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Eighteenth-Century Life 26.2 (2002) 1-22

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From Nobodaddies to Noble Daddies:
Writing Political and Paternal Authority in English Fiction of the 1780s and 1790s

Frances A. Chiu

In Tiriel (1788), the eponymous character threatens his daughter, Hela: "Lead me to Har and Heva . . . or howl desolate in the mountains." In A Sicilian Romance (1790), the Marquis Mazzini commands his daughter, Julia to "accept the duke, or quit this castle for ever and wander where you will." By 1790, the wildly tyrannical father was clearly already a new fixation for William Blake and Ann Radcliffe alike. Indeed, in eight short years, after a stream of similar fathers had appeared in the pages of Robert Bage, Eliza Fenwick, Eliza Parsons, Charlotte Smith, and others, this trope had become well entrenched enough for Jane Austen to open Northanger Abbey (1818), her parody of the Gothic novel, with the observation that the heroine's father, Richard Morland, "was not in the least addicted to locking up his daughter." 1 How and why did the trope of the paternal despot spread so suddenly in the 1780s and '90s in Gothic and Jacobin fiction alike, two subgenres that have long been mistakenly consigned to opposite sides of the political spectrum? Why were these fathers so indistinguishable? How did they become even more demonized than say, a Squire Western, punishing their children with blights, curses, exile, fogs, imprisonment, and even death?

Despite the otherwise astute and informed endeavors of recent scholars to explicate the flourishing of the "evil father" trope in Gothic fiction, [End Page 1] we remain at a loss to understand the sudden revival and popularity of this trope in this period, particularly the remarkable confluence of images and characterizations with similar motivations, actions, and gestures recounted in plot after plot, whether primary or subsidiary. While much valuable insight has been shed on the psychological foundations of the appeal of the despotic father, few critics have substantiated their claims with great historical particularity. Even Kate Ferguson Ellis' otherwise perceptive observations on the impact of the Hardwicke Act and the ensuing parliamentary debates in the 1750s remain insufficient in her failure to account for the sudden proliferation of this trope or the changing delineation of the father nearly three decades after these debates.

This essay will demonstrate to a far greater degree than earlier scholarship has the extent to which the representation of the tyrannical father in Gothic and Jacobin fiction relied upon conceptualizations of political and paternal authority emerging from contemporary opposition and reformist discourse. The first section will examine how political writers revived the debate over political/paternal authority before showing how it subsequently helped challenge conduct-book notions of domestic paternal authority. In turn, the second section will illustrate how the increasingly stereotyped representation of fathers in works by William Blake, Eliza Fenwick, Ann Radcliffe, and others can be read as a product—and to some degree, as agent—of the debate on political authority. As such, we can also ultimately begin to acknowledge the Gothic and Jacobin fiction as politically congenial subgenres.

"I hear the Father of Ancient Men":
Political Patriarchy and Domestic Politics

In order to understand why the trope of the tyrannical father flourished as it did in the 1780s and '90s, we need to examine the interplay of burgeoning ideas on authority and the ways in which paternal metaphors were invoked and applied from the 1760s. This section will trace the uses of this metaphor in legal discourse as well as in opposition writing before demonstrating how both simultaneously helped revise notions of domestic paternal power.

In their arguments for reform, legal and constitutional reformers had already begun not only to deploy the paternal metaphor in a pejorative fashion [End Page 2] but also to challenge the value of tradition as they questioned the retention of apparently anachronistic laws. Lord Kames, for instance, derided the continuing practice of primogeniture and entailment for their apparently counterproductive tendencies; the former betrayed evidence of "superficial reasonings," 2 while the latter...


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