Friday Book; The paradox of the patriarch

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A MAN'S PLACE: MASCULINITY

AND THE MIDDLE-CLASS HOME

IN VICTORIAN ENGLAND

BY JOHN TOSH, YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS, pounds 19.99

WE ALL know what a Victorian father was like. But I had one. Dictatorial and distant, he was a bit of an anachronism in a north-London suburb in the Sixties. I had to call him "Papa" (a word that still makes me go cold with dread) and when I married against his will 11 years ago, he cut me off without a penny. I haven't seen him since, and all efforts to get in touch with him have been rebuffed.

So I have often been surprised, when reading 19th-century sources, to discover just how loving and indulgent Victorian papas could be. The powerful stereotype is clearly as erroneous as it is persistent. "For most of the 19th century," John Tosh declares in the introduction to this ambitious and thought-provoking book, "home was widely held to be a man's place, not only in the sense of being his possession or fiefdom, but also as the place where his deepest needs were met." In an age that congratulated itself on economic and social advances, "the men credited with these achievements were expected to be dutiful husbands and attentive fathers".

The early Victorians were so keen on home-making, Tosh argues, that they destroyed the thing they loved. Making women, as wives and mothers, so pivotal in the home, led to a steady decline in the importance of men. Their role was to go out to earn the money to pay for everything. While boys were raised to be providers, girls were taught only domestic skills. Consequently, their sexuality and intellect were suppressed to the point of crippling ignorance.

Gradually, the joys of bourgeois home life turned into the "tyranny of five o'clock tea" as stupid women with no conversation or interest in sex "played mother" over bone-china teapots. By the end of Victoria's reign, there were increasing numbers of middle-class men who either chose not to marry, or delayed marriage, while "homosexual practice was almost certainly on the increase".

Professor Tosh's thesis is compelling, mainly because the book is such a gloriously voyeuristic read. His principal source is the intimate correspondence of seven middle-class men, unlucky enough to have had their private letters deposited in public libraries. It is hard to imagine what Joshua Pritchard, a Manchester exciseman, Edward Herford, a Manchester attorney, Cornelius Stovin, a Lincolnshire farmer, Isaac Holden, a Bradford mill-owner, John Heaton, a Leeds doctor, Daniel Meinertzhagen, a London banker, and Edward Benson, priest and teacher, would say if they knew the use to which their letters have been put. Nor am I convinced that seven case studies, albeit with snippets extracted from a medley of literature, constitutes a valid study. It is interesting, though.

"Edward [Benson] was 30 when he married in 1859, soon after taking up his appointment as headmaster of the newly founded Wellington College. Mary was 18... As a man troubled by a strong libido, he saw her innocence as his best means of resisting temptation of thought or deed... The wedding night was a disaster." Only later, "after more than 10 years of marriage did Mary begin to discover her sensual side... leading eventually to a full lesbian relationship."

Later, we are told that Benson's "legendary capacity for work" (he rose to become Archbishop of Canterbury) was in part a displacement for his frustrated libido. It is a curious sensation, looking at the photographs of the demure Mary and her dignified husband in the light of this information - one not unlike reading intimate revelations in Hello! magazine.

Tosh disarmingly admits that the evidence is contradictory. Typical of his method is his use of WP Frith's famous painting Many Happy Returns of the Day in the chapter on fathering. "The father," he observes, "is the only one at table not engrossed in the family celebration, suggesting a semi-detached presence. The distant father exemplifies the ambivalence with which so many men viewed their paternal role."

Yet Tosh's quick glance at the picture, followed by his swift, sweeping conclusion, does not stand up to even the most casual inspection. The father is only leaning back from the jollifications at table in order to listen politely to the old grandfather pontificating on something in the newspaper. He is in fact sitting between two of his sons as they lark around with the sherry decanter, having indulgently accepted a glass and sent a daughter over to the old man with another. The only one not joining in the celebration is, in fact, the garlanded birthday child, who looks overwhelmed. This painting is used on the cover, where the old man who is distracting the father is significantly cut away by being wrapped around the edge of the book. Meanwhile, the figure of the "semi- detached" father is extracted and blown up on the back, thus aptly enacting the kind of cut-and-paste distortion Tosh delights in.

Clearly, Tosh's primary intention is to be provocative, and in this he succeeds. A Man's Place is fun to read, but might have been more worthwhile had Tosh confined himself to presenting seven case studies whose very contradictions would have been allowed to speak for themselves.

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