Sydney Smith: Model for Henry Tilney?

Sydney Smith, Anglican Clergyman and Proponent of Catholic Rights: Potential Model for Henry Tilney

By Brenda S. Cox

“I am sure,” cried Catherine, “I did not mean to say anything wrong; but it is a nice book, and why should not I call it so?”

“Very true,” said Henry, “and this is a very nice day, and we are taking a very nice walk, and you are two very nice young ladies. Oh! It is a very nice word indeed! It does for everything. Originally perhaps it was applied only to express neatness, propriety, delicacy, or refinement—people were nice in their dress, in their sentiments, or their choice. But now every commendation on every subject is comprised in that one word.”

“While, in fact,” cried his sister, “it ought only to be applied to you, without any commendation at all. You are more nice than wise.”–Northanger Abbey, chapter 14

For many Austen fans, Henry Tilney is a favorite hero, the “nicest” one of all. His wit and sharp intelligence fascinate us. If you’re not on Team Darcy, there’s a good chance you’re on Team Tilney. 

Was there a real-life prototype for Henry Tilney? It’s possible. Sydney Smith was known as the wittiest clergyman in England. And, he had some connections with Jane Austen. She may well have met him.

J. J. Feild makes a handsome Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey (2007).
Henry Tilney, Clergyman

In Northanger Abbey, like many clergy of the time, Henry Tilney is well-educated. We see from his conversation that he is familiar with literature, art, and semantics. Eleanor tells Catherine he will overpower them with “Johnson and Blair,” if they are not careful. Henry obviously knows Samuel Johnson’s groundbreaking Dictionary of the English Language and Rev. Hugh Blair’s Lectures on Rhetoric. As we all know, Tilney also understands muslins, which was probably a less common accomplishment for the English clergyman!

One of the Northanger Abbey movies does not even show Tilney as a clergyman. We mostly see him dancing, flirting, and following other gentlemanly pursuits such as hunting. However, Catherine does get to visit his parsonage, part of his clerical living. And he mentions his curate (who would lead services while he was at Bath or Northanger), and a parish meeting, one of his responsibilities as clergyman. 

Even his reading Gothic novels was an acceptable pastime for a pastor. Such novels, while they included evil villains, also starred fervently praying heroines. Supposedly supernatural events were explained rationally, and of course good always triumphed over evil. (See Irene Collins, “The Rev. Henry Tilney.“)

Tilney takes a more active clergyman’s role when he confronts Catherine for imagining his father as a murderer. He continues in that role as he essentially absolves her and shows grace and forgiveness to her.

In his lecture to Catherine, Henry says, “Remember that we are English, that we are Christians.” Most English people of the day equated being English with being Christian. The Church of England was a national church, but other Christian denominations were also tolerated at this time (though they had been persecuted earlier).

Peter Firth as Henry Tilney and Katharine Schlesinger as Catherine Morland in the BBC production of Northanger Abbey, 1987. This version does not show Tilney as a clergyman.
Jane Austen and Clergyman Sydney Smith

Scholars including Irene Collins and David Cecil have suggested that Henry Tilney may be modeled on real-life clergyman Sydney Smith. Of course Austen denies basing her characters on real people, but still Smith may have influenced her thoughts and imagination. 

The Austens were friends with Michael Hicks Beach and his family, who often visited their cousins near Steventon. This family hired Sydney Smith, a young curate, as tutor for their son Michael. In 1797, Smith and young Michael visited Bath. Since the Austens knew Michael’s family, it’s very possible that Jane met Sydney Smith at that time. 

Irene Collins writes,

It is tempting to think that Jane and Sydney danced and drank tea together, and 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 afore-thought and for being able to carry them off without causing offense. His protégé, Michael Hicks Beach, was learning to dance. If he, too, was present at the ball, Jane might have noticed that Smith was a trifle school-masterish with him, especially on the subject of language (echoes of Henry Tilney taking Catherine Morland to task on her use of the word “nice”). The two were on friendly terms, but it has been suggested that the boy was sometimes overawed by his tutor’s ready wit, and made to feel foolish in face of his devastating common sense. Like Henry Tilney, Smith could be alarmingly grave and authoritarian when occasion demanded. For the rest of the time, however, he seemed to be in constant high spirits. He 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.

Whether Jane Austen modelled Henry Tilney on Sydney Smith or not, the fact that she made his conversation so sparkling as to invite comparison with Smith’s is a remarkable achievement. . . . It has been said that the Church of England never again had so witty and wise a representative as the man known affectionately as “the Smith of Smiths.”

The Serious Sydney Smith

But Sydney Smith was not only known for his wit. In 1806 he got a church living as a rector in Yorkshire, and in 1807 he published the first of his letters promoting the rights of Catholics in England. He also opposed slavery.

Sydney Smith published a series of letters defending Catholic rights, under the title, “Peter Plymley’s Letters.”

While Catholics were tolerated in England at this time, their rights (like those of other non-Anglicans) were restricted. They were not supposed to sit in Parliament, serve in the military, or hold public offices. They could not get degrees from Oxford or Cambridge (the only universities in England at that time). People were especially suspicious of Catholics because they thought they were agents of foreign powers–of the Pope, or of France. 

An attempt to give Catholics more rights in 1780 led to the Gordon Riots, huge uprisings. Henry Tilney may be referring to these riots against Catholics in Northanger Abbey. Some leaders, though, including Sydney Smith, supported Catholic rights.

Smith began his letters, called “Peter Plymley’s Letters,” by debunking various rumors about Catholics, his generation’s fake news. He ridiculed his reader’s fears as he informed them that the Pope had not landed in England or been hidden by a noblewoman, and that wooden gods had not been seized at Charing Cross. More seriously, he pointed out that England urgently needed good military men and government officials, and that the details of their beliefs did not affect their competence.

Smith argued that the Church of England was already well established, having already placed “ten thousand well-educated men in different parts of the kingdom” to preach (clergymen of the parishes), requiring local people to pay those clergymen whether they listened to the sermons or not. He said that fact would always provide “an immense majority in favor of the Established Church,” but nothing more could be done.

Catholics did gain more rights in the following years. By 1829, when Catholics were allowed to take seats in Parliament, the English government had officially recognized that someone could be a good citizen without being Anglican.

Sydney Smith’s Sayings

Sydney Smith is credited with many pithy sayings. Here are a few of my favorites:

  1. Preaching has become a byword for long and dull conversation of any kind; and whoever wishes to imply, in any piece of writing, the absence of everything agreeable and inviting, calls it a sermon.
  2. The object of preaching is, constantly to remind mankind of what mankind are constantly forgetting; not to supply the defects of human intelligence, but to fortify the feebleness of human resolutions.
  3. Never . . . talk above a half minute without pausing, and giving others an opportunity to strike in.
  4. I never read a book before reviewing it: it prejudices a man so.
  5. Among the smaller duties of life I hardly know any one more important than that of not praising where praise is not due.
  6. The fact is that in order to do any thing in this world worth doing, we must not stand shivering on the bank thinking of the cold and the danger, but jump in and scramble through as well as we can.
  7. Have the courage to be ignorant of a great number of things, in order to avoid the calamity of being ignorant of everything.
  8. A great deal of talent is lost to the world for the want of a little courage. Every day sends to their graves a number of obscure men who have only remained obscure because their timidity has prevented them from making a first effort.
  9. It is the greatest of all mistakes to do nothing because you can only do little.
  10. Let every man be occupied, and occupied in the highest employment of which his nature is capable, and die with the consciousness that he has done his best.
  11. No furniture so charming as books.
  12. Live always in the best company when you read.
  13. In composing, as a general rule, run your pen through every other word you have written; you have no idea what vigour it will give your style.
  14. We know nothing of tomorrow; our business is to be good and happy today.

There are many more at wikiquote, which includes the exact sources of the above quotes.

I can imagine Henry Tilney saying some of these things! Which is your favorite?

What do you think about a clergyman/minister being known for his wit? Henry Tilney shows he can be serious as well as witty, as Sidney Smith was both serious and witty. Do you think Henry’s wit was ever hurtful? Elizabeth Bennet says, “One may be continually abusive without saying anything just; but one cannot always be laughing at a man without now and then stumbling on something witty.” How can we make sure wit is not abusive?

Modified from a post at “My Jane Austen Book Club.”

Includes excerpts from my book, Fashionable Goodness: Christianity in Jane Austen’s England, now available from Amazon and Jane Austen Books.

Other Sources

Catholic riots in Bath, Original Bath Guide, 1818

Irene Collins, “The Rev. Henry Tilney, Rector of Woodston,” Persuasions 20 (1998), 163

Sydney Smith, Peter Plymley’s Letters, and Selected Essays

For more thoughts on Henry Tilney and Sidney Smith, see, “The Real Henry Tilney?”

Quotes from Fashionable Goodness, Topaz Cross Books, are © Brenda S. Cox, 2022.


2 thoughts on “Sydney Smith: Model for Henry Tilney?

  1. Personally I like the quote “No furniture so charming as books.” (It probably helps that I’m restoring our library right now🙂)


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