D J Taylor: Not such a stuffy stag slaughterer after all

IoS writer salutes our unsung fathers-in-law including Prince Philip

Related Topics

No doubt there is a revisionist biography of Kingsley Amis in the offing which will reveal he declined all offers of strong drink and was chastely monogamous. For the moment, those of us who delight in the ability of celebrated people to defy their public reputations should welcome this week's near-complete transformation in status of the Duke of Edinburgh.

Long derided, at least in the columns of liberal-minded newspapers, as a byword for old-school stuffiness, mercilessly lampooned in Stephen Frears' The Queen as a stag-slaughtering suppressor of most of the basic human emotions, the duke turns out to be a caring correspondent of his son's wife, doubtful of his qualifications for the role of marriage guidance counsellor, but determined to do his best. It is quite a metamorphosis, and, hunkered down in the Balmoral hunting lodge, the duke must be secretly exulting at having got a little of his own back.

The father-in-law, in which role the duke offered his support to Princess Diana, occupies an odd position in our national life. The mother-in-law, of course, has been a staple of British comedy since the time of Chaucer, a figure of such importance to the collective psyche that if you took her out of society a whole strand of comic writing would cease to exist overnight. Her male vis-à-vis, on the other hand, has always been a more ambiguous proposition, if only because of the basic psychological given that dominant personalities tend not to work in pairs. Thus, the argument runs, in a family bossed by a termagant, male figures tend to be hen-pecked also-rans.

In fact, the father-in-law turns out to have his own niche in British comic culture. Victorian theatre, and the early cinema from which it was derived, featured a caricature known as the "heavy father" a beetle-browed and overweight bully who tyrannised his daughter's suitors, up-ended them in water butts and set mantraps in the rose bushes to forestall any thought of a late-night tryst. Victorian novels are full of variations on this theme: prudent papas coolly surveying their prospective sons-in-law, worrying over their dissipated habits and wondering where the money is to come from. At the heart of Trollope's The Prime Minister, for example, lies a violent clash of wills between old Mr Wharton, the close-fisted lawyer, and the scheming Ferdinand Lopez, whose name alone is enough to have Wharton quaking in his galoshes who carries off his daughter, goes spectacularly bankrupt and ends up throwing himself under a train.

A little of what might be called the Wharton Spirit survives into the mid-20th century: a kind of outraged amour propre capable of expressing itself not only in protectiveness towards the daughter ripe to be unwarily enticed, but in suspicion of the son thought to be making a fool of himself with an unprincipled charmer. "I regard it as a highly imprudent undertaking," Evelyn Waugh wrote of his eldest son Auberon's engagement in 1961, "but I have no authority to forbid it as I have no money to settle."

The Wharton Spirit even colonised a part of my own family life. My father's intermittently strained relations with his father-in-law were thought to date from a sports pavilion encounter in the 1940s, when, after my grandfather complained about the language, Dad was supposed to have demanded: "Who the fucking hell are you?" A decade and more later, asked for his daughter's hand in marriage, my grandfather uttered the immortal words: "I never quite envisaged you as a son-in-law." On another occasion, just back from a family holiday, my father heard the crunch of gravel in the drive. He opened the door to find my grandfather staring bleakly from the step. "Oh Christ!" my father remarked over his shoulder to those of us in the house. "We forgot to report."

No doubt these were the final stirrings of an all-but-extinct tradition. My own father-in-law, now dead, reconnoitred in the early days with anxiety, turned out to be an exceptionally nice man, offering advice when it was wanted and silence when it wasn't. In popular culture the "heavy father" has gone the way of the maiden aunt. It is an axiom that the frets and fractures of the royal family are merely reflections of the neuroses that affect all family life. Suddenly and quite unlike the government, with its prescriptive eye on the duties of parenting the House of Windsor stands revealed as a thoroughly progressive force.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Project Manager

Competitive: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsford a...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

IT Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Nigel Farage has urged supporters to buy Mike Read's Ukip Calypso song and push it up to the No 1 spot  

Mike Read’s Ukip calypso is mesmerisingly atrocious — but it's not racist

Matthew Norman
Shirley Shackleton, wife of late journalist Gregory Shackleton, sits next to the grave of the 'Balibo Five' in Jakarta, in 2010  

Letter from Asia: The battle for the truth behind five journalists’ deaths in Indonesia

Andrew Buncombe
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London