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

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

Share
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

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Research Manager - Quantitative/Qualitative

£32000 - £42000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Piper Ryan Randall leads a pro-Scottish independence rally in the suburbs of Edinburgh  

i Editor's Letter: Britain survives, but change is afoot

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Some believe that David Cameron is to blame for allowing Alex Salmond a referendum  

Scottish referendum: So how about the English now being given a chance to split from England?

Mark Steel
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam