It took Amanda Grange a long time to reach the sixth of Austen’s heroes for her series of retellings (and took us an even longer time to write this review. We are a bad Editrix and we feel bad). We are pleased to report that it was been worth the wait. In Henry Tilney’s Diary, our favorite Austen hero gets his turn in the sun, and proves to be as delightful as we had hoped. Witty, intelligent, a loving son and brother, all of Mr. Tilney’s best assets (and they are legion) are shown to full advantage in this enjoyable retelling of Northanger Abbey, done with Ms. Grange’s usual scrupulous attention to the original and an extra dash of Tilneyish wit and style. And doesn’t that make everything better?
The book starts with several chapters of backstory. Mrs. Tilney is still alive, though not completely well; Eleanor is a delightful preteen who loves to read Gothic novels; Henry is studious, though appropriately lighthearted, set on a career in the church, and an excellent brother; Frederick is the quintessential slightly pre-Regency rakehell, a gambler, and an affectionate drunk; the General is mad for improvements, when he can think of no more to be made at the Abbey, moves on to Henry’s future parsonage. We learn of Frederick’s heartbreak that has soured him on women; we learn the origin of Henry’s deep knowledge of muslin, here genuine and honestly come by.
The General insists that his children make prominent marriages with rich and/or aristocratic families, and to that end is constantly throwing heirs and heiresses at their heads, but none of the Tilney children wish for an ambitious marriage. A friend of Frederick’s–really an acquaintance invited to the Abbey in payment of a debt–becomes friendly with Henry and falls in love with Eleanor, helping her rediscover her love for horrid novels that had died with her mother; but all of them know it is useless, for the General will never allow their marriage.
Now we move into the action of Northanger Abbey as the Tilneys go to Bath for a winter sojourn. Henry and Catherine meet, and he finds her fresh-from-the-country perspective on Bath novel and enjoyable. To Henry’s surprise, the General encourages Eleanor’s friendship with Catherine, but Henry–perhaps learning from Catherine–assumes this comes from a generous motive, to get a cheerful companion for Eleanor. Then the General encourages Henry to court Catherine, which confuses his children thoroughly, for they know Catherine is not rich nor has aristocratic connections. Nonetheless, Henry gradually falls in love with Catherine, with her goodness and, yes, her naïveté, seeing in her a companion, a helpmeet, and an adornment to his parsonage. The scenes from the novel are as they should be, though we found some scenes that we consider important *coughhyacinthscenecough* rather rushed; but we are probably more particular in this regard than the ordinary Janeite, who does not attach the importance that we do to certain obscurities. And one scene in particular was perfectly handled, in our opinion: the most important scene in the book, when Henry encounters Catherine outside his mother’s room. Unlike the film adaptations, Henry is not a glowering, angry Gothic horror, but a clergyman helping a fellow mortal–and a mortal with whom he is in love–examine her conscience. This is Catherine’s big moment of discovery, her “Until this moment I did not know myself,” and making it a mere “Catherine is afraid of losing Henry” moment, as the films do, does our heroine a disservice–though that is in the original, but it is part of the parody of Northanger Abbey that is passes quickly. In Ms. Grange’s retelling, Henry is sorrowful, not angry, and concerned that Catherine will be embarrassed, and he soothes away her fears without overtly referring to the incident. He knows that they have a future together, and it is only Catherine’s youth, and the conventions of the time and his own sense of prudence that force Henry to bide his time, that leaves her still wondering about that future.
We all know what happens–that the General receives further bad information about Catherine and banishes her from the Abbey. Henry stands up to his father in his own bit of heroic derring-do, and it is glorious. His love for Catherine, and his own sense of honor and what is right, frees Henry at last from the General’s overbearing control. He steps out of his father’s shadow and becomes an adult, and a hero worthy of Catherine’s most spectacular Gothic fantasy.
The story speeds to a satisfying ending, with all of the Tilneys (except the General) happily wed. If we are familiar with the original, of course none of this is surprising, but Ms. Grange adds enough new material to keep the reader eagerly turning the page.
Readers and fellow Janeites not of the tribe of Tilney have asked us over the years: what is it about Mr. Tilney that fascinates you so? He’s not a larger-than-life romantic hero, he isn’t brooding and mysterious; he’s really kind of…ordinary. And that’s just it, Gentle Readers: Henry is an ordinary guy placed in the role of temporary hero, in which he shows his quality not by buckling a swash but by looking after his duties–his parish, his sister, and a young lady from the country who makes her way into his heart. That he does it with unusual wit and charm is Jane Austen’s gift to us, and Amanda Grange has once again given us that gift in her examination of our hero’s side of the story.