Charlie Chaplin’s father walked out on a young family, leaving the future comic hero to watch his mother struggle in poverty. Walter Citrine, the trade union leader, was enthralled by paternal tales of maritime adventure. Robert Roberts sneered at his father’s pretensions in filling their “classic slum” home with prints and pottery. Elizabeth Bryson, one of a pioneering generation of female doctors, took pride in her father’s poetry – whatever his shortcomings in providing for the family.
Born between the 1880s and early 1900s, these individuals had distinctive personal experiences of the father and child relationship. What they share is that they all came from working-class families and later wrote memoirs. Julie-Marie Strange takes such autobiographies as her central source material in an attempt to find out more about what it meant to be a father in the late 19th century. She has read widely; her bibliography cites more than a hundred examples of the genre. There are memoirs from politicians, clergymen, museum curators, novelists – and even an actress known, enticingly, as “Tiger Woman”. But women – tigress-like or otherwise – contributed few of the published memoirs on which Strange has based her research. The story is overwhelmingly one of fathers as remembered by successful sons.
Historians are currently very interested in fathers. In part, this reflects developments within histories of masculinity, as the role of men in the domestic setting takes an increasingly prominent place. Strange adopts a slightly different approach, pitting herself against social histories of the family that devote plenty of attention to mothers but largely ignore fathers. She takes issue with stereotypes of working-class home life in which the man of the house had responsibility for breadwinning and discipline but was otherwise estranged from what went on. Contemporary sources certainly had it in for the working-class father, so often portrayed as a threat to children’s welfare, drinking away the weekly wage, prone to violence, and endangering precarious respectability.
Some memoirs serve only to reinforce that picture, but Strange emphasises a more positive history: the storytelling, the gifts, the shared activities. One of her main conclusions is that providing for one’s family financially was indeed the “keystone” of fatherhood. But she glosses this as something that could prompt affection: work, she argues, served not to distance fathers from the family, but to demonstrate their degree of commitment. She suggests that this may even offer consolation for anxious, time-poor 21st-century parents.
There is some wonderful material here, although Strange’s discussion can become laboured. Very much a product of how we write now, her text is full of “father practices” and “affective meanings”, involving “interrogating” things and “navigating” feelings. When we do home in on particular examples from the memoirs, it can be hard to keep track of varied family circumstances. As she acknowledges, these are complex sources, responding to contemporary understandings of fatherhood, as much as offering a recovery of social experience from decades earlier. Moreover, the idiosyncratic nature of relationships within individual families often fits uneasily with attempts to generalise about social expectations of fatherhood. Strange’s book demonstrates that working-class fathers need to be integrated into histories of home and family, opening up a topic on which there is much more to explore.
Fatherhood and the British Working Class, 1865-1914
By Julie-Marie Strange
Cambridge University Press, 242pp, £65.00
ISBN 9781107084872 and 9781316237076 (e-book)
Published 29 January 2015