When in search for a tragic hero, no one would have thought to look twice at Henry Tilney. His life may have begun promising, being born under the roof of a former abbey as the second son of a very stern military man, but from this point on both Henry’s situation in life and his disposition were entirely against him. His looks were neither strikingly fair nor unusually dark and he was neither wild and unruly nor quiet and withdrawn. Instead he was quite a pleasant looking boy with a brown complexion and a good-humoured, rather high-spirited temper. His family moreover was rich and though he had an overbearing father and was often at odds with his brother, he had a very kind and loving mother and doted on his younger sister. All in all Henry Tilney lived a full seventeen years in the world without a single tragedy befalling him. At that age, however, one did occur. Mrs. Tilney, a good, kind woman who was above all a loving mother and a very dutiful wife, died of a bilious fever. Her death was a great affliction to all her family, but her two youngest children especially. Where her husband and eldest son were grave and still, it was left to Henry and his sister Eleanor, only thirteen years old at that time, to find relief in bitter tears.
Despite what one might rightfully expect, this loss did not rob Henry of his cheerfulness. Having cried his tears of mourning, he instead undertook to look for cheer elsewhere if he could not find it in himself. This especially for the benefit of his sister, to whom he was particularly kind. No, Henry was not suited for tragedy. By the time he was sent off to university to study for a career in the church his character was quite fixed; he was good-humoured, kind-hearted, quite clever and even more witty. This made him a favourite with his fellow students rather than with his professors, but in general he did very well in his studies. When it came to preferment he was sure of a very valuable living, as it was in his father’s power to give him one.
In truth, at twenty-three Henry Tilney, quite good-looking, very well-spoken, of a good family and soon to be in the possession of an independent income, seemed much more suited for the romantic than the tragic. Even here he seemed intent on squandering his talents however, for though very fond of dancing, he was never seen to be in love. No, that particular passion was bestowed on his sister and most unhappily so. Henry had made a couple of very good friends at his university and one of them, a Mr. Laurence Fletcher, had been frequently invited to stay at Northanger Abbey. He and Henry were recommended to one another by a striking resemblance in pleasant wit and pleasant manners and as they were both second sons of good families, their friendship was generally encouraged. Mr. Fletcher was met with less encouragement when he began to bestow attention on Eleanor Tilney, however.
Henry watched with bitter regret how his father, as soon as he perceived the slightest inclination of his daughter towards her brother’s friend, promptly ended his visit to Northanger with very a decided hint that it would be his last. This was cruel treatment of a young man who was not only a worthy friend, but well-educated, well-bred, well-looking and altogether a most charming young man. What Mr. Fletcher was not, however, was well-provided for. At least not by the general’s definition of the word and thus he had to go. That this course of action hurt Mr. Fletcher must be abundantly clear. That it hurt Henry in the process can hardly be less so. Only the suffering of Eleanor must now be explained. Here I shall bring my readers pain, for Eleanor Tilney’s suffering was extreme. General Tilney was mistaken in thinking he had acted as soon as the first stir of affection had taken place. The severity of his character and the unpredictability of his moods had forced all three of his children to check their spirits around him, but none so much as Eleanor. She, being the nominal mistress of his house ever since she came home from school, had over the years taught herself to sink her feelings into compliance and a manner as guarded as it was pleasant. Eleanor’s attachment to Mr. Fletcher grew steadily from the moment of his first visit and was as earnest an affection as one could expect to find in the world by the time her father attempted to put an end to it. Eleanor submitted to the general’s will with nary a murmur of disagreement and none but Henry saw how sorely she was affected. He saw a very similar affliction in his friend, whom he invited as soon as he became rector of a parish and had a home of his own to invite him to. Had he consulted his heart alone, he would have told both his friend and his sister of the other’s misery, sure proofs of their mutual affection. Henry was more rational than this however and did not breathe a word of this, hoping instead that time, as it is often talked of, would be their joint cure.
Such were Henry Tilney’s experiences with the tragic and the romantic at age twenty five and under these very unpromising circumstances our story begins. Specifically with the preparation of the Tilney family’s near-yearly visit to Bath, which involved Henry going hither, ahead of the rest of the family.