‘A Very Sensible Man’: Imagining Fatherhood in England c.1750–1830


  • The title quotation describes a deceased father, The Lady's Magazine[hereafter LM], April, 1775, p. 211. I am very grateful for the invaluable funding for this research provided by a Leverhulme Research Fellowship, a British Academy Small Research Grant, an Institute of Historical Research Scouloudi Historical Award, and for substantial institutional support from Oxford Brookes University. I owe numerous debts to those who have read versions of this essay, some going beyond the call of friendship to read several versions: Christopher Brooks, Anthony Fletcher, Alysa Levene, Anne-Marie Kilday, Angela McShane, Jessica Meyer, Sarah Pearsall, Andrew Spicer, and the two anonymous reviewers for History. Thanks also to all those who have offered stimulating questions and comments to seminar and conference presentations of this article.


Fathers are at once everywhere and nowhere in the historiography of eighteenth-century England. They interact with children in family history, bear authority in histories of women, gender and marriage, use the role to demonstrate virility, and the capacity for household mastery and citizenship in the history of masculinity, and are metaphors in political culture. Yet there is little sustained work on what constituted the key attributes of fatherhood before 1830. This article shows that the ideal father in the period c.1750 to 1830 was tenderly affectionate, sensitized and moved by babies; he provided hugs, material support and a protective guiding hand. Engrossed in his offspring to the exclusion of much else apart from his wife and national duties, he offered his children a moral example and instruction and possessed a deep understanding of his children's personalities. The genesis of this imagined fatherhood lay in fundamental eighteenth-century concerns about social, class, gender and familial relationships, and national strength. His form and the language used to describe him owed much to the combined forces of the culture of sensibility and of general Christian ideals antedating Evangelical revival.