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The Victorian Father and Child

Father and Child

Of all the characteristics attributed to defining Victorian male masculinity, the one least emphasized or spoken about was that of the Victorian man as a father. The questions of if and when to marry, the importance of the Victorian man's work and his moral qualities were topics of daily scrutinization. Yet little attention was directed to the role the Victorian man played as a father till the end of the period. Previously, child rearing was considered within the private realm away from public observation and interference. Fatherhood held an ambiguous position in the culture and practice of Victorian family life and thus the crux of the problem.1 If the public and private spheres were defined by gender, then child-rearing fell under the domain of his wife; however, as domesticity revolved around the roles of both parents, parenting was defined as the Victorian man's commitment to his home and the family unit. With both of these views in existence, the actual role of the Victorian man in the Victorian family unit was unclear.

The birth of a child was considered a "private" matter shared between husband and wife, yet the public impact mattered too. The childless businessman suffered a loss in masculine status. What was the purpose of continuing to be aggressive in his dealings of business if there was no one to whom he could pass it on to. There was also the prejudice towards the bearing of sons who would continue the family name. Regardless of the joy brought about by the birth of daughter, it did not bear the same degree of status as that of a son.

Early in the period, the act of childbirth was seen as the male being the originator of the family while his wife the passive carrier. This concept was strongly supported by Christian belief. The father was considered the central figure in social aspect of childbirth from the drama of the birth, the celebration with family and friends to the arranger of the baptism. It served as a confirmation of his manhood. Later, however, childbirth began to be looked upon as the fulfillment of a woman's femininity.1 It was then that the Victorian father's role changed and rather than being the center of attention, became more of a nervous bystander.

Childbirth brought with it the responsibility of provision and while middle-class fathers usually did not wait on "bread lines", they did face job insecurity and business failures which had a more devastating effect if one had a family to support. Acceptance by society was depended upon one being independent and having the resources to be the head of a household.

For the children, however, it was not the successes their father had in business, but rather the father being a gift-giver. Birthdays were celebrated in grandeur and gifts between the family members became integral to the Victorian Christmas. The wealthy looked upon fatherhood largely to lavish gifts and paying of sons debts, while in the middle-class, gift-giving was looked upon one's financial capabilities. Unfortunately, the mother very often could not compete in the area of gift-giving, thus the act of gift-giving become symbolic as to the exclusive duty of the father providing for his children.

By 1870, the shift from working at home to working outside of the home began to take place and the child now saw the father as one who was away often and only appeared at certain times and certain days. When home, these times became rituals, one of which was the entire family gathering together for prayers or "family time". In affluent households, this was usually no more than an hour before dinner. For the middle-class, life was less structured and these periods were typically longer and included reading, music and conversation.

And while the essence of fatherhood was placed on work, fatherhood was not reduced to bread-winning alone, but also in part to his role as "protector". It was the father who provided the homestead and the protection against external threats. He also played the role of "protector" against impurity (sexual impropriety) and was responsible for maintaing an environment for his wife's moral teachings.

The one characteristic of Victorian manhood that stood firm relative to his role of father was authority because he provided for them and because they had not reached the "age of reason".2 Boys, however, were given direction by their father and expected to obey him, daughters were still expected to serve him.

While family prayers still was an important part of the Victorian man's participation in the family, the moral teachings of his children fell in the realm of his wife. These family sessions toward to end of the period began to change to the childrens versing their prayers at the bedside under the direction of their mother. And as the numbers of women entering the workforce increased, fathers began encouraging their daughters forward to a more formal education.

The biggest change seen during the period was in the area of discipline. The Victorian male had the right to physically beat his children and/or servants, a demonstration of the ultimate power he had over his household. But as time went on, these attitudes began to change and in 1889 laws passed to prevent crulty towards their children.

Changes in social and cultural conditions began to force an adjustment in previous expectations and attitudes and the development of new ones. As the men began to spend more time away from home, the role of childcare was turning to their wives and servants. Many fathers began to feel an advantage with this shift as they were now able to concentrate more on the financial future of their families. Others, however, felt it as an attack of their masculinity making them less of a master in their own home.

Children were a demanding part of the Victorian father's emotional life. Children successfully raised in a good marriage brought the family stability and respect. While the role of fatherhood changed dramatically, it continued to affect his masculinity and how he saw himself.

  1. John Tosh, A Man's Place, p 81, Yale University Press, 1999.

  2. John Tosh, A Man's Place, p. 89, Yale University Press, 1999.

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