Jun 12 2011 3:00pm

The Fathers of Jane Austen

Emma and Mr. Woodhouse

If you’re feeling kindly toward your Dad this Father’s Day, you might want to refrain from giving him a Jane Austen novel. Stick with power tools. Although Jane Austen herself seems to have had a perfectly amiable and generous father, you couldn’t prove it by her books.

As with Jane’s mothers, the best father of the lot seems to be The Revd. Mr. Morland, father of Northanger Abbey’s Catherine. However, like Mrs. Morland, he’s pretty much in the background, so we can’t really tell. I think a nice Father’s Day card would do the trick here.

Of the fathers we get to know in Jane Austen’s novels, we are left to choose the best of a bad lot. Shall we take a look at them?

Let’s start with Mr. Woodhouse, querulous valetudinarian father of the eponymous Emma. Long a widower, Mr. Woodhouse has sunk into self-regard, leaving his younger daughter to care for him and for the house, resenting anything that takes her away and perpetually worried that someone will catch a cold. What a guy!  I think a nice wool shawl and a bottle of cough syrup would be an appropriate gift

Poor Fanny Price is stuck not only with a drunken, impecunious, slovenly retired seaman for a father but is also burdened with a surrogate in the person of Sir Thomas Bertram of Mansfield Park, who pretty much ignores her existence until she receives a marriage proposal from a rake. Then the redoubtable Sir Thomas attempts to force Fanny to marry a man she not only doesn’t love but doesn’t trust, by sending her back the squalor of her father’s home to teach her a lesson. We’ll stand Mr. Price to a pint of his favorite brew, and give Sir Thomas the board game, Clue, as that’s probably the only way he’s going to get one.

And, oh my goodness, Persuasion’s Sir Walter Elliot!  Poor Anne must put up with the most vain of all Jane Austen’s fathers. If Sir Walter is not admiring his own fine countenance in a convenient mirror, he is congratulating himself on his coveted spot in the Baronetage. His daughter Anne is a thorn in his side, reminding him of his responsibilities, useful only in dealing with his other daughters and not much to look at. Happy Father’s Day, Sir Walter. Here’s a gift card for a facial.

Although, Mr. Dashwood, father of Elinor and Marianne in Sense and Sensibility, is dead and probably did not intend to leave his wife and daughters in dire financial straights, that is exactly what has happened. I will, however, cut him some slack because—you know—dead so he doesn’t get a present anyway.

I will not, however, cut Mr. Bennet of Pride and Prejudice slack for the same offense. Mr. Bennet, current owner of an entailed estate and father of five daughters has chosen to spin the conjugal roulette wheel and take his chances on begetting a son who will take care of the rest of the family when Mr. Bennet goes to the big Library in the Sky. And when, the wheel keeps stopping on XX, he not only shrugs it off, he makes fun of his wife who is trying desperately to get the girls married off. For this caring father,  an all-expenses-paid trip to London to look for his youngest daughter who has run off with a cad.

Robert Hardy as General Tilney

Of course, none of these feckless fathers hold a candle to General Tilney, father of Henry, hero of Northanger Abbey. General Tilney courts Catherine Morland on his son’s behalf and, after his son has fallen for her, and the General has discovered she’s not an heiress, kicks her out in the middle of the night to make her own way home. No gift for the General, but he probably doesn’t expect one.

Here’s my Father’s Day wish for you:  That you have a better father than Jane Austen’s heroines (and heroes), that you want to give him a nice gift and that he deserves it. I still think power tools are the way to go.

Brock Illustration from The Republic of Pemberley
Robert Hardy as General Tilney from Jane Austen Portugal


Myretta Robens
The Republic of Pemberley

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Carmen Pinzon
1. bungluna
In my family, power tools are a nice way to maim someone. I've always thought that Elizabeth Bennet's father was particuarly vile, but couldn't describe why. You've hit the nail on the head; he avoids his repsonsabilities while making fun of his wife and neglecting the daughters who don't 'suit' him. What a dad.
Myretta Robens
2. Myretta
@bungluna - Sounds like we may come from the same family. :-) Maybe a nice box of your father's favorite treat instead of power tools, then.
Carrie Strickler
3. DyslexicSquirrel
I'm the one in the family with the craving for power tools. I am, after all, the son my father never had.

Not to say that my dad gave me crap for being a girl! He's no Mr. Bennet. I'm just a girl who likes comic books, action flims, football and I can fix most things by myself. Not sure what I'm getting my dad yet, but I'll figure it out.
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