- Family Men: Fatherhood and Masculinity in Britain, 1914–1960 by Laura King
In this important and meticulously researched new study, Laura King demonstrates that fathers have been central to the experience and cultural construction of family life throughout the twentieth century—even when they have been physically absent during periods of war. By drawing on a wide range of primary material, including an impressive sample of c. 1800 newspaper and magazine articles, Mass Observation reports, wartime personal correspondence, and oral history interviews, King disrupts the somewhat linear idea that fathers have only recently been required to engage actively in family life (beyond the activities of procreation and breadwinning, as King notes archly). Instead, Family Men demonstrates that "father," as a role distinct from that of "husband"—encompassing emotional investment in a child's well-being, as well as practical and material contributions to their security, education, and career prospects—has a long history in Britain. King challenges the extent to which fathers, as opposed to mothers, have been modeled as "authoritarian" figures dispensing punishments or rewards. She examines how fatherhood intersected with prevailing ideals of [End Page 583] masculinity and explores the participation of fathers in playtimes, bedtimes, and in grieving for the loss of a child. In all, King offers a rich account of the myriad meanings of fatherhood since the First World War.
Family Men marks an original intervention into histories of masculinity and parenthood, both in regard to its engagement with recent histories of emotion and in the way it complicates existing chronologies in attitudes towards fathers across the century, displaying a laudable concern to identify continuities as well as changes in fatherly involvement in family life. Chapter four, on the effects of new psychological understandings of parent-child relationships after the First World War and the subsequent encouragement of fathers to articulate publicly their feelings for their children, uses oral history interviews to sensitively map the ways men reconciled these changing expectations with less performative ideals of "stoic" and undemonstrative masculinity. It juxtaposes fathers' beliefs that they had demonstrated their love, however subtly, and sometimes through absence due to hard work or serving their country, with their children's subsequent memories of feeling more or less "loved." Arguing that social, cultural, and economic conditions—as against fathers' willingness to participate—determined how involved fathers could be (such as the increased time they were able to spend with children due to changed legislation on working hours), King does an excellent job of historicizing both the period and those whose lives changed to accommodate it. As such, the book complements Julie-Marie Strange's Fatherhood and the British Working Class, 1865–1914 (Cambridge, 2015). Indeed, King points out that the oral history testimonies and published autobiographies on which Strange relies were produced from the 1930s, revealing that this was a moment when the debate over fathers' roles became a normative aspect of public discourse, rather than one that witnessed major changes in the roles themselves.
I have some very minor criticisms to offer of this book. Family Men is, as the preface details, based on the author's PhD thesis, and as is often the case with early works, Family Men strongly bears the hallmark of its earlier incarnation. The introduction and chapter two are especially dense, with a tendency to over-proliferate examples that serve to convince one thoroughly of the author's argument but leave one feeling the absence of sustained reference to personalities and stories, which would have made these chapters more engaging to read. For instance, the reader is left wondering about the dilemma of Ted Walker, whose acceptance into grammar school was to determine whether or not he fulfilled his father's expectations of him to exceed his own life experience but who was, by Ted's own account, anxious that grammar school would irrevocably distance him from his parents (36). It may of course be the case that the source material was not available to indicate whether Ted's fears were realized, but a little...