Next week, all being well, I’ll be in Ann Arbor, Michigan, for the annual conference of the American Men’s Studies Association. The title of the paper that I’ll be presenting is ‘”With prayer from your loving father”: faith, fatherhood and masculinity in one man’s letters to his son during World War One.’ The paper shares the results of my analysis of letters written by my great grandfather, Charles Edward Robb, to his son, my grandfather Arthur Ernest Robb, in early 1916, when the latter was a Private in the Royal Fusiliers, awaiting embarkation to the Western Front in France. I’ve written about these letters in earlier posts on this blog (start here and work forward), and I spoke about them at a seminar on fatherhood organised by the Open University’s Centre for Citizenship Identities and Governance a few years ago.
Coincidentally, one of the other presentations at next week’s conference is also about First World War writing, though of a rather different kind. Lowell T Frye will be speaking about the treatment of masculinities, war, and trauma, in Pat Barker’s novel Regeneration. As preparation for attending the session, I’ve been reading the novel, something I’ve meant to do for a while. The action takes place in Craiglockhart Hospital near Edinburgh, where shell-shocked soldiers were sent for treatment. Among the central characters are psychiatrist William Rivers and two of his more famous patients, the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen.
I’m about halfway through the novel at the moment, and I’ve just reached a passage which I suspect will find its way into the presentation at next week’s conference. Rivers is reflecting on a patient saying that he sees him not as a father figure but as ‘a sort of…male mother’:
He disliked the term ‘male mother’. He thought he could remember disliking it even at the time. He distrusted the implication that nurturing, even when done by a man, remains female, as if the ability were in some way borrowed, or even stolen, from women – a sort of moral equivalent of the couvade. If that were true, then there was really very little hope.
(F)athering, like mothering, takes many forms beyond the biological. Rivers had often been touched by the way in which young men, some of them not yet twenty, spoke about feeling like fathers to their men.
One of the paradoxes of the war – one of the many – as that this most brutal of conflicts should set up a relationship between officers and men that was…domestic. Caring.
The war that had promised so much in the way of ‘manly’ activity had actually delivered ‘feminine’ passivity, and on a scale that their mothers and sisters had scarcely known. No wonder they broke down.
These extracts provide an interesting link with the topic of my own paper. In analysing my great grandfather’s letters, I’ve been struck by the way in which his Methodist Christian faith provides him with two distinctive registers for his practice as a father, and his identity as a man. One, clearly drawing on the puritan earnestness of nonconformist Christianity, is a register of moral exhortation, emphasising effort, courage and persistence in the face of temptation – traditionally ‘manly’ virtues. But the other register is drawn more specifically from Methodism. The historian of masculinity, John Tosh, has written about the ways in which Methodism provided a language that allowed Victorian men to be emotionally expressive, with its emphasis on the love of God, a personal relationship with Christ, and an almost feminine image of Jesus.
However, it’s difficult to disentangle the influences on Charles’ performance of fatherhood and masculinity in these letters. How much can be attributed to his religious faith and how much to his personal biography? For example, I know that my great grandmother had died eleven years before these letters were written, leaving Charles to bring up their children (including Arthur, who was only seven years old at the time) on his own. To what extent was my great grandfather a ‘mother’ as well as a ‘father’ to my grandfather, and how might this be reflected in what he writes in these letters?
Then again, what does it mean to say that a man is ‘mothering’ his children? In what way is a man’s parenting different from that of a woman, if at all? Is William Rivers, as characterised in the novel, right to protest at the way that ‘nurturing’ is seen exclusively as a female virtue, and that men who nurture (whether children or other men) are simply ‘borrowing’ female characteristics? To quote the title of Canadian sociologist Andrea Doucet’s book about fatherhood: do men ‘mother’?
These are questions that continue to intrigue me as a researcher working on issues of gender and caring. In what sense is the care that fathers offer to children different from that provided by mothers? And is it possible to talk about these differences (if they exist) without falling back on stereotypes about men being responsible for setting boundaries and women as providers of emotional support? These questions have become particularly pertinent in the past few decades, as men have been urged to take a greater role in the day-to-day care of children, both in the home and professionally. For those who believe that gender is simply a social construct, the apparent ‘differences’ between men’s and women’s caring are simply the result of cultural conditioning and will disappear as relationships between the genders become more equal. For others, such as the psychologist Wendy Hollway, there is something irreducibly different about women’s ‘capacity to care’ (to quote the title of one of her books), because of the bonding that takes place between a mother and child before, during and after birth.
As for the claim, voiced in the last paragraph from Regeneration quoted above, that the trauma of the First World War somehow ‘unmanned’ men, and even changed the nature of masculinity, that’s a question beyond the scope of this blog post. Certainly, it could be argued that the straitjacketed, stiff-upper-lip masculinity of Victorian and Edwardian England expired on the killing fields of northern France. But the evidence in his letters of my own great grandfather’s masculinity – on the one hand patriotic and nationalistic but also anxious about the corrupting influence of the army on his son, morally earnest but at the same time loving and warmly emotional – suggest that ‘traditional’ masculinities may have been more complicated than we sometimes think.
*My title is a nod to Paul Fussell’s classic book The Great War and Modern Memory.