I’ve always heard that a father’s relationship with his daughter is vital to her self-esteem and confidence. Dr. JoAnn Deak, PhD, who has researched the father-daughter relationship, notes that “A few words from a father can have the same impact as 1,000 words from a mother . . . there is clear evidence that in general fathers have more of an impact on a daughter´s self-esteem than mothers do. There are always exceptions but that pattern is incredible.”
I think this pattern holds true in Jane Austen’s writing as well. When the father shows confidence in his daughter, she has greater self-confidence. When a father overlooks or ignores his daughter, she struggles to gain confidence in herself. It’s a bit of a judgment call when it comes to assessing a character’s self-confidence, so I’m sure others will have different opinions when it comes to some of the characters. For my purposes, I’m going to assume that decisiveness, ease in social settings, and the ability to speak for herself are two characteristics that reflect self-confidence.
It’s not hard to prove that Mr. Bennet has great confidence in his daughter Elizabeth. He never worried about Elizabeth’s marriage prospects, he supported her decision to reject Mr. Collins, and he valued her opinions in general. We love him for that, and I think that most will agree that Elizabeth is very self-confident.
Mr. Woodhouse is another father who showed a lot of trust and confidence in his daughter. In fact, he let Emma pretty much rule the roost. As a result, no one can argue that Emma isn’t confident. Rather, I think Jane Austen hints that a few words of correction from her father could have saved her from her over-confidence.
Another proud and confident father is Mr. Moreland in Northanger Abbey. He allows Catherine a lot of freedom for her age and seems proud that she’s grown up to be so pretty and talented. Catherine takes a bit of a hit at first in the book for being a little too overconfident but after she returns home in a humiliating fashion, her self-esteem remains intact. Her parents’ support allows her to bounce back from her trials.
I am going to skip over Elinor and Marianne Dashwood because their father is deceased during much of the book, and we don’t see a lot of interactions between him and the girls, but I lean toward placing them in the category of daughters with confident fathers.
As for Anne Elliot, I think it’s easy to say that her father has shown very little confidence in her. He favors her older sister Elizabeth and seems critical of Anne’s appearance as well as her ideas. Though she is developing self-confidence throughout the story, she shows a definite lack of self-esteem at the beginning. In the past, she hadn’t trusted herself to decide on an engagement to Captain Wentworth. Now, full of regret for her bad decision, she is shy in social settings, preferring to play the piano or tend her nephew. I think it’s easy to say that there’s a definite link between the confidence her father shows in her and the confidence she has in herself. Part of her growth as a character involves overcoming her father’s influence.
Now for the tricky one—Fanny Price. Fanny’s birth father, Mr. Price, certainly isn’t a good father to her although he does show confidence in her abilities. Sir Thomas Bertram, her adopted father, is a much better father figure in theory. He supports her financially and physically, but he doesn’t support her emotionally. He only shows confidence in Fanny when she refuses to participate in the play and when Henry Crawford pays attention to her. As a result, Fanny is not self-confident. She tortures herself over her actions and opinions. She also has extreme difficulty deciding to reject Henry’s proposal.
It seems to me that Jane Austen felt the father-daughter relationship definitely affected a daughter’s self-image, but I realize that many of you may have differing opinions on this subject. I’d love to hear what you think in the comments.