble of perusing it. Some of the incidents in it are rather improbable, and the character of General Tilney seems to have been drawn from imagination, for it is not a very probable character, and is not portrayed with our authoress’s usual taste and judgment.”

This reviewer may not have understood that Northanger Abbey is a parody on Gothic novels, and General Tilney was an archetype of a villain. The ironic twist is that it is believed that the character of General Tilney was fashioned after a real person in Jane Austen’s family, a General Edward Mathew (1728-1805), who was the father-in-law of her elder brother James Austen.

General Mathew had served bravely in the Army with the Coldstream Guards in Europe, through the American War of Independence, and as the Governor of Grenada his last ten years in service. He retired to the county and lived in the old Manor House of Laverstoke, near Steventon where the Austen family resided. ‘The General was in his own house and family a despot whose will no-one could venture to dispute, and although autocratic and hot tempered was kind hearted and very generous.’ General Mathew could certainly have inspired Jane Austen’s characterization of General Tilney, who resembles an autocratic despot quite neatly.

More current views of General Tilney appear in the book Jane Austen and the Fiction of her Time, by Mary Waldron.

“General Tilney is immediately recognizable to the modern reader as he must have been at the turn of the nineteenth century as the archetypical domestic tyrant…grasping, irascible, overbearing, insincere and despotic.”

Whatever early or modern critics think of this character, General Tilney is one of the highlights of the novel, and fuels our heroine Catherine Morland’s Gothic fantasies into fervor.

Be sure to catch the premiere of Northanger Abbey, starring Felicity Jones and J.J. Field, airing on PBS, January 20th, at 9:00 pm, to see if General Tilney is as horrid as we hope!

Posted by Laurel Ann

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your informative article about General Tilney. I had no idea he represented an archetype, or that his character was based on an actual individual.