(by guest blogger Victoria Grossack)
As Father’s Day comes around, celebrated on the third Sunday in June in most, although certainly not all, countries around the world, Jane Austen devotees can contemplate the rich array of fathers portrayed in the author’s works.
By all accounts, Jane Austen had a wonderful relationship with her own father. He believed in her abilities and encouraged her to read anything and everything in his library. Despite the excellence of her own father, Jane Austen, by exercising her powers of observation and her lively imagination, created a completely different set of fathers and father figures in her six novels.
The Fathers of the Heroines
Mr. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. Mr. Bennet has five daughters. He loves them, especially the heroine, Elizabeth, but not so unconditionally that he is unaware of their shortcomings. He is witty and insightful but also indolent. As a father he has been deficient, as he did not save money to buy them husbands, worthless or deserving. He had not reigned in the excesses of his wife or his younger daughters. Mr. Bennet, perhaps because he is older and therefore wiser, shows more insight into people than do many of the people around him. He is not taken in by Mr. Wickham, for example; whereas Elizabeth’s mistrust of that officer only occurs after she learns more information.
Mr. Woodhouse in Emma. Mr. Woodhousehas two daughters, and is particularly fond of Emma, who still lives with him, takes care of him and runshis house. He is older, not in the best health and also a bit of a hypochondriac. He is little fearful and has difficulty imagining that anyone could feel differently than he does in any situation. He dreads change but he never sees it coming. He is kind and charitable; as the wealthiest man in Highbury he has benefited many in the area, and his daughters’ portions are handsome. Nevertheless, his fear of any change in his life leads him to behaviors and desires that are very self-centered; the prospect of Emma’s marrying fills him with dread.
Sir Walter Eliot in Persuasion. Sir Walter Eliot has three daughters. He cares most for the eldest, Elizabeth, as she considered the most beautiful. He is a vain, weak man, and especially proud about his appearance and about his status as a baronet. He is also selfish and at the opening of the book and broke as well, because ever since his wife died, no one has been able to reign in expenses. This means that the dowries owed his daughters may never be paid.
Mr. Price in Mansfield Park. He is coarse, occasionally drunk, and rather loud. He has had at least four daughters, including one who died as a child, and many sons. He does not care for much beyond his newspaper and his sons and his navy. He has not provided for his daughters but does not care whether they are gentlewomen or not.
Reverend Morland in Northanger Abbey. Reverend Morland has many children, including several daughters. Catherine is his oldest girl, but with so many children and the position of a clergyman he can be presumed to be very busy and makes only a brief appearance in the pages.
Mr. Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility. Mr. Dashwood has three daughters and a son from a previous marriage. He loves his daughters but does not provide for them, because the estate in his family is entailed away from the female line. About a year after he comes into his estate, he dies, leaving his daughters at the mercy of their half-brother and their mean-spirited half-sister-in-law. How the Dashwood girls cope and make their way
Sir Thomas Bertram in Mansfield Park. As uncle and guardian to the novel’s heroine, Fanny Price, as well as the father to her four cousins, he has the most fatherly role of the older men in Jane Austen’s novels. Sir Thomas means well, and does what he truly believes to be the right thing. His judgment, however, is often deficient, especially with respect to young ladies; he tends to look at the surface of a person as opposed to their characters and motives. Because of this, he makes several mistakes in raising his children that seriously impair their futures. On the other hand, he learns from his mistakes, and in the end is rewarded with a loving daughter-in-law.
Mr. Gardiner in Pride and Prejudice. Brother to Mrs. Bennet and hence uncle to Lizzie Bennet, he serves as a father figure in certain situations, especially when Mr. Bennet is judged deficient. He is a man of business, proactive and sensible, and assists in the rescue of his youngest niece, Lydia Bennet, when she runs away.
Sir William Lucas in Pride and Prejudice. Father to Charlotte, Lizzie’s best friend, he also makes up for some of Mr. Bennet’s deficiencies. Sir Lucas is vain about his knighthood and having been presented at St. James, but he is kind, happy to socialize where Mr. Bennet prefers to be alone, and supportive of the younger generation.
Sir John Middleton in Sense and Sensibility. A cousin of Mrs. Dashwood, he provides some paternal security by providing his cousins with a place to stay for a very reasonable sum. He is also very sociable, and his many invitations introduce them to others who have an influence on their lives and their futures.
General Tilney in Northanger Abbey. The father of Henry Tilney, he is a rather terrifying man with a tendency tooverreact. At first, believing Catherine Morlandto be an heiress, he treats her excessively well. Then, when he believes she is an impoverished fortune seeker, he expels her from his household. In a way he resembles the heroine, Catherine Morland, whose overactive imagination has led her to believe absurd things about him. The truth regarding both of them turns out to be in the middle: she is neither rich nor destitute, and he is not the murderous monster that she imagined.
A Grand Array
The fathers, with virtues and flaws, are all three-dimensional people - characters instead of caricatures. We can appreciate Jane Austen’s skill in their creation and even her charity towards them, for even the worst of them, Sir Walter Eliot, is treated with respect by his daughter. Perhaps reading, or re-reading Jane Austen will help us better understand the fathers in our own lives: to forgive the faultswhich can be forgiven, if they exist, and to celebrate what virtues they may have.
About the Author
Victoria Grossack is a co-author of five novels based on Greek mythology, the “Crafting Fabulous Fiction” columnist at www.writing-world.com, and the author of The Highbury Murders: A Mystery Set in the Village of Jane Austen’s Emma.