Mimi MatthewsMimi Matthews

Literary Fathers: As Depicted in the Works of Austen, Dickens, and Heyer

The Bridges Family by John Constable, 1805. (© Tate Museum, London, 2015)

The Bridges Family by John Constable, 1805.
(© Tate Museum, London, 2015)

It’s Father’s Day and, in celebration, I thought it would be a perfect time to take a brief look at a few of the many and varied fathers depicted in some of our favorite literary classics from the 19th century and beyond.

Beginning at the start of the 1800’s, we have a selection of kind, likable, and somewhat ineffective fathers from the works of Jane Austen.  These gentlemen are, in general, fairly benign.  They are not drunkards, womanizers, or wastrels.  Neither are they conniving, deceitful, or deluded.  Instead, they are content to fulfill their supporting role in the novel with a measure of humor – and a minimum of interference with our heroines.

Pride and Prejudice, First Edition, 1813.

Pride and Prejudice, First Edition, 1813.

The first father and certainly one of the most well-known is, of course, Mr. Bennet from Pride and Prejudice (1813).  Cursed with a very silly wife, five unmarried daughters, and no male heir, he is, as Austen describes him:

“…so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three-and-twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character.”

It is not a surprise that Mr. Bennet is closest to his witty and intelligent daughter Elizabeth.  The two share much in common.  However, unlike Elizabeth, who is troubled by the way their family is viewed by the likes of Lady Catherine, Mr. Bingley’s sisters, and even, at first, Mr. Darcy, Mr. Bennet is happily unconcerned.  So unconcerned, in fact, that his actions occasionally contribute to their family being seen as ridiculous.  Mr. Darcy states as much in his disastrous first proposal:

“The situation of your mother’s family, though objectionable, was nothing in comparison to that total want of propriety so frequently, so almost uniformly betrayed by herself, by your three younger sisters, and occasionally even by your father.”

Painting of a family game of checkers by Louis-Léopold Boilly, 1803.

Painting of a family game of checkers by Louis-Léopold Boilly, 1803.

In Emma (1815), Austen introduces us to Emma’s father, Mr. Woodhouse.  Mr. Woodhouse is wealthier than Mr. Bennet, but when it comes to wit and intellect he suffers by comparison.  Early in the novel, Emma is faced with the imminent departure of her governess, Miss Taylor.  The result of this is that she will be left in the house with no companionship expect that of her father.  As Austen explains:

“She dearly loved her father, but he was no companion for her.  He could not meet her in conversation, rational or playful.

“The evil of the actual disparity in their ages (and Mr. Woodhouse had not married early) was much increased by his constitution and habits; for having been a valetudinarian all his life, without activity of mind or body, he was a much older man in ways than in years; and though everywhere beloved for the friendliness of his heart and his amiable temper, his talents could not have recommended him at any time.”

A Well to Do Family in the Streets of Paris by Louis Leopold Boilly, 1803.

A Well to Do Family in the Streets of Paris by Louis Leopold Boilly, 1803.

Not all the father’s in Jane Austen’s novels are as benign as Mr. Bennet and Mr. Woodhouse.  In Persuasion (1816), Anne Elliot’s father, Sir Walter Elliot, is a selfish – and pretentious – spendthrift, more concerned with the value of his family name than the value of his family itself.  Austen wastes no time in making his character clear to us.  The opening lines of Persuasion read as follows:

“Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch Hall, in Somersetshire, was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage…

“Vanity was the beginning and the end of Sir Walter Elliot’s character; vanity of person and of situation.  He had been remarkably handsome in his youth; and, at fifty-four, was still a very fine man.  Few women could think more of their personal appearance than he did, nor could the valet of any new made lord be more delighted with the place he held in society.  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.”

One of the best fathers in a Jane Austen novel is also the one with the smallest role.  Mr. Morland in Northanger Abbey (1817) is a clergyman with a comfortable living and lacks neither intelligence, nor sense.  As a result, he is not very exciting – especially for a Gothic novel loving heroine like Catherine Morland.  Austen writes:

“[Mr. Morland] was a clergyman, without being neglected, or poor, and a very respectable man, though his name was Richard—and he had never been handsome.  He had a considerable independence besides two good livings—and he was not in the least addicted to locking up his daughters.”

Victoria's Family by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, 1846.

Victoria’s Family by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, 1846.

Pressing on to the mid-19th century and Victorian era, we have two similar, but also very different fathers from the novels of Charles Dickens.  In Little Dorrit (1855), we meet heroine Amy Dorrit’s father.  Mr. Dorrit has the signal honor of being the longest imprisoned debtor in the Marshalsea Prison.  Upon entering the Marshalsea many years before, Dickens writes:

“He was, at that time, a very amiable and very helpless middle-aged gentleman, who was going out again directly.  Necessarily, he was going out again directly, because the Marshalsea lock never turned upon a debtor who was not.  He brought in a portmanteau with him, which he doubted its being worthwhile to unpack; he was so perfectly clear—like all the rest of them, the turnkey on the lock said—that he was going out again directly.”

Mr. Dorrit did not “go out again directly.”  Instead, he has been a resident of the Marshalsea for decades.  His eldest children, Edward and Fanny, have both grown up in the prison and his youngest daughter, Amy, was born there.  Dubbed “the Father of the Marshalsea,” Mr. Dorrit has become so vain and self-important that he sees his status in the prison as a strange sort of triumph.  So deluded is he by his own consequence that, though he is educated himself, he refuses to stoop so low as to teach his children.  Amy Dorrit observes:

“There was no instruction for any of them at home; but she knew well—no one better—that a man so broken as to be the Father of the Marshalsea, could be no father to his own children.”

Portrait of the Marquis and Marchioness of Miramon and their Children by James Tissot, 1865.

Portrait of the Marquis and Marchioness of Miramon and their Children by James Tissot, 1865.

Another imprisoned father, is Doctor Alexandre Manette in Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities (1859).  The father of heroine Lucie Manette, he has been a prisoner of the Bastille for eighteen years.  Upon release, he still suffers the mental torments of his time spent in captivity and, as Dickens’ explains:

“Only his daughter had the power of charming this black brooding from his mind.  She was the golden thread that united him to a Past beyond his misery, and to a Present beyond his misery: and the sound of her voice, the light of her face, the touch of her hand, had a strong beneficial influence with him almost always.  Not absolutely always, for she could recall some occasions on which her power had failed; but they were few and slight, and she believed them over.”

Doctor Manette refers to Lucie as his “other and far dearer self” and when, on the night of her marriage to Charles Darnay, she hesitates for fear of being separated from her father, and thereby causing him unhappiness, he asks her:

“…how could my happiness be perfect, while yours was incomplete?”

The Golden Butterfly - The Harvey Family by John Henry Frederick Bacon, (1868-1914).

The Golden Butterfly – The Harvey Family by John Henry Frederick Bacon, (1868-1914).

A study of literary fathers would not be complete (at least on this website!) without a brief discussion of two of the many fathers portrayed in the novels of Georgette Heyer.  Set in the years following the 1745 Jacobite rebellion, Heyer’s The Masqueraders (1928) features the characters of Robin, his sister Prudence, and their mysterious father, known simply as “The Old Gentleman.”  The Old Gentleman is referenced many times in the beginning of the novel, but does not make his appearance until a third of the way into the story.  When he arrives, he announces himself as the lost heir, Tremaine of Barham.  Well-versed with his chicanery, his children remain unconvinced.

“And what do you make of that?” said Prudence calmly in her brother’s ear. 

Robin shook his head.  “It’s the most consummate piece of impertinent daring – gad, it beats our masquerade!”

“But how can he carry it off?  And for how long?” 

“And why?” Robin demanded.  “It’s senseless!  Why?” 

“Oh, the old love of a fine dramatic gesture.  Don’t we know it?  It’s to rank with the time he played the French Ambassador in Madrid.  And he came off safe from that.”

Rutger Jan Schimmelpenninck with his Wife and Children by Pierre Paul Prud'hon, 1801-02.

Rutger Jan Schimmelpenninck with his Wife and Children
by Pierre Paul Prud’hon, 1801-02.

For all their humor, to be burdened with such a father is clearly a trying ordeal, especially for a young lady.  As Prudence rather poignantly confesses to Sir Anthony Fanshawe:

“You can have no pride in my birth, sir.  I do not know what my father is; we have never known, for he loves to be a mystery.”

In Heyer’s novel Cotillion (1953), she introduces us to a different sort of father altogether.  Lord Legerwood is father of hero Freddy Standen.  Possessed of a sharp intelligence and a dry wit, he initially intimidates heroine Kitty Charing.  Heyer writes that:

“She stood considerably in awe of him, for his cool, well-bred manners were quite unlike her guardian’s, and made him seem immeasurably superior.  He had an air of decided fashion, too, and an occasionally satirical tongue.”

Despite the amusement he gets from observing the antics of his hapless offspring, Lord Legerwood is the first to offer Freddy a loan when he perceives him to be in “dun territory” and later, when Freddy requires his help in the matter of the Chevalier d’Evron, he agrees to investigate the man.  Overcome with affection for his satirical parent, Freddy exclaims:

“Always say you’re the downiest man I know, sir!  Up to every rig and row in town!”

Robert Goldsborough and Family by Charles Willson Peale, 1787.

Robert Goldsborough and Family by Charles Willson Peale, 1787.

Fathers in novels are, by their nature, supporting characters.  As such, they do not usually feature heavily in our favorite stories.  But when they do, they run the gamut from Mr. Bennets to Mr. Dorrits to those larger than life characters like the lost heir of Barham.  Who are your favorite father characters in English literature?  Let me know in the comments section below!

Works Referenced or Cited in this Article

Austen, Jane.  Emma.  Ed. George Justice.  Norton Critical Editions. 4th ed. New York: Norton, 2011.

Austen, Jane.  Northanger Abbey.  Ed. Susan Fraiman.  Norton Critical Editions. 1st ed. New York: Norton, 2004.

Austen, Jane.  Persuasion.  Ed. Patricia Meyer Spacks.  Norton Critical Editions. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 2012.

Austen, Jane.  Pride and Prejudice.  Ed. Donald Gray.  Norton Critical Editions.  3rd ed.  New York: Norton, 2002.

Dickens, Charles.  Little Dorrit.  New York: Penguin Classics, 2004.

Dickens, Charles.  A Tale of Two Cities.  New York: Bantam Classics, 1989.

Heyer, Georgette.  Cotillion.  Chicago: Sourcebooks, 2007.

Heyer, Georgette.  The Masqueraders.  Chicago: Sourcebooks, 2009.

About Mimi Matthews

USA Today bestselling author Mimi Matthews writes both historical nonfiction and award-winning Victorian romances. Her novels have received starred reviews in Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Booklist, Kirkus, and Shelf Awareness, and her articles have been featured on the Victorian Web, the Journal of Victorian Culture, and in syndication at BUST Magazine. In her other life, Mimi is an attorney. She resides in California with her family, which includes a retired Andalusian dressage horse, a Sheltie, and two Siamese cats.

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