“.. Though I don’t suppose he could be as villainous as Count Ugolino. No one could be.”
“Oh, no, he isn’t villainous at all–at least, I shouldn’t think he would be, but I’m not even acquainted with him! I only chose him for Ugolino because of the way his eyebrows slant, which makes him look just like a villain. And also, of course, because of his crested air–which made me long to give him a setdown!”
— Sylvester, or, The Wicked Uncle by Georgette Heyer
In Northanger Abbey, the heroine, fresh from reading Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, didn’t immediately perceive General Tilney to be a “bad man.” Jane Austen had made him a handsome, vigorous man “of commanding aspect.”
Catherine’s opinion changed dramatically once she stayed at Northanger Abbey. Henry Tilney’s father became stern and menacing, scrupulously avoiding all mention of his dead wife. Catherine disliked him every bit as much as darling Phoebe did the Duke of Salford.
Moreover, the general was a busy man:
‘I have many pamphlets to finish,’ said he to Catherine, ‘before I can close my eyes, and perhaps may be poring over the affairs of the nation for hours after you are asleep. Can either of us be more meetly employed? My eyes will be blinding for the good of others, and yours preparing by rest for future mischief.’ — Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen
You and your “stupid” pamphlets.
Stupid or not, General Tilney’s reading was probably an obsessive affair:
“…we should also assume that the General is actually worried about how his country was doing in its war against France, at a time when Napoleon was emerging as the seemingly invincible military genius of the day.” Parents against children: General Tilney as Gothic Monster, John Dussinger, PhD for JASNA.ORG
Staying up all night, reading and watching for spies in the neighborhood, can make a fellow downright surly. And when one has seen war, it’s not impossible to imagine how its re-emergence might throw a character’s personality in disorder:
Where some wrecked army from the Conquerors might
Speed their disastrous flight,
With thee fierce Genius! let me trace their way,
And hear at times the deep-heart groan
Of some poor sufferer left to die alone,
His sore wounds smarting with the winds of night;
And we will pause, where, on the wild,
The Mother to her frozen breast
On the heap’d snows reclining clasps her child
And with him sleeps, chill’d to eternal rest!
— To Horror by Robert Southey