Dombey, is for many the quintessential authoritarian, emotionally repressed and usually appearing uncaring. His wife, a vessel to deliver his son Paul, his daughter and irrelevance even in his darkest hour he can’t bring himself to hold her.
This is the general reputation for Victorian fathers…however, all is not as it appears.
Fatherhood and the British Working Class, 1865-1914 by Dr Julie-Marie Strange, a social historian at Manchester University is a book that has looked at first hand accounts of the time. “There is a stereotype of the Victorian father which has become a bit of a joke, he is meant to be very strict, completely humourless, a little bit of a hypocrite and definitely not fun, in fact rather severe,” she said.“With working class fathers where there is an added dimension of the stereotype being extremely negative, sometimes alcoholic and often rather brutish.”
However, according to Dr Strange (great name isn’t it) most children described their experiences in a positive light. “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,” she said.
The idea of distant Victorian fathers with too much stiff upper lip to express love for their children was largely created by later generations who wanted to show themselves in a good light compared to their ancestors which sort of saddened me.
Dickens was a fun loving father and he liked nothing better than entertaining, he loved Christmas and playing with his children. Many of our Christmas traditions are due to Dickens…which is no bad thing really.
“When you read stuff about the ‘new man’, it is generally set up against the foil of another, older man who just didn’t do kids and didn’t do family,” Dr Strange said. “But if you look historically the new man pops up again and again, always against this stereotype of the old man as somehow retrograde.
“The context is usually self-justifying, as if to say ‘haven’t we progressed?’”
She added that Victorian comedians used to make jokes about fathers who were left in charge of the children when the mother had to leave. One common theme was that the children would run wild because he was unable or unwilling to discipline them effectively.