Persuasions #7, 1985 Pages 62-65
The Tilneys and the Bennets
In her book, Only a Novel: The Double Life of Jane Austen, Jane Aiken Hodge asks of Henry Tilney and Catherine Morland, “Did he manage to educate her before the two of them degenerated into a Mr. and Mrs. Bennet?” A most interesting question, producing others in my mind. Could he educate her? Would he in fact want to? Could they ever turn into a Mr. and Mrs. Bennet? Let us consider and compare.
Beginning with a point of similarity, and it is probably the only point of similarity between the two pairs, Henry is Catherine’s intellectual superior and Mr. Bennet is Mrs. Bennet’s, not that the last is any particular distinction. Mrs. Bennet, I think we may agree, is ineducable. If Mr. Bennet tried he failed. Catherine has greater potential – the fact that she has read a little history, though she dislikes it, “as a duty” argues that she has more intellectual curiosity and self-discipline at the age of seventeen than Mrs. Bennet will ever have at seventy. Catherine’s love of novels is not a sign of a dull mind. We are all very intelligent, are we not? Is there anyone here – be honest, now – who does not prefer reading novels to any other form of reading? She has, in fact, a quick mind if the subject – or the teacher – interests her. Her voluntary rejection of the whole of Bath as a subject for a painting actually echoes one of the writers on the picturesque, which suggests she has understood Henry’s explanations very well. So yes, Henry probably could educate her, if he wanted to do so.
Second question. Would he want to? Does Henry want an intellectual wife? Did Mr. Bennet? Is it not the case that it is possible for a man to be tolerably happy with a woman who is not at all intelligent if she is good-tempered and good-mannered? Step forward and tell us, Sir Thomas Bertram. I would contend that Mr. Bennet is more troubled by his wife’s nerves, or to cease using euphemisms her querulous temper, and by the fact that she is embarrassing to take out in public, than by her inability to read French or appreciate Thomas Aquinas. Ill-temper and ill-manners are not matters likely to affect Henry Tilney. Catherine has a very sweet disposition, and her manners, though still youthfully gauche, are naturally good – considerably better than those of Marianne Dashwood at the same age, though Marianne is supposed to be clever, and undoubtedly prefers poetry to novels.
So, could it ever happen that the young Tilneys degenerated into Bennet clones? I think not. Even supposing what I cannot believe, that Catherine’s honey transmuted to vinegar and her temper became like Mrs. Bennet’s, that her good breeding suddenly vanished, that her gentle humility became complacency and self-importance – even under all these ills, Henry is too gregarious a creature to seek refuge in his library. At the worst he would go out a lot – without his wife. But let us consider the nature of the marriages themselves, and in particular the reasons of the four parties for entering into marriage.
We will begin with Mrs. Bennet. What were her motives? Was Mrs. Bennet ever in love with Mr. Bennet? Well, have we any reason to believe that Mr. Bennet is extraordinarily handsome, or that he ever had occasion to wear a red coat? Mrs. Bennet does not believe that it is necessary to feel love, or indeed to feel anything much at all for the man a woman marries. For all that Mrs. Bennet bothers to find out, her daughter Elizabeth might indeed have accepted a man that she dislikes personally from a desire for his money and consequence, and Mrs. Bennet sees this only as cause for rejoicing. Indeed, the point has been proved long before this stage. Mrs. Bennet – even Mrs. Bennet – cannot imagine that anyone would fall in love with Mr. Collins, or even like him very much. But she does not see this as any obstacle to her daughter’s marrying him. Earlier still she has designs on Bingley before he turns out to be the amiable creature that he is. And who can forget the culminating magic moment when Darcy stops being a disagreeable creature who is not interested in taking one of Mrs. Bennet’s daughters off her hands and becomes the most charming man in the world – or, as Mrs. Bennet really sees him, an animated sign saying “Ten thousand a year”?
Mrs. Bennet does not seem to realize that personal feelings enter into marriage at all, probably because her own never did and she has too little imagination to see that others feel differently. If she had understood that love, or even liking, came into the case she would have steered Mr. Collins at Mary, who might well have taken him. So, it seems likely that the young Mrs. Bennet was not in love with anyone – she may have had infatuations for handsome young men or those endowed with the glamour of a uniform, but if none of them proposed she would settle for any man who did. She felt joy in her engagement, no doubt, because the fish who bit was of greater fortune and social consequence than she had hoped for, but affection for the man …? I think the best that one could say is that she probably quite liked him, for as long as he did nothing to displease her.
Is Catherine Morland in love with Henry Tilney? Can there be any doubt of it? She loves him with an intensity and completeness which perhaps can only be achieved by a seventeen-year-old in love for the first time. Marianne Dashwood has it too, but Catherine has a better man, and so a better chance of a lasting love. Her love will change, of course. It is not possible to maintain a 100 per-cent hero-worship for a man if you live with him twenty-four hours a day. She may come to get faintly irritated the four hundredth time he takes her up for saying nice in the wrong context, or to mutter to herself that if she’d known what a mess he usually left his own room in she would have thought twice. But these will only be passing irritations. She won’t go on thinking he knows everything. Most things, maybe. She will, however, go on loving him. She has a loving nature, and if he is no god to be worshipped, he is a loveable young man, kind and good-tempered and amusing. Qualities which Mr. Bennet does not wholly share. The youthful infatuation will stand an excellent chance of growing into a mature love. Certainly Catherine in marriage is going for the man and not the match. Her thoughts are as open to us as to Henry, and she never once sees him as a “good” marriage in the worldly sense – though he is that too, as her parents recognise at once.
Why did Mr. Bennet marry the woman that he did? We are told in some detail. “Captivated by youth and beauty, and by that appearance of good humour, which youth and beauty generally give, he had married a woman whose weak understanding and illiberal mind had very early in their marriage put an end to all real affection for her.” Or to put it with less elegance, he was sexually attracted to an overwhelming degree that warped his judgement. Lydia Bennet takes after her father, not her mother, when it comes to marriage. Mrs. Bennet must have been a great beauty in her day, and her spouse’s wry observation that Mr. Bingley might prefer her to any of her daughters suggests that the memory of that beauty can still be very potent. Perhaps not just the memory. The sexual attraction took a long time to die, if it ever did die wholly. Mrs. Bennet was convinced for many years after Lydia’s birth that she might have a son. And of course when Miss Gardiner had a suitor in view she would be very careful to show him a sunny disposition. She is well capable of deceit on behalf of her daughters, and no doubt she learned it in her youth. When he proposed, Mr. Bennet had been outwitted by a stupid woman, largely because his brain was not functioning with its normal level of efficiency. Mrs. Bennet, in effect, seduced him and he loved what he thought she was.
Does any of this apply to Henry Tilney? Catherine is not a great beauty. She is a pretty girl, but not more so than many others. Like young Lochinvar, Henry must have seen maidens who were more lovely by far, if not in Scotland. He does find her physically attractive – he would hardly marry her otherwise – but this is not what leads him to propose. Her character brings this about. Catherine has far more than the appearance of good humour – she has an abundance of the real thing. And she is constitutionally incapable of artifice, which may account for her slowness to recognize it in others. It never for a moment occurs to her, when her momentous encounter with Henry outside his mother’s room takes place, to do what I must confess I would in similar circumstances, which is claim to have got lost and ask to be shown back to familiar ground. It has often been said, but always rightly, that Henry’s ironic description of Isabella Thorpe is a true portrait of Catherine, “Open, candid, artless, guileless, with affections strong but simple, forming no pretensions and knowing no disguise.” Or as he says to her on another occasion, she is superior in good nature to the rest of the world. And she loves Henry, as he and anyone, except Isabella and John Thorpe and General Tilney – none of whom would know an honest emotion if it came up and bit them – can plainly see. Catherine is not a seducer – unless one counts the innocent flattery of her unconcealed and honest affection as seduction – but she is very loveable indeed. Henry, surely, loves what she is, for he cannot possibly imagine her to be anything she is not.
One word more before I conclude. Sex isn’t everything. Success in marriage is often a matter of possessing compatible personalities, equally applicable to other human relationships. On that level there is one excellent augury for the success of Henry and Catherine’s marriage. For the first twenty-one years of Elizabeth Bennet’s life, who was the person she loved most, confided in, trusted absolutely? Her sister Jane, of course. It has often been pointed out how similar in temperament Elizabeth and Henry Tilney are, but can I be the first to see how like Jane is to Catherine? The same candour, the same affectionate disposition, the same tendency to think well of others – with one notable exception in Catherine’s case, I admit – and the same sweetness of nature. And while I know Elizabeth loyally asserts that Jane has an improved mind, her description of Mrs. Bennet’s capers as “affectionate solicitude” leads me to add that Jane’s intellect distinctly is inferior to Elizabeth’s. The love between these two sisters is a truer omen for the Tilneys’ marriage than their parents’ unhappiness.
So to return to my original questions – could Henry educate Catherine? Probably. She’s not stupid. Would he want to? Very possibly not. He sees what she is, and he likes it. And could they end up like the Bennets? I say never. What do you say?
This picture is from a delightful book of watercolours painted in the Regency period by a young girl, Diana Sperling. It is published under the title Mrs. Hurst Dancing by Victor Gollancz Ltd. and in the USA by St. Martin’s Press. It is reprinted here with permission. © Neville Ollerenshaw 1981