On Fathers’ day considering how fathers are represented in some of our most well-known classic novels is irresistible.
And the interesting thing is that so many are entirely absent.
The orphan seems to be such a prevalent figure, after all, in 19th century literature. Jane Eyre’s father? Long gone, along with her mother, leaving her in the most untender hands of her aunt Reed and later the strictures of Lowood school and the dastardly Mr. Brocklehurst. Is Mr Rochester some sort of replacement Byronic hero/substitute father for her in the absence of her own?
Dorothea and Celia in Middlemarch – another deceased father, leaving the girls to be brought up by their uncle. Perhaps Dorothea’s blind obsession and unfortunate marriage to the elderly and rather appalling Reverend Edward Casaubon was in search of some father figure that her life lacked.
And then there are Jane Austen’s fathers, who, in spite of being very much alive, are all rather inadequate.
Take Mr Bennett – a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve and caprice, who has married a woman of mean understanding, little information and uncertain temper and constantly retreats to his study when the going gets tough, clearly offering little guidance and influence over Mrs B and their daughters.
And Emma’s lack of self-knowledge and woeful misjudgements can be traced back, surely, to the endearing, but entirely vacuous Mr Woodhouse – an indulgent father – who has allowed his daughter to have rather too much her own way and a disposition to think a little too well of herself.
And as for Fanny Price in Mansfield Park, her father, a lieutenant of Marines without education, fortune or connections whose sole accomplishment appears to be limited to keeping his wife permanently pregnant – 9 children in 10 years – so that one of them, our heroine Fanny, has to be deposited at the age of 10 with the Bertram family for financial safe-keeping. Making the journey from Portsmouth to Northampton alone, poor Fanny is met by the snobbish, dire Mrs Norris who ensures that the little girl is aware of her wonderful good fortune and extraordinary degree of gratitude and good behaviour expected of her. All because of her own inadequate father.
In Persuasion, Anne Elliot has Sir Walter Elliot to contend with, a man who is described as Vanity was the beginning and end of Sir Walter’s character; vanity of person and of situation. …he considered the blessing of beauty as inferior only to the blessing of a baronetcy and since his daughter has not inherited the kind of beauty he admires she is virtually invisible to him.
Sense and Sensibility presents us with a father who has inconsiderately died, leaving his wife and two daughters at the mercy of a son who fails to provide adequately for his stepmother and half sisters, Elinor and Marianne.
So Austen’s fathers have either selfishly died or are weak or impecunious or blatantly unkind. Yet all her female protagonists manage to grow up – by the end of their respective novels – as kinder, wiser people than their paternal upbringing has promised. It is generally considered that Jane Austen had a very good relationship with her own father so possibly the portrayal of her resilient heroines has more to say about her belief in women’s strength and their ability to thrive in spite of inadequate men in their lives than it does about the Reverend Austen.
Moving back in time to Shakespeare’s father figures – himself no doubt something of an absent father to Judith, Hamnet and Susanna, busy plying his trade and forging his career in London – and King Lear gives us possibly the most extreme example of misjudgement and misplaced faith – poor Cordelia the victim of his fatal flaw of pride. And Lord Capulet hardly shows Juliet much fatherly tenderness when she tells him of her unwillingness to marry Paris: hang, beg, starve, die in the streets is his response to her lack of inclination. It has to be said that her mother is no better with her parting shot of Do as thou wilt, for I have done with thee.
So where, out of all this panoply of literary disaster areas of fatherhood do we find our one shining example of supreme greatness?
Atticus Finch, of course.
Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird is wise, loving, admirable, fair. A man who stands out against the endemic racial prejudice of his town. A man willing to take on a legal case he knows he will lose because of the racist judgements of the jury.
Simply because it is the right thing to do.
Atticus is the man every woman wants to father their children. Atticus is the father every child and adolescent wants to boast.
As Scout says of her father: It was times like these when I thought my father, who hated guns and had never been to any wars, was the bravest man who ever lived.
There really can be none to beat in the good father stakes in the pages of literary classics than the incomparable Atticus Finch.
But we all have memories of our own fathers – our particular stories – which, hopefully, are warm, poignant and positive if we have been luckier than the heroes and heroines of literature. And if we have children, we also hold onto numerous moments that remind us of times in our children’s lives when their fathers have lit up their worlds for them, made connections that will last their whole lifetimes.
So Happy Father’s Day to all fathers, past and present.
We know you can’t all be Atticus Finch – but you are forever loved, remembered and cherished, anyway!