Sunday, 6 December 2015

Team Linton! (Aka…the role of fatherhood in Victorian culture)

                When most people read Wuthering Heights, they focus on the cold hard Heathcliff and his love for Cathy 0.1. Where the story holds its interest for me was big Linton and Cathy 0.2. I’ll admit he was fairly annoying when he was a child, but the Linton that cared for his dying wife and then seemed to dedicate everything to his daughter and “frequently walk out among the rapiers” (Bronte, Page 282) with her seemed miles away from that snotty little child. The man he grew to be inspired such massive love and devotion from his child. During the throws of childish passion (something I’m sure most of us remember – including how awful young love was when you grew up a tad) she still stuck by her dad saying “I care for nothing in comparison with papa.” She even said “I pray every night that I may live after him; because I would rather be miserable than that he should be: that proves I love him better than myself.” No matter how rebellious she got she stuck by the decision not to “say a word to vex him.” (Bronte, Page 286) Honestly imagine that, being a teenager (the period during which you were probably smoking weed sleeping with someone very inappropriate and trying to plan your escape route) and still trying your hardest not to upset your dad. That is some damn good parenting. Yet, it’s not what we think when we think about Victorian fathers. We think of cruel hard men beating their children with biblical rods. I’m going to show that Victorian fathers were not all the same scary patriarch but actually they predominantly showed a decidedly softer and more complex side. However, let’s start with the scary guys.
                Where does this idea of the cold father come from? It starts with men like Patrick Bronte. Gaskell gave a detailed account of Mr Bronte’s character in her biography about Charlotte. He was an odd man who from the beginning refused to feed his children meat; this refusal didn’t come from a lack of money or a moral conscious regarding animals, he simply thought they should be “brought up simply and hardly,” so they were given nothing but potatoes. This was a guy Gaskell described as “not naturally fond of children, and felt their frequent appearance on the scene […] as an interruption to the comfort of the household.” (Gaskell, Chapter 3) When they were children the Bronte’s got wet so their nanny thought it would be a nice idea to give them some coloured boots. Instead of understanding his child’s need for warmth he set fire to the boots believing the colour to be too luxurious for his kids. Straight off the bat this guy’s obviously not normal, and therein lies my point. We hear a few descriptions of a few Victorian fathers who made an impact on society and see that as the norm. If you heard any of those stories today you would immediately assume the man to be insane. This is how we, reading this today, should view him; not as an example of the times, but as a cruel and strange man. In fact, when Gaskell’s book came out he was heavily criticised. The people of the time viewed him the same way we do. Unfortunately you can still see how far his cruelty had an effect on his children, rather than see herself as free and love her brilliant mind in the way she should, Charlotte wrote to her friend saying “If you knew my thoughts; the dreams that absorb me; and the fiery imagination that at times eats me up […] you would pity and I dare say despise me.” (Bronte) It’s upsetting to know such a brilliant woman didn’t get to love her imagination.
Chartist fathers shared their love of politics with their children. Doctor Jullie-Marie Strange told the Telegraph during her research into the subject of Victorian fatherhood she had obtained a very different picture to the stereotype. She scoured sources and came to the conclusion that “the vast majority talked about fathers who were fun, who spent time with their kids in their spare time, fathers who taught their children to be interested in politics, history, religion and how things worked.” (Bingham) There are many reported cases of chartists naming their sons after their favourite chartist hero. Far from cold and detached, this showed a humorous attitude towards their children. Apparently one group of chartists wrote to Queen Victoria to ask her to name her child after a famous chartist hero Feargus O’Connor. When they inevitably didn’t receive a response two of the group decided to christen their child Regina Feargus O’Connor. (Pickering) Today, this would be a lot like calling your child Marx or Dumbledore. It showed both a desire to share their deep love of politics and change as well as a desire to immortalise the comical moment they wrote a funny letter. The most famous account of a chartist child’s experience is that of W.E Adams. In his memoirs he shares his experience of seeing O’Connor and being introduced to many chartist activists while still a child. He talks about a lot of important meetings he had during the movement but for me the most important thing to come out of that book was a single line; “riches are not necessary to produce the blessings and comforts of home.” Even at that age he seemed to understand that comfort comes from a shared passion and deep love for one another. Chartist children still saw how important their fathers work was and did not suffer from a lack of affection. There was actually a lot of humour attached to the role of fatherhood. Dr Strange told us in her book that there were slapstick performances of Victorian fathers, rather than being aggressive these performances usually involved “their exaggerated baby talk and the general chaos that ensued when men tried their hand at childcare duties.” (Strange, Page 169) The jokes of the time were very similar to films we have today like Honey, I shrunk the kids or Mom’s night out. Perhaps they were a little incompetent, but certainly not sinister or cruel. If anything, most of what her book suggests is they were very similar to the stereotype our media has of fathers today; sweet, loving, and nowhere near as strict as mum. The video I’ve posted shows what I believe a chartist father would have looked like; overly comical and outwardly a little bit scary, but with a deep love of his child within. 

Almost every family in the country during that period had lost someone; even the queen had watched her husband leave her. Unfortunately, for many families, this person would have been their child. Working class fathers were struggling for survival and legacy, to keep their children alive. The mill owners and other ruling class members would have been running their estates and searching for the best possible tutors and nannies. In Mary Barton one man says “I’ve seen a father who had killed his child rather than let it clem before his eyes; and he were a tender-hearted man.” (Gaskell, Chapter 16) The fathers at the time did what they could with what they had. In a time of such struggle if they ever seemed cold, it was because they had to be. Working class families would have had a very different set up to the ruling class ones, because the work force consisted of men and women home life would have been similar. The work would have been shared out between the two so they’re parenting balance would have been much more similar to our modern day set up than we think.
Inevitably, some fathers would have been cold and others would have been abusive. The Patrick Bronte’s of the world still exist. However, fatherhood is a varied and complicated idea that is approached by each parent differently and is entirely circumstantial and predominantly I’d like to say they were fairly loving people. They did the best they could with what they had. They tried their hardest to keep their children well fed and well educated. More than that, they resemble Edgar Linton and the fathers we have today far more than to the common misconception we have of them.

Deborah Boyland

Bingham, John. 'Victorian Fathers - The Original 'New Dads''. N.p., 2015. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.
Bronte, Charlotte. Letter to Ellen Nussey. 10 May 1836.
Emily, Bronte. Wuthering Heights. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1992. Print.
Gaskell, Elizabeth Cleghorn. Mary Barton. Ware: Wordsworth, 2012. Print.
Gaskell, Elizabeth Cleghorn. The Life Of Charlotte Brontë. London: J.M. Dent & Co., 1908. Print.
Pickering, Paul A. Chartism And The Chartists In Manchester And Salford. New York: St. Martin, 1995. Print.
Strange, Julie-Marie. Fatherhood And The British Working Class, 1865-1914. Print.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Deborah,

    Your blog is so refreshing and I loved your Dumbledore reference! Personally I liked how you spoke about the role of fatherhood in Victorian culture and your links to Bronte and Gaskell's works. In a way I was able to relate to your blog as it was an easy and enjoyable read for me.