“When first Mr. Bennet had married, economy was held to be perfectly useless, for, of course, they were to have a son. The son was to join in cutting off the entail, as soon as he should be of age, and the widow and younger children would by that means be provided for. Five daughters successively entered the world, but yet the son was to come; and Mrs. Bennet, for many years after Lydia’s birth, had been certain that he would.”
Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 50
It is a truth universally acknowledged that, in many times and places in human history, families have preferred sons over daughters. For kings and queens, but also for normal folk, it was all about the heir and the spare. Boys were a blessing to their parents; girls, not so much.
The Regency was no exception. Families needed boys to prosper; girls were only a burden on their parents and brothers. Jane Austen and her sister Cassandra experienced this in their own skin: as unmarried women, they were dependent on their father, and later, their brothers.
However, the general attitude to women does not necessarily mean that fathers didn’t cherish their daughters. Quite the contrary: Austen’s novels often depict very close relationships between fathers and daughters. Here are some of them.
Out of Mr Bennet’s five daughters in Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth is his firm favourite. Father and daughter have an easy relationship: they are natural allies and share a sense of humour, a love of books – and a distaste for Mr Collins.
Mrs Bennet seems to resent her husband for it: “Lizzy is not a bit better than the others; and I am sure she is not half so handsome as Jane, nor half so good-humoured as Lydia. But you are always giving HER preference.”
Elizabeth’s wit and intelligence is a consolation for Mr Bennet, who lacks a male heir. This is no easy matter, because Longbourn is entailed, meaning that his wife and daughters will become homeless when he dies. It’s a threat that hangs over everyone – particularly Mrs Bennet’s poor nerves!
Father and daughter are greatly attuned until the end, when Elizabeth surprises Mr Bennet by declaring her affection for Mr Darcy. Mr Bennet’s words to the apple of his eyes as he tries to understand her reasons are wise: “My child, let me not have the grief of seeing you unable to respect your partner in life.” Mr Bennet certainly knows…
A Most Devoted Nurse
Handsome, clever and rich, Emma Woodhouse is a stranger to the concerns of the Bennets. She is an heiress in her own right and will inherit Hartfield one day, so marriage is not a priority for her. In fact, she is happy to tell Mr Knightley that she will never marry.
Emma devotes herself to her “most affectionate, indulgent” father – who also happens to be Austen’s top hypochondriac. Mr Woodhouse, for his part, doesn’t seem worried in the slightest at the lack of a son, nor Emma’s disinterest in marriage. Quite the contrary: he’s clearly delighted to be the only man in his daughter’s life.
However, the relationship between Emma and her father is very different to Lizzy and Mr Bennet’s. Mr. Woodhouse “had not married early”, and on top of that “was a much older man in ways than in years”. Although Emma loves him very much, she has little in common with him: “He could not meet her in conversation, rational or playful.”
When at the end of the novel Emma finds love, her concern for her father makes her and Mr Knightley take the unconventional route of moving in with Mr Woodhouse to keep the old gentleman’s routines as unchanged as possible. What wouldn’t a daughter do?
A Daughter “Very Like Himself”
In Persuasion, Sir Walter Elliot has three daughters, but he might as well only have had one. Austen tells us that, for his eldest, Elizabeth, “he would really have given up any thing.” This is ostensibly because Elizabeth is “very handsome, and very like himself” in both looks and interests. As a result, “her influence had always been great.”
As Sir Walter has no male heir, his title is to be inherited by a cousin, Mr Elliot. Sir Walter, always mindful of his title and estate, means for Mr Elliot to marry Elizabeth. As for her, she “had liked the man for himself, and still more for being her father’s heir, and whose strong family pride could see only in him a proper match for Sir Walter Elliot’s eldest daughter.”
Mr Elliot chooses to marry a rich woman instead, and estrangement amongst the cousins ensues. But this enables Elizabeth to continue as lady of the house. Meanwhile, to Sir Walter, “his two other children were of very inferior value.” Mary marries Charles Musgrove, and Anne – well, “she was only Anne.” Like Elizabeth, Sir Walter has no affection for her.
This indifference, and Elizabeth’s snubbing of her younger sister, allow cunning Mrs Clay to become part of the Elliot household – and almost leads her to marry Sir Walter! If only father and daughter had been wiser…
And What about Jane?
For some reason, I always imagine Jane Austen’s relationship with her father, Reverend Austen, as a replay of the Lizzy – Mr Bennet dynamic. According to family legend, they both had the legendary Austen wit.
As for me, I must confess I’m a Daddy’s Girl as well, very much in the same vein as Lizzy and her father.
What other father-daughter relationships in Austen do you find touching? Do you identify with any of them?