In the last post I provided some background information about the life of my great grandfather, Charles Edward Robb, and suggested that this might help us to understand his ‘performance’ of fatherhood in his wartime letters to his son, Arthur Ernest Robb.
In this post I want to spell out some of the ways in which I think these biographical details might aid an analysis of the letters. I should say that my thinking here is extremely speculative, and I’m probably getting ahead of myself, since I’ve yet to carry out an in-depth analysis of most of the letters. But, as I’ve said all along, I want to use this series of blog posts as a first draft of my analysis, and I hope readers will accept my speculations in that spirit.
Two things stand out from what I know of my great grandfather’s life, in relation to his role as a father. The first is his repeated experience of loss. This is a man whose birth was accompanied by a death – that of his mother – and who was without a mother for the first three years of his life. After his father remarried when Charles was three, he was brought up by a stepmother who proceeded to have a large number of children of her own, who (we can assume) would always have been more truly her children than Charles could ever be.
Then there were the losses of his adult life. I would guess that the death in 1904 of his eldest son, also named Charles, in the course of military service, must have influenced the way that my great grandfather felt about Arthur, his youngest son, going off to war in 1916. The loss of young Charles was swiftly followed by the death of his daughter Marion and then by that of his wife, Louisa.
When Louisa died, my grandfather Arthur would have been seven years old. In other words, just like his father, he too lost a mother at a very young age. My great grandfather never remarried. At the time his wife died, his eldest surviving son Joseph was 25, David 24, Louisa 21, Thomas 18, Caroline 12, and Arthur 7. In other words, while it’s possible that Caroline (the ‘Carrie’ of the first letter) was almost old enough to go out to work and fend for herself, Arthur would have been completely dependent on his father – and perhaps, to some extent, on his older siblings – for physical and emotional sustenance.
What I’m suggesting, I suppose, is that Charles had, in some sense, to be both father and mother to his youngest son for much of the latter’s childhood. I don’t know the statistics for single fatherhood in the Edwardian period, but I assume it was fairly unusual (was it?). It’s something we associate with the changes in father’s roles, and in masculinities, in the last decades of the twentieth century – not with the early years of the century.
I wonder what kind of emotional repertoire was available to Charles in performing this role, and to what extent he saw his role – in these letters as well as elsewhere – as ‘mothering’ as well as ‘fathering’ Arthur? Recent years have seen something of a backlash against the emphasis, dominant in the 1990s, on ‘parenting’ as a gender-free activity. Psychoanalytic feminists like Wendy Hollway have called for a renewed emphasis on ‘mothering’ as a role and activity distinctive from that of ‘fathering’. This is not to say, though, that men might not be able to ‘mother’, under the right conditions and given changes in men’s and women’s gender conditioning and relationships. In fact ‘Do men mother?’ was the title of a study of fatherhood and domestic responsibility by Candian academic Andrea Doucet, with whom I recently had the pleasure of examining a PhD on fatherhood.
I’ll be exploring some of these questions further, with specific reference to my great grandfather’s letters, in the next post.