The Importance of Fathers
Jane Austen works
Ellecia Hope Cousins
Dr. Denise Herr
March 31, 2015
Dr. Denis Herr
Topics: Jane Austen
March 31, 2015
The Importance of Fathers in Jane Austen’s works
Jane Austen’s works often feature a wide variety of female heroines who although do not always save the day, overcome some sort of self-conflict or come in touch with reality. However, behind the scenes the father or father figure is always busy at work contributing to some aspect of the main character’s lives. These fathers, although not the most liked or favored character is, based on psychological research, a key element in a child’s life. In this case, a key element in Jane Austen’s heroines' lives. Nietzsche’s famous quote insists that “A man who has no father must invent one.” (Zoja and Martin). It is said that Jane Austen had a great relationship with her father. He encouraged her to read and was a great presence in her life, he was even her publisher early in her career (Kordich 58). Unfortunately, the fathers in these books are not exactly the exemplary kind. Many people tend to think of a dysfunctional father as one who abandons his child, drinks, smokes and gambles or one who sexually abuses his children. However, Jane Austen makes it clear to her readers, that sometimes the fathers who seem good and do not do all these obviously terrible things can also be inadequate parents. This essay will not only show the importance of some of Jane Austen's carefully crafted fathers, it will also expose flaws in these gentlemen's character that negatively affected them as parents.
In Jane Austen’s most popular book, Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Bennet is the father to look out for. From an outsiders' perspective Bennet might seem like an important father who lives with his family on his modest estate in Longbourn. He sees to the basic needs of his daughters and his wife. However, he comes up short in too many areas in his role as patriarch-leader. This casts a shadow on his importance in the novel. Clearly one reason for his failure is his marriage to Mrs. Bennet. He is unwise in marrying her for her beauty without considering that she is a scatterbrained woman with whom he has to spend the rest of his life with.
Mrs. Bennet's loud and disgracious behavior causes Mr. Bennet to use his library as a hideout. While he escapes her, however, important matters needing his attention such as helping his daughters to plan for their future are either ignored or mishandled by his wife. Of course, the entailment of Longbourn is constantly hanging over the family's head, especially since he has no savings for his five daughters! The novel states, “Mr. Bennett had very often wished before this period of his life that, instead of spending his whole income, he had laid by an annual sum for the better provision of his children, and of his wife, if she survived him” (Austen 324). This wish comes too late; he fails as an effective provider.
On occasions when he slips out of his library and “refuge,” Mr. Bennet’s conversations with his family are more cynical than uplifting. Even though he loves his daughters, he cannot control his bad habit of teasing them and being sarcastic. Thanks to his wit, when Mrs. Bennet chastises him for not going to visit Mr. Bingley, their new rich and eligible neighbor at Netherfield, he scores big by announcing that he has already paid a visit. Later, though, when it seems that his first daughter, Jane, has lost Mr. Bingley--the love of her life--and she needs the understanding of her father, he brushes off the situation by referring to it as "an unavoidable occurrence” (149).
When his third daughter, Lydia asks to travel to Brighton, Mr. Bennet playing the usual unassuming father gives her permission even though he knows that Lydia has the potential to get herself into trouble. And so she does! Learning that Lydia has eloped, he sobers up by travelling to London in the hope of finding her. Not surprising, though, the first chance he gets, he hands over his responsibility of locating his daughter to her uncle, Mr. Gardiner. Knowing that his land, house and contents were entailed, Mr. Bennet fails miserably in not helping his family to survive after his death. Even though Mrs. Bennet does not have the tact to help her daughters to find suitable husbands, she tries (horribly), resulting in two excellent unions with a good prospect for the two younger daughters. It should be noted that there was a glimmer of good parenting when father Bennet learns that his favorite daughter, Elizabeth, and the very rich but proud and disliked Mr. Darcy considers to get married. He counsels her, "Unless you truly esteemed your husband . . . your lively talents would place you in the greatest danger in an unequal marriage. You could scarcely escape discredit and misery . . ." (399). This is one of the rare occasions when he rises to the occasion of playing an important role in his family. As a character he remains static showing no real growth as a significant parent.
In the book, Emma, we meet Mr. Woodhouse, Emma’s father. Mr. Woodhouse is more on the elderly side of life, and is a widower. He is very pessimistic and fearful, causing him to be overprotective of his daughter. Most importantly he is a hypochondriac. He constantly worries about his health and the health of others. His best friend is his physician, Dr. Perry. Whenever he doubts the doctor's advice, he becomes very defensive, “Ah! my dear,’ as Perry says, ‘where health is at stake, nothing else should be considered; and if one is to travel, there is not much to chuse from between forty miles and an hundred ... This is what Mr. Perry said”. And after John Knightly criticized Mr. Perry, “Mr. Woodhouse was rather agitated by such harsh reflections on his friend Perry, to whom he had, in fact, though unconsciously, been attributing many of his own feelings and expressions” (62). Unlike Mr. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Woodhouse is wealthy, so his daughter is practically never in need.
What Emma does need is a place of her own. Woodhouse is too protective of his daughter due to his own constant fear and fear of change. We see this with Emma’s sister Isabella. When she gets engaged he is in a disarray saying many discouraging things. This is the same scenario with Emma’s governess, when she gets engaged. Mr. Woodhouse tries to get her to stay, saying she will be much happier at Highbury. Emma in reality lives in a box--an empty box during the latter part of her adolescence since she is left to live with her father alone. Mr. Woodhouse is another great example of a father who is physically present in the heroine's life, but of no great benefit. He is self-centered, and as much as he loves Emma, he never really provides her with any true fatherly advice or guidance except for the occasional warning of draft and the commands for her to dress warmly. As soft spoken and loving as Mr. Woodhouse is, his negative demeanor and self-centeredness reduces his importance as a father. This had its repercussion--her decision to never marry. When Emma finally falls in love, she is in a disarray because the thought of leaving her father is unimaginable as revealed: “But a very short parley with her own heart produced the most solemn resolution of never quitting her father. She even wept over the idea of it, as a sin of thought” (241).Although in the 21st century celibacy is a widely accepted decision, in Emma’s time marriage was practically a necessity. For her to come to such a conclusion was odd and almost unacceptable. Her friend Harriet states the absurdity of it very well, “Dear me! – it is so odd to hear a woman talk so!’ (50).The author of Always Daddy’s Girl, Norman Wright, has insight on this. He says that very often a woman who does not grow up with a father who affirms her femininity, tends to become an “armored amazon” (Wright 37). This means she will react against her negligent father by assuming masculine characteristics. In Emma’s case by choosing not to marry, she assumes the provider instinct of a father. A woman of her age should not have had to worry so much about her father, to the point where she is ready to give up her future for him. As seemingly soft- spoken and loving as Mr. Woodhouse is, his negative demeanor and self-interest, causes untold damage to his daughter thus diminishing his role as a father who parents with importance.Another of Jane Austen’s father is someone most people would easily identify as a terrible father. He is Mr. Price, Fanny’s birth father in the book Mansfield Park. Although Fanny leaves home from a young age to live with the Bertram’s, the reader gets to see the father when Fanny first visits home after almost eight years. She is disappointed at what she sees. A drunkard, who has left all the household responsibilities on his wife. Mr. Price seems to care only for his sons, the navy and the newspaper. As most children would be, Fanny is embarrassed for her father. No one likes to be around a drunkard. It is an unfortunate situation for a young girl to find herself in. Happily for her, Sir Thomas Bertram fills an important role as her adopted father. “[To] her many other sources of uneasiness was added the severe one of shame for the home in which he found her. She might scold herself for the weakness, but there was . . . She was ashamed, and she would have been yet more ashamed of her father than of all the rest” (41). Because Mr. Price is barely present in Fanny's life, he doesn’t get to play a significant part in her character development. However, it is possible to speculate the negative effect he might have had on her as a young child. In Sense and Sensibility, Mr. Dashwood dies leaving all his wealth to John, the son of his first wife. His widow--the second wife--and her three daughters are left homeless and penniless. Thankfully a family member seeing their plight offers them a place to live at Barton Park. The late Mr. Dashwood is a typical Austenian father who does not place enough value on his wife and daughters so as to provide for them after his passing.Next we have Sir Walter Elliot, Anne’s father in Persuasion. His title alone announces that he is an important person. Actually he is a baronet on Kellynch in Somerset. In spite of being a titled gentleman, Sir Elliot’s pride and vanity detract from him as the writer points out below:“Vanity was the beginning and the end of Sir Walter Elliot's character; vanity of person and of situation. … He considered the blessing of beauty as inferior only to the blessing of a baronetcy; and the Sir Walter Elliot, who united these gifts, was the constant object of his warmest respect and devotion”(1). He has three daughters but only favors the eldest because of her beauty. Before the context of the book, Walter’s family is rich, but when his wife dies, he becomes practically broke. One would think that this would cause him to be less vain and assume his new place in society, but he does the opposite and values status even more. This causes him to value himself and how others perceive him above his children, especially Anne who is his least favorite. Anne is aware of this behavior and is pretty upset by it, “She might not wonder, but she must sigh that her father should feel no degradation in his change, should see nothing to regret in the duties and dignity of the resident landholder, should find so much to be vain of in the littleness of a town” (15).
Anne is put down by her father (and the rest of her family as a matter a fact) and her abilities are constantly undermined, as is seen when she drafts a spending plan that would get her family out of debt in a few years and prevent them from moving to Bath.
Lady Russell points this out harshly to Anne:
“How Anne's more rigid requisitions might have been taken is of little consequence. Lady Russell's had no success at all: could not be put up with, were not to be borne. "‘What! Every comfort of life knocked off! Journeys, London, servants, horses, table--contractions and restrictions everywhere! To live no longer with the decencies even of a private gentleman! No, he would sooner quit Kellynch Hall at once, than remain in it on such disgraceful terms’" (Austen 8). She is pushed in a corner and is barely shown love by Sir Elliot. This treatment from her father, however, forces her to come out of her comfort zone and rebel a little, as happens a lot when parents are too oppressive. The main example of this is when she chooses to visit her friend Harriet instead of visiting relatives with the rest of her family. Of course her father is “severe” about it and is more upset about the class of the friend she is visiting than anything else. Anne it seems for the first time stands up to her father by saying “No, sir, she is not one-and-thirty; but I do not think I can put off my engagement, because it is the only evening for some time which will at once suit her and myself. She goes into the warm Bath to-morrow, and for the rest of the week, you know, we are engaged” (108). Sir Elliot Walter’s obsession with class and status caused him to remain a spendthrift. Finally Lady Russell has to force him to "retrench." Any parent who chooses class over his children, and force his will on them can only be seen in a dishonorable light.
Another father under study is Reverend Morland from Northanger Abbey. As his title indicates, Morland is a clergyman. He is the father of Catherine Morland. He is not really present throughout the book but he does help to shed light on the characters. This father is one of the better ones. Unlike Sir Walter in Persuasion, he is a “no-fuss” parent and just wants his children to be happy. Catherine, unlike many of the heroines in the rest of Jane Austen’s novels has never suffered any great loss or grew up miserably because of a careless father. All accounts of Catherine’s childhood, points out that she is a happy child and gets to grow up without misfortunes as pointed out in the novel, “She was fond of all boys’ plays, and greatly preferred cricket not merely to dolls … and loved nothing so well in the world as rolling down the green slope at the back of the house” (2).
However, this ease with which Catherine is brought up put her somewhat at a disadvantage because she is not aware of the real world. She basically lacks exposure to reality. This is seen when she starts reading gothic novels. Instead of reading the novels for pleasure she gets swept up and starts thinking real life is all about mystery and trauma. Here is how the author describes her situation, “Yet how different now the source of her inquietude from what it had been then -- how mournfully superior in reality and substance! Her anxiety had foundation in fact, her fears in probability; and with a mind so occupied in the contemplation of actual and natural evil” (183).
Although she spends most of her adolescent years under the guardianship of Mr. and Mrs. Allen, her father still plays an important part in the development of her life. Unlike the rest of Jane Austen’s fathers, Rev. Morland is actually a good dad and doesn’t put down or shame his daughter. However, his lack of attention towards the social development of Catherine, puts him in the wrong. He almost places her in seclusion and does not present her with real life situations. As well he loses some importance for not giving her a well-rounded education to prepare her for the real world. This causes her to be “dumb” in some ways, and not able to pick up on simple cues, like those her friend Isabella gives her so often. Although he is a good influence for Isabella, he does not provide her with enough tools to deal with the real world.
Jane Austen definitely does a good job of portraying realistic three dimensional father- characters. The fathers presented above, are present in today’s families. Many children grow up with fathers who suffer from substance abuse, are over-protective, are negligent, live above their means, and are just unsupportive. It is disheartening to know that more than one third of American children live apart from their biological fathers (Brotherson and White 12).
The important factor to remember here is the overall importance of fathers. Although Jane Austen does not state it point blank, her varied father characters demonstrate just how crucial and influential each father is. The book, Why Fathers Count, summarizes many studies that actually prove the importance of fathers. One of these was from The National Study of Families and Households. It showed that when fathers were positively involved, “children experienced fewer behavior problems and anxieties, got along better with others and were more responsible” (Brotherson and White 12).
Too many fathers put their children at a disadvantage because of lack of parenting skills and just plain ignorance. Jane Austen herself had a supportive father even though not a perfect father. But by reading some real life situations and observing the lives of her family members she realized how unfortunate others were and how crucial the father figure truly is. For books that feature unrealistic happy endings and plot twist dramas, they depict the fathers and their importance in this world pretty well. Yes, fathers are important in the lives of their children! By presenting the lives of Mr. Bennet, Mr. Woodhouse, Mr. Price, Mr. Dashwood, Sir Walter Eliot and Reverend Morland, each reader can see portraits of important fathers. As Matthew 23:9 reminds us however, the most important father of all is the heavenly father “And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven”.
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