Fathers and Daughters in Jane Austen’s Novels

Fathers and Daughters in Jane Austen’s Novels

“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. 

 

A Girl with “Something More of Quickness than Her Sisters”

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?

13 Responses to Fathers and Daughters in Jane Austen’s Novels

  1. Love reading stories where there is a strong bond between fathers and daughters. Personally I was closer with my mom but my daughter is definitely a daddy’s girl.

  2. I was a typical daughter I had my Dad wrapped around my little finger!lol He passed away in 1997 and I have fond memories. It seems Lizzy was her dad’s favorite and they were very close.

    • Soo you are another daddy’s girl! It’s a special relationship, isn’t it? So lovely to hear you have such wonderful memories. Lizzy was one of us, for sure!

  3. I too was a Daddy’s girl and in my teens I spent a lot of time with him. Unfortunately he died when I was twenty one. He’s nearly forty years gone now but I still see him as clearly in mind as I ever did. Losing parents leaves a hole that’s never filled I think!
    Elizabeth and her father have a lovely relationship and I think it’s the reason I have a soft spot for Mr Bennet.

    • I am so sorry to hear, Teresa, what a tragic and premature loss. It’s wonderful that you still have such vivid memories though. I, too, have a soft spot for Mr Bennet. He always. makes me smile!

  4. I think Mr Bennet is very similar to Jane Austen’s father in his failure to make any provision for his daughters, should they not marry. The £1000 per annum that would come to each one on her mother’s death came from Mrs Bennet’s marriage settlement. Mr Bennet could easily have saved enough each year to double that but he preferred to continue trying to sire an heir. Jane only had £50 per annum from her father; after he died, her brothers had to help support their mother and sisters because their father had only provided for his sons. Mrs Bennet is the parent who realises in what dire straits her daughters would find themselves if they did not marry. Neither Mr Bennet nor Mr Austen seem to have considered what the lack of a dowry might have meant for their daughters.

    • The parallels are definitely there. Jane certainly experienced the precariousness and dependency of life as a single woman with no independent fortune, and there is an argument for picturing Mrs Bennet as the sensible/practical one in the family. Having said that, I love how Elizabeth loves Mr Bennet in spite of his failings, such as the (big one) you mention.

  5. I love reading good father-daughter stories. I was the only girl with two brothers and, of course, I was a daddy’s girl. I don’t think I’ve read a story where Mr. Dashwood was still living. I have a feeling he and Elinor would have been close. Marianne… he would have smiles and patted her on the head. However, Elinor seemed so grieved over his things not being respected by Fanny. The library was probably their favorite place. thanks for this post. Blessings, stay safe, and healthy.

    • I think you’re onto something – a father-daughter story featuring Mr Dashwood and Elinor! I agree, I think Elinor would have been the favourite. She sounds like she cherished her father and his ways very much. You too, stay safe and healthy!

  6. What a wonderful post! I agree with you that Elizabeth and Mr. Bennet’s relationship is probably most like Jane Austen and her father. I have always wished to see more of the relationship between Mr. Dashwood and his daughters. I wonder if he would have had a favorite.
    As my dad’s last chance at a boy, I was the one who learned how to golf and bowl and was sent to “see what your father is doing.” I learned how to rebuild a starter (even though it still didn’t work) and was at his side every Sunday morning (well, most once I became a teenager) on our way to church. He is the reason I write under my maiden name – as he had no sons to carry on the name.

    • As Riana pointed out, I imagine Elinor was Mr Dashwood’s favourite. After all, Marianne already had her mother! What lovely memories from your father. I love that it’s the reason why you write under your maiden name, very touching!

  7. I was very close to my father. We shared a similar view of the world, although in many ways we were very different. I miss him a great deal.

    I would love to know what the relationship between Elinor Dashwood and her father was like. We never really meet Mr. Dashwood, except on his deathbed, but I imagine it was also very close. Perhaps there’s a story in there….

    • Fathers and daughters, huh?

      I am with you with regards to Elinor Dashwood. I think they would have been the sensible ones in the family, vs Mrs Dashwood and Marianne, the sensitive dreamers!

Leave a reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.