In Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1798/1818), Henry Tilney pokes fun at Catherine Morland for not keeping a journal: “‘my dear madam, I am not so ignorant of young ladies’ ways as you wish to believe me; it is this delightful habit of journalizing which largely contributes to form the easy style of writing for which ladies are so generally celebrated’” (Austen, Northanger Abbey, 27). Henry’s teasing disbelief at Catherine’s lack of journalizing informs Amanda Grange’s novel inspired by Northanger Abbey: Henry Tilney’s Diary (2011). Grange chronicles three major periods of Henry’s life through the form of a personal diary. Set between 1790 and 1799, the diary traces Henry’s maturation and his search for a spouse. The use of a journal to tell the story of Henry is unconventional, given the gendered forms of communication that his character refers to in Austen’s novel. As Henry jokingly notes, journaling was considered a particularly feminine task. By telling Henry’s story in journal form, Grange is taking a cue from Austen herself in challenging assumptions about masculinity and masculine spaces.
Her novel explores one of the most intriguing male characters in Austen’s novels, the one who audiences wish to know more about. In Northanger Abbey, Henry challenges the norms and expectations that existed for male contemporaries; in Henry Tilney’s Diary, Grange continues this project and is successful in establishing Henry as an unconventional character who shares concerns about marriage with the female characters around him. In part, this is a result of the form of Henry Tilney’s Diary. The obsession with novels and journaling that is a point of irony in Northanger Abbey, becomes a central aspect of Henry Tilney’s Diary. Grange’s project to turn Austen’s point of irony about journaling into the central form of her text is an intriguing thought experiment: what if all of Austen’s male characters inhabited this feminine space? However, Grange seems unaware of the tensions she is creating through this style of writing. Henry Tilney’s Diary is unsuccessful in this project because it focuses solely on the male characters. As Henry enters feminine spaces the female characters recede to the background and the space belongs to him alone.
The separation of spheres of life that were common in the Regency are erased in Grange’s plot, leading to a novel that follows contemporary styles of conversation whereby Henry partakes in traditionally feminine conversations and admits to pursuing leisure activities (reading novels) that are also more commonly viewed as the province of women. Journaling, by the admission of the narrator of Northanger Abbey, was viewed as a traditionally feminine form of communication. In Northanger Abbey Henry states “‘Every body allows that the talent of writing agreeable letters is peculiarly female. Nature may have done something, but I am sure it must be essentially assisted by the practice of keeping a journal’” (Austen 27). Henry’s joke is referencing the gendered forms of communication. It is assumed that feminine behavior is a result of the practice of journaling, and Henry’s reference to this shows his awareness of how women were expected to behave and express themselves in private—not public—modes. Yet, journaling is not the only aspect of Grange’s text that sets Henry in traditionally feminine forms. Henry’s concerns about marriage form the cornerstone of the story. While this is also seen in Austen’s novels, the method is unconventional because conversations that were private and conducted in gendered ways during the Regency pour over to public spaces in the novel.
Discussing and sharing concerns about marriage was the purview of women during the Regency and is explored throughout Austen’s novels. In Pride and Prejudice, Austen writes that marriage, “was the only honourable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasant preservative of want” (83). In Henry Tilney’s Diary, Henry is concerned about marriage, stating that, “‘When I marry—if I marry—my wife must love to read. I shall make it the one condition. Her dowry is unimportant, her family is irrelevant, but she must be a lover of novels, or else no wedding will take place!’” (63). While a joke between siblings, Henry’s pronouncement foreshadows the rest of the plot and his eventual relationship with Catherine. His views on marriage are created in relation to his use of journaling. Grange characterizes him as someone who is acutely aware of feminine sensibilities which leads to his expression of more feminine ideals, opinions, and concerns about marriage.
This focus on feminized forms of society extends to conversations about novels. In erasing gendered conventions, Grange also counters Northanger Abbey’s argument about prescriptive reading. Henry is obsessed with novels, in much the same way that Catherine is in Northanger Abbey. However, the similarities between the texts’ treatment of novels stops there. Austen’s lesson in Northanger Abbey is that women should read novels and read them well, rather than read Gothic novels poorly. In Grange’s text—whether or not they are Gothic—novels further the marriage plot. In Northanger Abbey, novels are viewed by the majority of characters as the focus of feminine interests. By representing Henry’s story through the form of journaling and discussions of novels, his interactions with society become increasingly feminized. Discussions of marriage and the novel take on traditionally feminine roles in Henry Tilney’s Diary. But for Grange’s Henry, novels are a method of determining the acceptability of a spouse, a way to find mutual interests. Grange is challenging the central lesson of Northanger Abbey: rather than chastising Catherine for her inability to discern reality from fiction, Grange’s Henry encourages it. He states that “not for me the unthinking, unfeeling woman who wears a halo of common sense and sees nothing in an abbey but an old building with inconvenient passages. Far rather would I have a young lady whose head is in the clouds, when those clouds are filled with such startling adventures” (224). Catherine’s Gothic imaginings make her more appealing to this Henry as novels pave the way for their romance.
The success of Grange’s novel is how it takes on Austen’s subtle characterization of Henry as someone who is both attuned to women’s sensibilities and aware of how social structures undermine women’s independence of thought and turns it into a diary—a feminine form—to push against the boundaries of gender conventions. It brings Henry’s story to the forefront and encourages a greater focus on those who do not fully fit into gendered expectations. However, Grange’s project to turn Henry into an advocate for Gothic and fantastic reading does not fully challenge gendered expectations. In Henry Tilney’s Diary, novels exist solely for Henry and his experiences of life.
Despite this, Grange’s novel invited me to think about whether or not we continue to gender modes of communication today. Despite the assumption that forms of communication belong to everyone, gendered expectations are not absent from our use of media. Writing letters, keepings journals, and reading novels may not be relegated to feminine spheres of society, but we continue to hold these activities as gendered. At the same time, journaling and letter writing are no longer central elements of contemporary society. Whether it is Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, texting, or any other form of social media, we can always communicate. It is my experience that these forms of media are not explicitly gendered, but the way we experience them is. Female individuals are expected to be more verbose, write longer messages, and reply quickly while the same cannot be said for male individuals. This leads to a feminine style of communication in a supposedly gender-neutral space. Gendered forms of communication do not exist in the same way they exist in Henry Tilney’s Diary and Northanger Abbey; and the rules may be less rigid, but that does not erase the fact that we make distinctions about how and why we communicate based on gendered expectations.
Henry Tilney’s Diary, by Amanda Grange
Berkley Books (2011)
Hardcover, Paperback, eBook, (288) pages
ISBN: 978-0425243923, $15.00
Austen, Jane, and Marilyn Butler. Northanger Abbey. London: Penguin Books, 1995. Print.
Austen, Jane and Donald Gray. Pride and Prejudice. 3rd Edition. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001. Print.
Grange, Amanda. Henry Tilney’s Diary, New York: Berkley Books, 2011. Print.
Copeland, Edward and Juliet McMaster. The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen. 2nd Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Print.
Hennessy, William John/Cooley Gallery/The Bridgemen Art Library. “The Pride of Dijon,” 1879, Henry Tilney’s Diary, Amanda Grange, New York: Berkley Books, 2011, front cover, https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/10680148-henry-tilney-s-diary.
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