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

<i>IoS</i> writer salutes our unsung fathers-in-law including Prince Philip

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.