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Creating a New Literary Ancestry: On Writers & Their Dads

Creating a New Literary Ancestry: On Writers & Their Dads

  • An exploration of female writers of the past and their role in creating a new literary ancestry.

In her 1938 essay, “The Three Guineas,” Virginia Woolf christened herself, along with her literary predecessors, as “the daughters of educated men.” Though she referenced only three fathers by name, the paternal influence she described can indeed be applied to a remarkable number of female writers from ages past. For varying reasons, Fanny Burney, Maria Edgeworth, Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the Brontë sisters, George Eliot, Emily Dickinson, Louisa May Alcott, and Virginia Woolf all looked to their fathers as the more dominant and formative parent. Smart and well-resourced, these fathers introduced their daughters to the wonders of language, buying them their first sets of “books, pens, and paper.” But to Woolf, the obedience they required in return was too often toxic and oppressive: “Whatever biography we open we find almost always the familiar symptoms—the father is opposed to his daughter’s marriage; the father is opposed to his daughter’s earning her living.”   

Following Woolf’s lead, many studies of women writers have underscored the role of this so-called “tyrant father.” Yet doing so runs the risk of oversimplifying the influence such fathers had, while boxing the writers themselves inside a narrow and paternalistic construct. This Women’s History Month, we must not remember women writers as obsequious daddy’s girls or as passive victims, who were stripped of agency and incapable of subversion. Certainly, the truth of who these writers were—and the truth behind what they wrote—is a lot more complicated. 

With the exceptions of Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf, most female writers born before 1900 received little to no formal education. Instead, their learning hinged on the time they spent with their fathers. These were the “educated men” who discussed the issues of the day and invited interesting guests to the house; they were also the ones who enabled their daughters’ intellectual curiosity. Growing up, Mary Shelley, Jane Austen, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and the Brontë sisters all enjoyed free and uncensored access to their fathers’ libraries, as did Virginia Woolf. “I remember his pleasure, how he stopped writing and got up and was very gentle and pleased, when I came into [his] study,” Woolf wrote of her father, Leslie Stephen, years after his death. “‘Read what you like,’ he said, and all his books…were to be had without asking.”

Beyond providing this access, many fathers took part in actively supporting their daughters’ craft. Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s father, Edward Browning, paid for the publication of her early poems, while Emily Dickinson’s father, also named Edward, excused her from household chores so she could devote more time to her poetry. As a writer (and a father to an only child), Mary Shelley’s father, William Godwin, was even more involved in his daughter’s writing, even going as far as to identify her as his literary heir: “Her desire of knowledge is great, and her perseverance in everything she undertakes [is] almost invincible,” he wrote when Mary was fifteen. A century later, Leslie Stephen, also a prominent author and editor, would harbor similar hopes for Virginia Woolf. Recognizing his daughter’s exceptional talent, he would tutor her in history, biography, and literature, fundamentally molding her voice (while lodging his own voice inside her head). 

Seen as God’s earthly surrogates, eighteenth and nineteenth century fathers embodied both male and divine authority, commanding automatic obedience and respect. As scholars tell us, they also represented a crucial alternative to the lives of their house-bound (and typically uneducated) mothers. Seeking an identity outside of the home, women writers thus put enormous stock in their fathers’ opinion, so much so that we can view their quest for fatherly approval as a critical gateway—and indeed a seminal jumpstart—to their literary life. “It was to please my father [that] I first exerted myself to write…[and] to please him I continued,” wrote Maria Edgeworth in 1813. “[My father] gave his little amused surprised snort, when he found me reading some book that no child of my age could understand,” echoed Virginia Woolf in 1939. “I was a snob no doubt, and read partly to make him think me a very clever little brat.”

Nevertheless, as women writers crossed the bridge from adolescence to womanhood, the relationship between father and daughter began to change. Apart from Jane Austen’s father George, who always indulged Austen’s writing (and actually submitted an early edition of Pride and Prejudice to a publisher on her behalf), most fathers endeavored to control, censure, or quell their adult daughters’ work. Viewing female writers as transgressive and even “monstrous,” to quote Nathanial Hawthorne, some feared that their daughters would compromise their femininity by entering the literary marketplace. While he bought her “many books,” for example, Emily Dickinson’s father begged her not to read them for fear that they would “joggle the Mind.” Across the pond, Patrick Brontë likewise urged his daughters to relish in “all the duties a woman ought to fulfill.” “Sometimes when I’m teaching or sewing I would rather be reading or writing,” reflected Charlotte Brontë in 1837, “but I try to deny myself, and my father’s approbation amply reward[s] me.” 

As scholars have noted, this interference was as much about preserving the beau ideal of “true womanhood” as it was about retaining patriarchal control. The fathers of women writers worried that their daughters’ success would loosen the shackles of the “separate spheres,” threatening their position as the all-powerful—and the more intelligent—paterfamilias. Louisa May Alcott’s father, Bronson, regarded his daughter as an animal to be caged: “She is still the undisciplined subject of her instincts, pursuing her purpose, by any means that will lead her to their attainment,” he wrote. With perhaps less of an imperious hand, Patrick Brontë similarly infantilized his daughters, treating them as babies to be nursed and molded, even after they had reached middle age. “He never seemed quite to have lost the feeling that Charlotte was a child to be guided and ruled,” wrote Charlotte Brontë’s biographer, Elizabeth Gaskell, in 1853 – at which point Charlotte was thirty-seven years old. 

Like a dark and hovering cloud, this paternal control was almost always present, even when fathers supported their daughters’ work. After the success of her debut novel, Evelina (1778), Fanny Burney surrendered control to her father, who pushed her to write books she didn’t want to and insisted on negotiating her contracts (at times to her detriment). And while Leslie Stephen provided Virginia Woolf all the technical tools and trappings of a writer’s life, his desire for control also made it more difficult for her to bring this life to fruition—particularly when peppered with his “savage” rage and “exacting” demands. 

Trapped in this patriarchal vortex, women writers responded in varying ways. A few, like George Eliot and Virginia Woolf, significantly outlived their fathers, enabling them to live and write in the way they wanted. In 1857, George Eliot wrote about her fortune: “Few women, I fear, have had such reason as I have to think the long sad years of youth were worth living for the sake of middle age.” In 1928, Woolf reiterated Eliot’s prayer of thanks, making a direct link between her father’s death and her career: “His life would have entirely ended mine. What would have happened? No writing, no books; – inconceivable.” 

Of course, for sensitive souls like Eliot and Woolf, the liberation that accompanied their fathers’ deaths was something of a mixed blessing. George Eliot simultaneously begrudged and adored her father, calling her love for him “the one deep strong love I have ever known” when he died in 1849. Similarly, Woolf felt “full of love” for her father, even as he verbally and emotionally abused her. For the rest of her life, the figure of the “alternately loved and hated father”—the concurrently “violent,” “demonstrative,” “self-centered,” “self-pitying,” and “appealing” ghost—would haunt her wherever she went. 

Women writers who did not significantly outlive their fathers had perhaps a tougher time in having to negotiate such contradictory feelings while their fathers were still alive. Some, like Emily Dickinson, resigned themselves to a clandestine life, hiding their “scribbles” away in bundles and chests. But surely, not everyone’s story was as tragic. Sensitive of the male ego, some resorted to blandishment—for example, the novelist Jean Ingelow spent her first earnings on having her father’s portrait painted—while others, like the Brontë sisters, published under the cloak of a male pseudonym, divulging the truth to their father only when it was absolutely necessary. In marrying without their fathers’ consent, Mary Shelley and Elizabeth Barrett Browning exhibited perhaps the most radical defiance of patriarchal authority, though they too would remain chained to their fathers’ influence. Even after her father had disinherited her, Elizabeth Barrett Browning would never stop yearning for  reconciliation: “I love him very deeply,” she wrote to a friend four years after her marriage to Robert Browning. “When I write to him, I lay myself at his feet.” 

It is hard to discern whether Barrett Browning’s unending devotion to her father—a devotion that was felt and shown by many women writers—was the result of patriarchal oppression or another force. It is possible, as some scholars have suggested, that women writers’ devotion to their fathers gave them a sense of ownership over the devotion they wrote about in their books (for example, when Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre stays with Mr. Rochester after he loses his eyesight). Yet it could have also stemmed from the emancipatory affinity they felt toward their fathers as children. “Without my father,” wrote Maria Edgeworth in 1805, “I should sink into that nothing from which he has raised me.” Ringing with gratitude and empowerment, Edgeworth’s words bely the oft-cited caricature of the female writer who has been tricked into childlike submission. Rather, they suggest the existence of a separate force that acted in tandem with—or, perhaps, completely transcendent of —fatherly control.  

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Women writers’ pursuit of their fathers’ love and approval was deeply problematic, though it unquestionably made them the people (and the creators) that they were. For one, it gave many of them a tremendous work ethic. Inheriting her father’s “grand anxiety of doing [the] work worthily,” George Eliot likened her writing to “fasting and scourging oneself” while Louisa May Alcott—having internalized her father’s Transcendentalism—viewed her work as a ceaseless quest for perfection. Being that she outlived her father by only two days, it is impossible to know what Alcott would have written or become had she had more time. In the case of George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, and even Jane Austen, the death of the father engendered the birth of the writer. Yet in the case of Mary Shelley, the death of the father precipitated the death of the writer, suggesting that Shelley required the reward of her father’s attention—or perhaps that she had already written what she needed to write.   

In examining the work of Mary Shelley and others, we can understand the fathers of women writers as not only the spark that kept their daughters’ “hungry ambition” aflame, but also the inspiration behind the stories they wrote. In Frankenstein (1818), Mary Shelley reimagined the father-daughter relationship as that between a monster and his creator, whom the latter—not unlike William Godwin—spawns, nurtures, yet ultimately rejects. Throughout her career, Shelley would continually revisit this theme of daughterly triumph, as would many of her successors. In Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s epic poem Aurora Leigh (1856), for example, the protagonist Aurora finds success as a poet, having confronted her own self-loathing: “I, too, have my vocation, – work to do, / The heavens and earth have set me,” she tells her suitor Romney. In even more subversive ways, Louisa May Alcott also exercised resistance through her novels, casting every Bronson-like figure as cartoonish, peripheral, or entirely absent. 

With the gift of time (a gift that Alcott did not have), George Eliot and Virginia Woolf were able to parse out the nuance and complexity of their fathers’ influence. The titular protagonist in Eliot’s Adam Bede (1859) is a tribute to her father, embodying his characteristic work ethic and sense of honor. In writing the character of Mr. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse (1927), Virginia Woolf likewise paid tribute to her father—an exercise that she said helped her lay his ghost to rest. “Now he comes back sometimes,” she wrote after the novel’s publication, “but differently.” 

In her book, Literary Daughters, Maggie Lane tells us that during the Georgian, Victorian, and early Edwardian eras “the position of daughters, above a certain economic level, changed hardly at all.” “They were consistently undereducated,” she writes, “[and] expected to be obedient and submissive, to occupy themselves with trivia, to look to marriage as their only escape and to marry only with their fathers’ consent.”

But as far as women writers go, one crucial thing did change. In a world governed by men, the earlier generations of women writers had no Fanny Burney, Jane Austen, or Mary Shelley to look up to. Though filled with love and reverence for their literary forefathers, they had no mothers from whom they could learn or inherit.

Yet as time went on, women writers were able to locate a new ancestry, affirming the legitimacy of their work as well as the possibility of rebellion. In complicated and often contradictory ways, their fathers would always be there, as they are today. But they—our mothers and our grandmothers—would be there too.

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