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The Rev. Sidney Smith

“I sat next to Sydney Smith, who was delightful–I don’t remember a more
agreeable party.” ~ Benjamin Disraeli
In late 1797, Jane Austen, her sister Cassandra, and their parents made a visit
to Bath. They had connections there; Mrs. Austen’s brother and his wife, the
Leigh Perrots, lived there, and the Austens had courted and been married there.
1797 was the year of Cassandra’s bereavement, when her fiancé Tom Fowle died of
yellow fever during military service in the West Indies, and perhaps Mrs. Austen
thought her daughter’s grief would be alleviated by the gaiety of the resort
town.In 1797 Bath was still relatively fashionable and attracted a large crowd in the
winter months. But that particular winter a gentleman was in town, a young
clergyman who was acting as a tutor to the eldest son of a family from near
Salisbury. His name was Sydney Smith, and he would go on to become one of the
most celebrated wits of his day.

“He drew such a ludicrous caricature that Sir James Mackintosh rolled on the
floor in fits of laughter.” ~ Lord John Russell

sydney smithBut in the winter of 1797, Sydney Smith was tutor to Michael Hicks Beach. The Hicks Beach family was related to the Bramstons of Oakley Hall in Hampshire, very near to Steventon, and the Austens were acquainted with the Hicks Beaches through that connection. And, as Irene Collins says, “Even without such information, the Master of Ceremonies would have regarded a clergyman-tutor as the very person to introduce to a clergyman’s daughter had they coincided at an Assembly in the Lower Rooms” (163), much the same way that Mr. King introduced Henry Tilney to Catherine Morland, who was, like her creator, a clergyman’s daughter.

There is no record stating that Sydney Smith and Jane Austen ever met, let alone that they might have danced together at an assembly. But, as David Cecil points out, Sydney Smith in 1797 was “tall, pleasant-looking and extraordinarily  amusing in a vein of humour peculiarly his own.” (79) As is Henry Tilney.

“Sydney at breakfast made me actually cry with laughing. I was obliged to
start up from the table.” ~ Thomas Moore

Henry Tilney is perhaps one of the most misunderstood characters in the Austen
oeuvre; he has been called effete, sexist, and cruel. Most of these
interpretations seem to arise from readers who take seriously his outrageous
remarks. We never really know what Henry is thinking, although the authoress
allows us the occasional slight glimpse into his mind; however, the hints are in
general so small and subtle that it is easy for a reader to misinterpret his
character. This can also be considered a necessary part of the plot, as
Catherine is an inexperienced judge of human nature and we are left in the dark
along with her.

However, if one accepts the possibility that Jane Austen met and was inspired by
Sydney Smith, a comparison between the two can explain a great deal about Henry.
For instance, Sydney Smith “delighted in talking nonsense on serious subjects
and in producing strings of ludicrous images to prove his point; Henry Tilney’s
comparison between dancing and marriage was very much in his line.” (Collins
163) W.H. Auden agrees, stating that Smith liked to “create pictures in what
might be called the ludicrous baroque style.”

Of course, Jane Austen always claimed that she did not base her characters upon
real people. But it is the everyday minutiae of life that awaken the writer’s
muse. The smallest, most insignificant event can send our imaginations in a
million directions. Is it impossible to believe that Jane Austen met a young,
tall, very near to handsome clergyman, that they danced together, that they sat
down to tea together? It is fun to imagine that “Sydney enjoyed himself at the
expense of Aunt Leigh Perrot as Henry Tilney does at the expense of Mrs. Allen.
He was noted for embarking on such conversations without malice aforethought and
for being able to carry them off without causing offense.” (Collins 163) And it
impossible to believe that this meeting inspired Jane when, sometime during the
next year, she created Henry Tilney? Is it too much of a coincidence? Perhaps.
But Jane Austen’s work is full of such concidences. Life is full of such
coincidences. And life inspires art.

“The only wit on record, whom brilliant social success had done nothing to
spoil or harden.” ~ Henry Fothergill Chorley

From my readings about Sydney Smith, however, he is not much like Tilney fans’
idealized version of Henry. Auden wrote that “Mentally, like so many funny men,
[Sydney] had to struggle constantly against melancholia: he found it difficult
to get up in the morning, he could not bear dimly lit rooms.” (vii) Attributes
worthy of a Gothic hero, of a Heathcliff or a Rochester, but not of the
playfully cheerful Henry Tilney. Of course, one or two meetings in the
crowded public rooms of Bath would not have revealed these facets of Sydney’s
personality to Jane. If she took from Sydney to make Henry, she only took what
was best about him.

The interested scholar can find other literary inspiration for the Rev. Mr.
Tilney as well. Northanger Abbey is nearly a point-to-point parody of Ann
Radcliffe’s novel The Mysteries of Udolpho; however, the noble
Valancourt, the hero of Udolpho, has little in common with Henry. It
seems that Jane Austen was more taken with Henri de Villefort, the witty and
charming young gentleman whose family befriends the heroine after she escapes
from the clutches of the evil Montoni. Consider the following offering by young
Henri, from Volume III, Chapter X of Udolpho:

“‘My dear Mademoiselle Bearn,’ said Henri, as he met her at the door of the
parlour, ‘no ghost of these days would be so savage as to impose silence on you.
Our ghosts are more civilized than to condemn a lady to a purgatory severer
even, than their own, be it what it may.'”

Compare this to Henry Tilney’s remark from Volume I, Chapter XIV of
Northanger Abbey:

“‘Miss Morland, no one can think more highly of the understanding of women than
I do. In my opinion, nature has given them so much that they never find it
necessary to use more than half.'”

I like to think that the similarities between Henry and Henri is Jane’s sly way
of tweaking Mrs. Radcliffe, and of stating that she took the more interesting
male character for her hero, rather than the weepy, emotional Valancourt. Jane
is on record as disapproving of excessive sensibility, and Valancourt makes
Marianne Dashwood seem positively phlegmatic.

And from whence came the name Tilney, and Northanger Abbey itself? They were
probably found somewhat closer to home. As Park Honan points out, near Jane
Austen’s home town of Steventon, Hampshire, “Elms and beeches along the turnpike
clung to banked hillside as ‘hangers;’ there would be a line of northerly
hangers not far from Basingstoke and Tylney Hall, of Sir James Tylney Long,
Bart.” (7)

“He is a very clever fellow, but he will never be a bishop.” ~ Georg

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