Alain de Botton

Dismal Bumpkins

Fathers and Daughters


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IN HER ACCOUNT of a cross-section of British women and their fathers, Sue Sharpe has eschewed polarised views of fatherhood. Psychodetectives will hunt in vain for mention of envied phalluses, there are no molesters or Pere Goriots here, the attention is firmly on the dad and his daughter journeying aboard the Clapham omnibus.

The book, assembled out of a string of interviews and correspondence, has the charm and chatty feel of a dinner party conversation. There is little input from the author, who (with the self-effacement of a good host) seems happy to arrange anecdotes according to themes, the chapters moving from issues such as ‘Approval and Achievement’ to ‘Other Men in Her Life’ and ‘Ageing: The Roles Reverse’. In the manner of a novel, we are introduced to characters: there is David, the journalist, and his daughter Fiona, there is Lesley, offspring of a Tory but now a radical lesbian, and over-protective Jewish Raymond and his daughter, who, after a second marriage, realises that Dad wanted the best for her after all.

Pride of place is given to analysing fathers’ roles as providers of emotional support for their daughters. As is the case in most of the literature on male-female relationships, the verdict is largely a dismal one. Fathers are shown to be emotionally constipated, the occasional compliment offset by stretches of silent disapproval or excessive demands. The result is daughters who seek their whole lives for a validation they never received in childhood, their fathers assuming the role of inner mental critics. Sharpe dwells on the central irony that however warm mothers may be in contrast to fathers, it is typically the father whom the daughter ends up respecting most, the one whose approval (though so difficult to obtain) goes on being valued in adult life. Readers of Robin Norwood’s classic Women Who Love Too Much will recognise the dilemma.

Sharpe leads her argument over a host of mouthwatering topics: does one choose a partner who is like one’s father? How do fathers deal with their daughters’ sexuality? What is the effect on a woman of an absent father? But for all the fascination of the questions, readers with a taste for the psychological are left somewhat disappointed by a coyness, a lack of analytical rigour. There seem too many moments when Sharpe takes up an idea only to drop it with a damp generalisation. The work of Victoria Secunda is briefly taken up only to be witheringly abandoned four lines later because ‘The testimonies and evidence are thought-provoking but there are inevitable problems in trying to define such distinct pathways. People are not so simply determined.’ Perhaps, but should one not at least have a go?

If the book does not function well as a work of psychology, then it  works superbly as a contribution to sociology. It reveals the tremendous generational changes in attitudes to fatherhood, how the postwar education system has enabled a number of bright women to exceed the achievements, intellectual and financial, of their fathers, to the point where roles have been reversed and (in the words of one woman) dads have often come to seem like ‘country bumpkins’.

For all the gripes about men’s emotional closedness, the book is encouraging about the recent successes of single males in raising their daughters. They seem the exemplars of the ‘new men’, adept at introducing teenagers to the mysteries of the pill and periods and remaining blessedly free of ingrained prejudices . Whereas the fathers of old inflicted the deepest emotional damage, the evidence emerging is that certain fathers may perform their task as well (if not better) than many mothers.

Nevertheless, sexuality remains an eternal thorn in the side of the father-daughter relationship, the idea being that a man will always have a hard time accepting that his daughter is both a sexual person, and a sexual person who has decided that  she would rather sleep with someone other than him.

In a candid moment, one father crisply evokes the knotted sexual politics involved:

I think the truth is, to a father no man is right for his daughter. On the other hand, any man that she wants is right, so it’s quite a strain … Suddenly this man appears, and you look at him, and just his face can give you a sort of pain … You think “How can you?” – are you going to wake up every morning looking at that nose, and his eyes, his eyebrows, and that awful way of clearing his throat! … You see your daughter looking at him like that and you think, in her eyes here’s this marvellous creature. She must be mad! But she’s in love …

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