Does Henry Tilney Speak of a Modern Riot?

Last month, this blog covered the confusing conversation between Catherine Morland and Eleanor Tilney in Northanger Abbey, when Catherine is talking about the horrors of a new Gothic novel but Eleanor thinks she’s describing rioters about to descend upon Bath. Henry Tilney sees what’s happening but eggs on the confusion. Finally, he tells Eleanor that the only riot is in her brain, that Catherine is talking of nothing more dreadful than a scary new book featuring tombstones and lanterns.

Henry makes fun of Eleanor’s gullibility, which has her picturing “a mob of three thousand men assembling in St. George’s Fields, the Bank attacked, the Tower threatened, the streets of London flowing with blood, a detachment of the Twelfth Light Dragoons (the hopes of the nation) called up from Northampton to quell the insurgents, and the gallant Captain Frederick Tilney, in the moment of charging at the head of his troop, knocked off his horse by a brickbat from an upper window.”

It is intriguing that Henry gives a detailed description that could stand for any one of the many riots in Britain in those days. The militia or army was regularly called out to quell dissent and just as regularly fired on crowds of citizens. Even brickbats are described as weapons for the common man, being cited in use against 10 Downing Street in 1794 and against a high-priced corn dealer in 1800.

R. W. Chapman, who put together the first authoritative edition of Austen in 1923, identifies Henry’s event as the Gordon Riots. This is puzzling in the extreme, since the Gordon Riots occurred in 1780, when Austen was only five years old, and did not happen at the named location. Chapman seems to have picked the largest disturbance—some 50,000 people, in which about 285 people were killed. Yet, unlike the general protests over food and wages, the Gordon Riots were a massive anti-Catholic disturbance. It’s also possible that Chapman confused the Gordon Riots with the Massacre of St. George’s Fields in south London, in which about a dozen people were killed. However, that more typical protest occurred 10 May 1768, before Austen was even born.

It seems unlikely that Austen would have referenced riots from decades earlier, when there were ongoing upheavals that would have been known to her audience, including a massacre in Scotland and riots in Bristol in 1793, mass protests and a militia mutiny in 1795, a naval mutiny in 1797-98, and regular rebellions in Ireland in which thousands died. One such conspiracy, the Pentrich rising, occurred as Austen lay on her deathbed in June 1817.

There is also a very good possibility that Henry Tilney is identifying a specific riot of surprisingly late date. In mentioning the thousands “assembling in St. George’s Field,” he may not have been referring to the London site but to St. George’s Field in Manchester, where a major riot occurred in May 1808. This riot is important not only for its social commentary but also for being at least five years after the last acknowledged revision to the text.

Was Henry Tilney in “Northanger Abbey” talking about an actual riot in England, an event that happened years after Jane Austen supposedly finished the novel?

Manchester, a major cotton-weaving area, had been a source of dissent and revolt for years. Significant layoffs in textile factories and the lack of work for home textile workers brought 6,000 weavers to St. George’s Field in Manchester on 24 May 1808 to demand a minimum wage. City officials sent in the dragoons and the crowd fled, but 15,000 people returned the next day. Dragoons opened fire, killing one man and injuring others. Jenny Uglow recounts in her book In These Times that protests and riots spread into nearby towns, along with strikes and the sabotage of weaving looms and cloth. Ultimately, weavers received a small pay increase, though work remained scarce.

In her “Advertisement” for Northanger Abbey, Austen says the novel was finished in 1803, which is when she sold it as Susan to the publisher Crosby. After reclaiming the rights and changing the name of the main character (another novel Susan had since been published), Austen apologized to readers in 1816 for subject matter that after thirteen years was now “comparatively obsolete.” She may not have considered that comment to include minor edits she might have made along the way. Her 13 March 1817 letter to her niece Fanny says that Catherine has been “put upon the Shelve for the present,” implying that she may have worked at it around the edges after finishing Persuasion.

Janine Barchas, Margaret Doody, and others have made a convincing case that Austen uses names for characters and locales that have special meaning for her, as well as for her alert readers. This is why Henry’s riot description may be an important late addition. The St. George’s Field Riot of 1808 in Manchester, combined with the London references, gives readers the same north-south combination that typified the most dangerous threats to the government. The big conspiracies involved one set of rebels capturing important people and sites in London, while another group would start an uprising in the north.

Dragoons also played a crucial role in Manchester, as opposed to several different military units in earlier London riots. In actual history, these dragoons could have been local, but Henry’s naming of the Twelfth Light Dragoons would have had resonance. The unit was formed nearly a hundred years earlier to help put down the Scottish rebellion of 1715 and was stationed in Ireland until 1793 as a bulwark against Irish unrest. To that date, the Twelfth had been the instrument of repression for England. Also, when Henry says that the regiment was “called up from Northampton,” he could mean more than their mustering. He could mean they came up from Northampton to Manchester—north. If they had gone to London, he logically would have said that they “came down”—south.

A final point may have had significance to Austen. After the riot, the dragoons apologized to the weavers for their actions and took up a collection for the family of the man who was killed. Of the dozens of unprovoked attacks on civilians in the Regency period, this may have been the one time the military apologized for what it did. Austen may have felt that this small, contemporary gesture of kindness—civility in otherwise uncivil public affairs—was worth a modest update to her otherwise finished work.


The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen, which traces love from a charming courtship through the richness and complexity of marriage and concludes with a test of the heroine’s courage and moral convictions, is now complete and available from Amazon and Jane Austen Books.

 

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