Unstable Fathers: Paternal Infanticide and Victorian Sensation Fiction.

In an 1865 edition of All the Year Round, Charles Dickens shared his comments on the changing face of Victorian fatherhood:

The British father has undergone a great metamorphosis of late years. He has relaxed his old severity of aspect, and become more human […]. Love and sympathy and intelligent communion have taken the place of a cold and senseless severity.

Present day critics agree that the Victorian period saw a multitude of loving, active fathers. Prince Albert, for example, especially helped with this image, and in the literature of the mid-Victorian period, when Dickens wrote the above extract, there are numerous examples of paternal ‘goodness’ (see Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters and Collins’ No Name). Although the Victorian fatherly ideal has been discussed extensively in the history of gender-based scholarship, what has also been made clear by critics (Nelson, Tosh, Sanders, Shepherd etc) is that this ideal was problematised. In a past research project (which is finally seeing the light of day through an article/conference papers) I discovered four Victorian sensation novels, written in the 1870s/early 80’s, that broke away from Dickens’ loving image, and presented fatherhood so ‘cold and senseless’ it eventually turned murderous.

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*PLOT SPOILERS*

Bessie Gordon’s Story – Maggie Symington (1874) (I know all you VPFA people love this.)

Nell takes a wager provoked by his friend to marry a young, foreign dancer, Bessie, the daughter of a ‘drunken coal heaver’. He himself is an alcoholic who brings club culture [a new form of manly culture where you basically went to an all-male club to drink, smoke, gamble etc] into the domestic sphere, making his and Bessie’s home a headquarters for his drinking club, of which he is captain. He is described as a disgrace to his wife, who he detests, and his parents, who disinherit him. On the birth of their first child, confusingly a boy called baby Nell, his parents decree that the inheritance should be left to the child. Nell senior, outraged at this and constantly warped with alcohol, forms no relationship with his child, instead using him as a pawn in his and his wife’s abusive dynamic. Although unclear whether he sets out to kill his baby, he repeatedly exposes his son to alcohol, in one instance attempting to feed him port. Eventually, this exposure leads to death, Nell killing him with brandy. The remainder of the novel focusses on how Bessie escapes from her marriage, and how Nell eventually dies having lost everything.

Married for Money – Samuel Tinsley (1875)

A gothic story about an old gentleman, Sir William Chester, who marries and has a child with a young girl called Nina. As the novel progresses, Sir William degenerates into a murderous, villainous madman. Plagued by obsession (monomania), Sir William believes he has inherited his mother’s insanity, killing his newborn child under demonic instruction. He leaves a note, explaining that Jacques, his demon alter-ego, has persuaded him to elope to France and that Nina will never hear from him again. A letter arrives from an unknown source saying that Chester has died and Nina prepares to marry again. Out of the blue, when visiting her baby’s grave, Chester once again appears *surprise!* in a fairly comical ‘boo’ like fashion from behind a gravestone. Nina is frightened into a state of shock and dies soon after.

George Canterbury’s Will – Mrs Henry Wood (1870)

Major Barnaby Dawkes is a notorious spendthrift who relies on his Aunt for money. When she refuses to indulge his profligate lifestyle he realises he must marry. His good looks and superficial repute soon land him the attentions of Mrs Canterbury, a rich widow. After their marriage, he soon realises that all her fortune is entrusted to the son of her previous marriage, Thomas. Having kept his debts hidden from his wife, Dawkes soon realises that when Thomas comes of age, he will once again be penniless, leaving them both destitute. One night, when Thomas is sleeping, Dawkes poisons and kills him. His wife soon works out her new husband’s hideous deed and spends the rest of her short life making sure that he can’t inherit her fortune. (After Dawkes imprisons her in their home, she sneaks lawyers and witnesses up back staircases in an attempt to alter her will.)

All But: A Chronicle of Laxenford Life – Pen Oliver (1886)

In a similar plot to George Canterbury’s Will, the poor aristocrat Arthur Wynstanley marries the rich widow, Mrs Hope-Kennedy, in the hope of living a comfortable, financially fulfilled life. Their fortune, however, is entrusted to his step-son, Walter, who is soon coming of age. After Walter suffers a riding accident, his welfare and recovery is assigned to Wynstanley who slowly poisons him by overdosing his medication. He is eventually discovered administering extra opium by a doctor who keeps his secret quiet because of a ‘bond of manliness’. Wynstanley is plagued with the guilt of his actions, eventually dying.

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Now, what do all these novels have in common? 

I’m not going to bombard this post with all the various theories I have about individual sub-sections, but I will attempt to give an overarching view on what I think these novels mean. What is certain, is that these novels are not a reflection of real life events. Although paternal infanticide did exist within the Victorian period, it was rare and most cases that were reported involved working class fathers. Instead I believe that these novels reflect an anxiety surrounding the late-Victorian re-shaping of masculinity, a period that saw the rise of club culture, empire and women’s rights. Although men always had a public role, the late-Victorian period saw men having to be predominantly public, the home becoming increasingly unfashionable (John Tosh calls this period ‘the flight of male domesticity’). Although my ideas are much more formed than this, I interpret Bessie Gordon’s Story to be a temperance reaction to club culture – the death of an innocent baby reflecting the damaging effects of alcohol and other similar vices upon the home. I interpret Married for Money to symbolise the rise of empire, the anxiety surrounding masculine weakness and illness embodied in the ‘mad’ lineage of Chester, who kills his child amidst the British demand for powerful, able-bodied men. Lastly, George Canterbury’s Will and All But: A Chronicle of Laxenford Life represent the fear of domestic emasculation in the wake of the recent ‘Married Women’s Property Acts’.

So I’ve just briefly flown that past you with little explanation, but keep your eyes peeled, they’ll be more on these novels from me in the near future. if, in the mean time, you are interested in further discussion about any of the issues I’ve proposed here, please feel free to email me: erbutcher@gmail.com.

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