Victorian fathers have a bad reputation. The canonical Victorian autobiographies, those vengeful reminiscences of Victorian childhood by such middle or upper middle-class sons and daughters as John Stuart Mill, Samuel Butler, Edmund Gosse, and Virginia Woolf show us the paterfamilias as demanding, rigid, and selfish. The emotional bond to their offspring ran from cold to frigid. Life with these fathers seemingly took place in a nurture-free zone.
Gender and Fatherhood, a rich collection of essays by social historians and literary critics, provides a necessary corrective to these clichés and thereby complicates and expands the ongoing revaluation of the relation of Victorian men to Victorian domesticity. The theme of the essays is contradiction and complexity. The authors assume a pervading tension in the Victorian practice of masculinity between the code of emotional reserve and the welling-up of paternal love. Moving from the traditional Victorianist focus on the elite literary class, the volume includes a rich variety of highly detailed studies of working-class fathers in different regions and different situations including that of widower. The studies include statistical as well as literary analysis. Essays move from London’s literary elites, to workers in the Midlands, to fathers serving in India. The goal set out by the editors is “to investigate the ideological work of the father figure—the construction and effects of fatherhood as discourse—and the very different experiences of being a father” as inflected by “family shape and social position” (1). To this reader the discursive issues of, for example, paternalism within the industrial districts and the colonies seems well-trodden ground. Of more interest is the emotional life of the father in all its varieties, as much as can be gleaned from scant resources. Given the vastness of what the editors call “the empire of the father” (1) they divide the territory into four sections to emphasize that there is no single definition of fatherhood in the nineteenth-century British world.
The first section, “Rights and Responsibilities,” deals with ideologies, especially how the Victorian discourse of fatherhood interacted with specific political movements, and how the representation of men playing private domestic roles was intimately connected to public policy. The fine essay by Matthew McCormack demonstrates how an ideal of fatherhood entered the public realm of franchise reform, showing that radicals seeking the vote employed a strategy of reshaping the image of the working-class father from abusive drunk to responsible middle-class breadwinner. Only by seeing the workers as bourgeois fathers could the upper classes allow them the vote.
The essays on “Patterns of Involvement” take on the difficult task of reconstructing the emotional life of the father in his relation to children within the bourgeois Victorian household. The arguments point to a rethinking of the assumption that the male sphere was a non-emotional realm and foregrounds the tension for men between parental love and masculine reserve. For the inner lives of men as fathers material is scant and opaque. We have the autobiographies of those rebelling against the patriarch, but none by the patriarch himself. How wonderful it would be to read Philip Gosse or Leslie Stephen telling of their conflicting desire for discipline and love. Instead, we must look to public representations. In her essay on widowers with children in Victorian art Terri Sabatos looks to popular paintings such as The Widower by Luke Fildes in which a cottager bends over to nurse a child while a brood of children form a mock household on the cottage floor. From the fact that such popular images of the nurturing father take their subjects only from the working-class rather than the middle class, Sabatos concludes that these gendered representations perform the same ideological work of revaluing the laboring father as seen in the franchise debates, “to incorporate these ‘humble’ fathers back into middle-class ideology” (76). Margaret Markwick looks to images of the middle class in her chapter on fatherhood in Trollope’s novels. Perceptively exploring the unacknowledged complexity of masculinities in Trollope, Markwick sees a wealth of male nurturing exemplified in Trollope’s late masterpiece The Duke’s Children. Here Plantagenet learns to overcome his inhibiting patriarchal reserve. In his idealized aristocrat and in other novels Trollope “offers us an historically plausible account of men’s aptitude for child care” (94). I would agree that from such evidence we can “consider whether hands-on fatherhood was not, in fact, more of a Victorian ideal than we usually acknowledge” (94).
The question mark at the end of the section titled “A Different Class?” suggests, quite accurately, that any study of nineteenth-century fatherhood must engage the disjunctions as well as the continuities in the complex interaction of the middle-class ideal of fathering with the economic conditions of industrial life. If the studies of middle-class fathers look to balance the icy paterfamilias with the nurturing, these highly specific studies of laborers modify while not replacing the stereotype of the alcoholic and violent working-class father as shaped by the economic violence committed against these men. Most interesting to me is the suggestion of gauging fatherly nurturing in the working-class by criteria different from the bourgeois ideals of emotional expression and verbal fluency. Thus, Andrew Walker’s essay convincingly argues that statistics showing sons continuing in their fathers' skilled crafts in Sheffield and South Yorkshire argue for a positive form of fatherly support and comradeship. The author demonstrates that paternal pride existed for these Victorians, as in certain areas of work now, in a mutuality between father and son in this continuity of occupation. Similarly providing new criteria for male emotional life, Julie-Marie Strange notes that in a domestic division of labor during bereavement the father provided money for the funeral and continuing family support while the women expressed grief. But suggesting a new way of thinking of male feelings, the author strikingly “questions the supposedly peripheral role of fathers within the emotional life of the working-class family … Records of the responses of adult men to the deaths of their children or spouses … argue that masculine emotions were often articulated through the role of provider” (138).
The final section, “Frontiers of Fatherhood,” effectively moves from England to the colonies to suggest how fathering is dependent not on innate gender-specific qualities, but, as with the urban middle class and the Midlands workers, on material circumstance. Such detailed attention to specific settings surely complicates any notion of a single nineteenth-century ideal of fathering. I was impressed by Elizabeth Buettner’s essay provocatively and accurately titled “Fatherhood Real, Imagined, Denied: British Men in Imperial India.” This study considers “the problematic relationship between father and son” (178) generated by the particular conditions of imperial service with attention to specific families. For British men serving in India in the eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries it was acceptable to take Indian wives. The increasing insistence on racial separation in India in the Victorian period forced many of these men to lose contact with their Anglo-Indian children in an agonizing conflict between fatherly love and obedience to the new imperial code. By mid-century as it became accepted practice for the now all-English families in India to send their children to England for schooling at a young age, the father-child relation was in the words of the title “denied.” Thus the diminished if not erased emotional bond between father and son was not due to an innate absence of nurturing feeling in men, but “part of the ‘price of Empire’ which …Raj families paid” (178).
This volume is exemplary in reminding us that in the nineteenth century, as today, men functioned in a variety of social roles. Men’s studies has focused productively on relationships between men. Here we are shown men of different social classes and family situations relating intimately with their children as well as with their wives. The commitment of the contributors in carefully marshalling a range of material, including statistical information about the working class, the scarce written records of personal feelings among fathers of many classes, as well as the more familiar visual and literary representation of men as fathers fashioned from a middle-class perspective indicates the difficulties as well as the rewards in the project of recuperating the array of nineteenth-century male subjectivities.
Herbert Sussman teaches at The New School. He is the author of Victorian Masculinities: Manhood and Masculine Poetics in Early Victorian Literature and Art and Victorian Technology: Invention, Innovation, and the Rise of the Machine.