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 ...
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.