The Heroic Ranking Index
~ from Margaret C. Sullivan,
author of There Must Be Murder
(which you can enter to win here!)
This may or may not be based on a true story.
Captain Tilney and the Viscountess—Miss Tilney, as was—went together to see their brother.
“Henry,” said his sister, “we have been worried about you.”
Mr. Tilney raised his eyebrows. “Worried about me, Eleanor? Why? I am married now, and settled here at Woodston, as you always wanted, and I assure you that I am perfectly happy.”
“Well, yes,” said his brother, “but you see—you have fallen behind.”
“Yes,” said Eleanor. “Through no fault of your own, of course—”
“It’s those blasted movies, you know,” said his brother. “No budget, and made for telly—it’s no wonder you’ve fallen behind. They only spent money on these things in the 90s, and, well, we just weren’t there.”
Mr. Tilney was still very much perplexed. “Fallen behind? In what way?”
His brother and sister exchanged a look.
“You see, my dear Henry,” said Eleanor gently, “You are not—though of course you deserve—”
“Oh, stop mincing words, Eleanor,” said Captain Tilney, sounding very much like his father. “The plain truth, Henry, is that you have fallen behind the other Austen heroes. Your HRI is deficient. Not quite dead last, thankfully, but one really can’t count Bertram. Now, Crawford—”
“That will do, Frederick,” said her ladyship. “Henry, I am so very sorry, dearest! —but it is true. Your HRI is suffering. You cannot hope to catch up to Mr. Darcy—”
“Of course not,” said Captain Tilney.
“—but we believe that with a very little effort, you would certainly gain a few places! Edward Ferrars is very catchable, and your wit and humor, I think, could even place you before Mr. Knightley and Colonel Brandon. It might be harder to catch up to Captain Wentworth—the Navy is so highly regarded, and one can never discount the power of a trim uniform—but we—that is, Frederick and I—believe that your HRI could rise to a not very distant second to Mr. Darcy!”
"What is this HRI of which you speak?" asked Henry, bewildered.
"Heroic Ranking Index," said Frederick. "Just a way to measure and predict your performance, you know."
At that moment, Mrs. Tilney brought in the tea-tray. Henry rose to take it from her, and she caught his expression with surprise and concern. “Henry? What is it?”
He set down the tea-tray. “Catherine, my brother and sister find me deficient as a literary hero.”
Catherine and Eleanor both cried out in dismay, and they, along with Captain Tilney, all talked over one another.
“You are a very nice hero!” cried Catherine.
“That is not at all what I meant,” said Eleanor.
“Now really, Henry, there’s no need to be so bloody Gothic,” said Frederick.
“I suppose I was not aware,” said Henry, “that there was a competition, or even a hierarchy, among the brotherhood of Austen heroes; and certainly not that there is a dedicated statistic to measure our performance! I am sure my friend Darcy would be astonished to learn of it.”
“He can well afford to not let it concern him,” said Captain Tilney. “His HRI never dips below .900, even when he refuses to dance with young ladies at public assemblies. His position is unassailable. But you—in some quarters, your HRI even dips below that of the secondary heroes!”
“Bingley!” said Eleanor.
“Fitzwilliam!” said Frederick.
“Just look at the books!” said Eleanor. “Still mostly Darcy, of course—but yes, Fitzwilliam and Bingley are passing you by, dearest one!”
“And what am I to do about it?” asked Henry. “I cannot control the taste of the public, and BIngley and Fitzwilliam are pleasant enough fellows.” He reached for Catherine’s hand. “I confess I am happy enough to be let out of it, both for my own sake and for Catherine’s. We are spared certain—” he glanced at his wife— “indignities.”
The Viscountess blushed, but Captain Tilney clicked his tongue impatiently. “There’s nothing to that. I am forever painted as a libertine. I assure you it’s not so bad.”
“There’s your answer, then,” said Henry. “You be the hero, Frederick. I am an old married man now, and must retire from the lists.”
“You do not get off so easily,” said his brother. “You are the family representative to the Austen oeuvre. You must do your duty."
Captain Tilney chose his argument well; appeals to his brother’s sense of duty were almost always successful. Thus, it was not much longer before the captain was able to lay his plan of attack before the group, and not much longer than that before they agreed to it.
“This is a very small room,” said Captain Tilney, looking around.
“But quite pleasant,” said Catherine. “There is everything one needs, just look: plenty of books, music--” indicating an untidy pile of compact discs-- ”and it seems she enjoys knotting*.” Indeed there were plenty of books: they were scattered about the room, on the floor and various surfaces; and knotting-thread and yarn and the implements of tambour-in-the-air* were here and there, rather as though a combination book and yarn shop had exploded and strewn its merchandise about.
A lady—not particularly young, nor particularly old—dozed on the sofa. Knotting-shuttles, attached to a piece of lace in progress, dangled from her hand. A baseball game blasted on the television. Captain Tilney switched it off.
Eleanor went to the lady and touched her shoulder gently.
The lady woke with a start. She took in her visitors and blinked.
“Hello, Miss Sullivan,” said Eleanor brightly. “Do you know who we are?”
Miss Sullivan looked at her in disbelief. She clutched at her head and said, “Great googly moogly. I have got to stop eating Taco Bell before bedtime.”
“So you do know,” said Eleanor. “I am the Viscountess; these are my brothers, Frederick and Henry Tilney; and you know Mrs. Tilney, I am sure.”
Catherine had picked up a lace-edged handkerchief and was inspecting it. “Your knotting work is very fine,” she said brightly. “I can do nothing so well!”
“Oh, thank you,” said Miss Sullivan. “Catherine Morland is complimenting me on my tatting. Your argument is invalid.” She said back against the sofa and began giggling hysterically.
Henry had gone into the small kitchen, and came back with a cup of tea, which Miss Sullivan accepted and drank from gratefully. She put down the cup and looked at him consciously, then ran a hand through her disheveled hair. “Thank you, Henry. Or I suppose I should say, Mr. Tilney.”
“Oh, I think we know one another well enough to dispose with the civilities, my dear Margaret,” said Henry pleasantly.
“Yes, I suppose we do,” said Margaret weakly, reaching for her cup and another gulp of tea.
They all watched her expectantly. Finally she said, “Well, I don’t think you are here to make me tea, and possibly not to drive me to Bedlam, so: what can I do for you?”
“I am here to ask you for a favor,” said Henry, “as my most devoted fangirl.”
“Flattery will get you everywhere, sailor,” said Miss Sullivan. “Go on.”
“I need your help,” said Henry. “I am sure you are aware of the, er, plethora of books inspired by Miss Jane Austen’s work—“
“Ha!” she cried. “I should think I am aware of it!”
“—Yes,” said Mr. Tilney. “I—that is, we—would like to ask you to consider adding to it, namely by writing a book about me. And Catherine, of course,” he added, smiling at his wife, who was absorbed in a Georgette Heyer novel she had found on the floor and paying no attention.
Margaret seemed struck by this. “A continuation of NA?” she asked, somewhat rhetorically.
“NA?” asked the Viscountess.
“Oh, sorry—that’s short for Northanger Abbey. Meaning the book, not the house.”
“You see,” said Captain Tilney. “I told you she would be the perfect person.” He grinned at Miss Sullivan and gave her a wink. She frowned at him, and he shrugged his shoulders (a habit he had picked up from French prisoners of war). “You see, Henry, flattery won’t get me everywhere. She’s rather obviously barmy about you.”
“You say that like it’s a bad thing,” said Margaret, still frowning.
“Yes,” said Henry hastily, “we know you are the properest person, Margaret. The question is—are you willing?”
The NA contingent held their collective breath, but only for a moment. “Of course,” said Miss Sullivan. Relieved, they all smiled at one another, until she added, “But what should I write?”
There was a moment of silence; and then Captain Tilney said, with some finality, “Vampyres.”
“Been done,” said Margaret.
“I do not really like vampyres,” said Catherine faintly.
“No, no vampyres,” said Henry. “Quite passé.”
“Wait, wait,” said Captain Tilney. “I got it: 50 Shades of Northanger.”
They all looked at him in disgust.
“Somebody’s probably written that by now anyway,” said Margaret. “Rule 34 and all that.” She reached for the remote control, and turned on the TV once again, showing a travel program. The camera lingered over the golden stone of the houses of Pulteney-street, the classical architecture of the Circus, and the restored glory of the Pump-room. “I think just a regular sort of story. Perhaps set in Bath.”
“With some romance,” said Mrs. Tilney, emerging, rather flushed, from her perusal of Venetia.
“That goes without saying,” said Margaret, “because I’m sure that, though you are married now, there is still plenty of romance in your relationship.”
Henry and Catherine smiled at one another.
“Perhaps a bit of mystery,” said the Viscountess.
“Yes, perhaps just a little,” said Miss Sullivan. “But a proper Agatha Christie-style mystery might be a bit too much. I want to keep it light. Perhaps just a little social confusion, masquerading as a mystery. Catherine, do you mind if I use you for that?”
“Oh, no,” said Catherine. “I do not mind. I am often still confused socially.” Henry kissed her hand.
“Oh, you two are just too cute,” Margaret sighed. She held out her hands to them. “Do you trust me?”
“Implicitly,” said Henry. Catherine nodded energetically. They each took one of her hands and squeezed them. Captain Tilney rolled his eyes and made a gagging noise, and Eleanor frowned at him.
“That’s it, then,” said Margaret. “Out with you, all of you, and leave me to work.”
Catherine said, “Well, I think it is a very nice story.”
“Yes; Miss Sullivan’s grammar is excellent, and the book itself is well-bound.”
“Oh, Henry. You know what I mean.”
“Yes, I do.” He kissed her on the cheek.
“It’s too short,” said Captain Tilney, looking with disfavor upon his brother and sister-in-law’s open display of affection.
“Perhaps it is rather short,” said the Viscountess. “But I suspect you are put out because you do not appear in it, Frederick.”
“He has a sort of cameo appearance,” said Henry. “You make a convenient plot device, brother.” Captain Tilney pulled a face at him.
Catherine flipped through the book. “And the illustrations are charming! Miss Chouinard is a very talented artist. I especially like her drawings of our Newfoundland. And I like the name that Miss Sullivan gave him—MacGuffin.”
“It is a good name; I think I shall adopt it, since Miss Austen did not give the dog a name. Right, Mac?” MacGuffin looked up at them and wagged his tail.
“I wonder if the name has some particular meaning?”
“I suppose it does, Cat; and knowing Miss Sullivan as I do, I am sure it is something meant to amuse, even if it only amuses herself.”
“I can never regret anything that gives me so charming a husband,” said Eleanor, “though of course Miss Austen said he was the most charming young man in the world, and I tend to agree. I only hope it helps you with your campaign to raise your Heroic Ranking Index, Henry.”
“You know,” said Henry, “though it may be a dereliction of duty to my family and my authoress, I find that I no longer care about my HRI—if such a thing even exists; Miss Sullivan claims it is an evil made up by the same sort of minds that came up with BABIP, OPS, and WAR. I know that there is at least one reader who understands me, and, yes, loves me; and Miss Sullivan tells me there are others, as fervent as she, if few in number. I appreciate them more than I can say.”
“I think if more people read Miss Austen’s novel, and then Miss Sullivan’s novella, they cannot help but love you,” said Catherine.
“Perhaps,” said Frederick, “but as long as Darcy swims in the pond, I’m afraid your HRI will never rise much above the average.”
“That will have to do, then,” said Henry.
It is up to you now, Gentle Reader. Will you let Henry’s HRI linger around the Mendoza line, or rise to at least two-part-adaptation levels? Re-read Northanger Abbey, and read There Must Be Murder, and see if you feel yourself a little closer to membership in Team Tilney. And if those don't work, try this!
*Knotting is an ancestor of what we call today tatting. Crochet was originally called “tambour-in-the-air” as tambour embroidery is basically crocheting over fabric.