At the Back Fence Issue #254

February 12, 2007

From the Desk of Robin Uncapher:

Daddy Dearest

Think of the last really great dad you read about in a romance novel. No, not the hero himself, his father, or maybe the heroine’s father. Can’t think of any heroes or heroines who had great dads? I’m not surprised. When I started thinking about this subject the lack of positive examples of good dads shocked me. Where are all the great dads in romance novels? For the most part they are dead and the less that is known about them the better they look.

Here’s what I think of when I think of a father in a romance novel:

Historical fathers:

1) Authoritarian father. This guy forces his daughter into an arranged marriage as in Adele Ashworth’s My Darling Caroline or Michelle Martin’s The Mad Miss Mathley. Such a father usually sees his daughter’s life as a nuisance to be forced onto another man or as a way of increasing the family coffers.

2) Wastrel fathers. These fathers drink, gamble and throw away money so that their daughters are destitute and unmarriageable as in Carla Kelly’s The Lady’s Companion.

3) Dead fathers. A dead father is far and away the most common type of dad. While his daughter may be forced to marry for security, his sons needs to marry to save the family estate. When the hero is inheriting a title from an uncle, the dead father is considered by the author to be beneath mention.

4) Unnamed adulterous paramours. Ever notice how many heroes have no idea who their biological fathers are? For some strange reason the unnamed adulterous paramour dads always fathered sons! Who are these guys who never have daughters? No one knows. No one cares. Even the heroes do not care. All they care about is Mom’s lack of morals. They hate that they are rejected by the father they know, but the identity of their biological fathers interests them not at all. Often a hero’s legal father is an aristocrat who fathered only his eldest son. The younger male children of the family are generally known to have been fathered by the mother’s lovers. Sometimes a youngest daughter is born, and she is (wonder of wonders) the result of reconciliation between the parents! The identity of biological fathers is almost never considered interesting enough to be part of the story. Julia Quinn’s It’s in His Kiss begins with a younger son learning that he is not his father’s son. This kind of thing is so common that the reader usually guesses it before the hero does.

5) Slimy, disgusting fathers who slept with the hero’s first wife and trick the hero into marrying their mistresses. There are not a lot of these guys, thank goodness but you have to hand it to them, when it comes to creating a “tortured hero,” nothing beats them.

6) Pathetic, elderly, weak, poverty stricken scientist fathers who are incapable of protecting their daughters and need to be treated like children. I’ve only read a few of these but a few is a few too many. This kind of dad undoubtedly inspired Belle’s father in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. This Dad lives for his work and only occasionally worries about his saintly daughter’s future. Mother, naturally, is dead. (As if you didn’t know.) A 20th century version of this kind of father used to show up regularly in 1960s spy movies and TV shows. You found out about him when 007 or Napoleon Solo revealed that the beautiful blonde they’d been sleeping with was a spy and she blurted out “They have my father!” (Which made it okay that she was funneling secrets to a guy bent on destroying the world.)

7) Uninvolved fathers of heroines. This kind of dad was inspired by Mr. Bennet of Pride and Prejudice. He sits in his study and allows his wife to run the show, usually driving the heroine crazy.

Contemporary fathers

This is a far shorter list, perhaps because it is not terribly realistic for a contemporary father to try to force his daughter into marriage.

1) Completely absent. Contemporary fathers are usually just not there. To read most contemporary novels one would think that the average twenty-something had no relationship with his or her family. This is especially true of heroes, who seldom seem to have living fathers. If Dad is dead though he was usually terrible and is the source of horrific memories.

2) Aging and or ailing widowed fathers (Wilford Brimley types)—These guys almost always live in small Midwestern towns. The heroine, who is closing in on forty, leaves the city, often with an obnoxious teenager in tow. She’s returning home ostensibly to take care of her father but the real truth is that she’s down on her luck herself having recently been widowed or divorced. Her teenage child spends all his or her time listening to an iPod, talking on a cell phone, watching TV etc. These things are completely unknown in Romanceland small town America so Dad is appalled to see that his grandchild is addicted to them. Said grandchild has green hair, sulks and whines about missing McDonalds. Needless to say, Dad goes from ailing to teaching the kid to ride a horse—which gives the heroine time to hook up with her old boyfriend the local sheriff, Here is the weird thing about this particular Dad. Even though the heroine is 38, her father talks like a WWII vet who was married in the 1950s. How is this possible? Ah the magic of Romanceland

3) Rich, arrogant Republican fathers. Anybody remember Jock Ewing? These guys seem to be based JR’s infamous dad and they aren’t nearly as interesting nor as loving. The ones in the 80s books sometimes mention Ronald Reagan. When they live in Texas they have ranches and guns. They really like killing things. When they live in the city they head up companies and try to force their daughters to marry ambitious young men whom they believe may take over the business. Elizabeth Bevarly’s Our Man Pendleton took this kind of father to a pretty funny extreme and even I got a huge kick out of the hero checking out identical ambitious young men, clearly selected as appropriate husbands for the heroine.

How did we get to this point?

Are romance novels really so formulaic that no one can think of a better use of a heroine’s father than to be forcing her into marriage or leaving her destitute? It seems odd to me that dads get the short shift in romance novels.

When I think of my own dad I think he might have made for an interesting character in a book. My dad worried about me, thought about me and was enormously proud of anything I did. When it came to disagreements, we had some humdingers. I was on the “daughter plan.” Dad waited up and fumed if I was more than one minute late. (He went to bed at ten when my brothers went out.) He charmed my girlfriends no end, flattering them and joking with them. He glared at the boys who took me out, if he even slightly suspected one was out of line. Far from pushing me to marry, Dad would have been just fine had I decided to live close by and spend occasional Saturday nights with my parents.

Force me into marriage? Ah no. The challenge with Dad was getting him to say “hi” to my boyfriend without growling.

My father was a great dad, a really great dad. His father, my Grandpa Nixon, was also a great dad and from what Grandpa Nixon said, his father Robert Nixon was (and I quote) “a really great dad.” From what I understand though, Dad was not alone. The world is full of good dads.

So why are so few of them in books?

There are a few of course. Atticus Finch, Scout’s father in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird set the gold standard for dads everywhere. Similarly Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ The Yearling contains an unforgettable, caring father.

Pa, from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books is another all time favorite. You only have to read the first book, Little House in the Big Woods to get a sense of why Pa was such a force in all the books. The Little House books are purported to be the story of the Ingall’s family but, Pa steals the show. What makes Pa so great should give us a few hints as to why the fathers of hero’s and heroines in almost all romance books, fall short and why the introduction of a new kind of dad might freshen a few books.

If you have only seen the television show, Little House on the Prairie, you probably have only the vaguest understanding of what made Pa Ingalls such an amazing father. The Pa of the TV show, played by the handsome, clean shaven and television savvy Michael Landon, was a wise and generous man, a pioneer farmer, who loved his wife and gave excellent twentieth century style counsel to his growing girls. Television being what it is, Little House on the Prairie showed us a cleaned up American West where the danger of starving, freezing to death, being attacked by thieves or (justifiably) angry Indians could be easily wrapped up in a 50 minute episode.

The Pa of the books, who was based on LIW’s actually father, was a far more interesting person. Little House in the Big Woods chronicles the family’s preparations for winter in the Big Woods of Wisconsin. These preparations include drying fruit and vegetables, killing a pig and storing as much food as possible. To earn money and gather meat for the winter Pa hunts with a muzzle loading rifle. Bullets are expensive, so Pa makes them himself, melting the lead from used bullets and pouring them into a mold. Pa must be a perfect shot because one shot is all he gets with this gun. When the hunting is done Pa walks for days to town and risks his life returning home but despite the hardship Pa always returns home with a twinkle in his eye entertaining Laura and Mary with stories of bears and surviving in snow dugouts.

The books in the series tell happy and sad stories, but through them all Pa remains strong, cheerful and loving. The one exception may be in the book The Long Winter, where the family grows so cold and hungry that Pa can no longer play the fiddle. The loss of that music and Pa’s loss of spirit, more than anything else, seem to symbolize for Laura how dire the situation is.

I’ve spent so much time describing Pa, so you can think for a moment about how well the relationship between a father and daughter can be described in a book. There are other great father’s in literature. The father in Cheaper By the Dozen loved his children to distraction but also devoted great thought to their upbringing. He insisted that records containing German language lessons be played constantly. He had all the children memorize square roots. He protected the girls, and remained suspicious of boys who wanted to spend time with his daughters.

Though they are not as scarce as in romance novels great fathers are in short supply, even in classic literature. Huck Finn’s father drank and beat him so much that Huck had to fake his own death before he ran away with Jim, the slave. Elizabeth Bennet’s father found his wife’s behavior so annoying that he allowed her to raise his daughters, almost without interference. Shakespeare has a range of fathers but most are either dead, missing or determined to force their daughters into unwanted arranged marriages. Most of the biological fathers in Dicken’s books are dead, as are the fathers in the Brontes’ books.

Even the father’s in fairy tales don’t fair too well. Most are dead but who could forget Hansel and Gretel’s horrendous father, so weak he gave in to the demands of an evil stepmother that he abandon his children in the woods!

It seems to me that at least one reason for the lack of good fathers in romance novels is society’s belief that the role of a father is to successfully protect his children. To create a dramatic story writers take that protection away from their characters. If that is not done, a good father in a story has the tendency to dominate it, as do Atticus Finch and Pa.

Is there any other way to do this? Can a hero or heroine have a good father and still make an exciting story? Let us know what you think. Give us some scenarios that might freshen things up a bit.

 Robin Uncapher

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 (AAR uses BYRON for its romance reference needs)

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