by Jane Austen
Wit and Dialogue
Henry Tilney has a few things in common with another famous Henry – Henry Higgins of George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion and of the movie-musical My Fair Lady. Henry Higgins is witty, charming, intelligent, opinionated, and also really, really full of it. Really. Henry Higgins's ego deserves star billing alongside Henry himself. How is Henry Higgins arrogant? Well, he makes a bet that he can "transform" the poor and uneducated Eliza into a duchess – or at least pass her off as one in public. In order to effect this transformation, Henry Higgins effectively turns Eliza into a lab rat and schools her on how to behave "properly."
OK, so Henry Tilney doesn't have that much of a God complex. But he does spend a lot of time "educating" Catherine in a sense. He spends most of his time either teasing Catherine about her ignorance or explaining things to her – from picturesque art to people's motives and behavior. He also spends a lot of time making fun of women in general. While he is joking, it is difficult to tell whether or not there is an element of male chauvinism at work here, given how perpetually irreverent Henry is. He often seems to mean the exact opposite of what he is saying, which is something Eleanor points out:
"And now, Henry," said Miss Tilney [...] "you may as well make Miss Morland understand yourself - unless you mean to have her think you intolerably rude to your sister, and a great brute in your opinion of women in general. Miss Morland is not used to your odd ways." (14.39)
Henry displays a lot of humorous arrogance and very ironic humor towards Eleanor and Catherine, and women in general. In fact, Henry frequently provides humorous commentary on some of the books major themes, such as language and gender. But while Henry comments on these thematic issues, the arrogance (possibly fake, possibly genuine) with which he delivers his commentary is itself a thematic statement. In other words, Henry's personality makes important statements about themes alongside, and sometimes independently of, Henry's dialogue. And Henry's dialogue is often difficult to interpret. Take this address to Eleanor and Catherine:
He laughed, and added, "Come, shall I make you understand each other, or leave you to puzzle out an explanation as you can? No - I will be noble. I will prove myself a man, no less by the generosity of my soul than the clearness of my head. I have no patience with such of my sex as disdain to let themselves sometimes down to the comprehension of yours." (14.25)
Though Eleanor tells Catherine to ignore Henry since is he "not in a sober mood" (14.47), it's unclear how serious Henry may actually be or what his opinion really is. After all, Henry often seems to pride himself in his wit and intelligence and enjoys teasing others, something Catherine notes after meeting him:
Catherine feared, as she listened to their discourse, that he indulged himself a little too much with the foibles of others. (3.46)
As a perpetually ironic jokester, Henry is one of the most inscrutable (a.k.a. hard to read) characters in the book. He is also frequently the mouthpiece of the narrator. The narrator, like Henry, often satirizes everything, and utilizes irony and wit for humorous purposes. Henry commonly says the opposite of what he means in order to be funny. But Henry is not simply the narrator incarnate – he is also a character and his actions, behavior, and personality communicate things to us as well as his dialogue.
Henry and Catherine
But Henry is arguably a good influence on Catherine. He helps to correct her faulty assumptions about people. He encourages her to use common sense after she effectively, and ludicrously, accuses his dad of being a homicidal maniac. And he was nice about the whole 'having his almost-girlfriend accuse his dad of being a murdering' thing to boot. Henry Tilney is totally a class act and makes a likable and hugely entertaining love interest.
So that's good then. Catherine is super naive and Henry does help her to become more self-aware. Henry is very considerate and funny and is a very good suitor overall. But Henry might be more than a bit overbearing in his attitude, charming as it is. Catherine spends the entire book noting how Henry is always right about everything. Everything ever. In the history of the world. And the narrator notes that Henry rather enjoys this element of hero worship. In fact, Henry is interested in Catherine, at first, because she practically idolizes him.
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. (30.9)
So how much of Henry Higgins is there in Henry Tilney? Henry Tilney is very likable and fun. But he is also full of it at times. Is he going on a bit of a power trip in his relationship with Catherine? Is he just a well-meaning and helpful kind of guy, or is there something arrogant and even controlling in his interactions with Catherine? At any rate, there are more layers and depths to the charming and often hilariously funny Henry Tilney than meet the eye.