"My Father (he continued) is a mean and mercenary wretch -- it is only to such particular freinds as this Dear Party that I would thus betray his failings... My Father, seduced by the false glare of Fortune and the Deluding Pomp of Title, insisted on my giving my hand to Lady Dorothea. 'No, never,'' exclaimed I. 'Lady Dorothea is lovely and Engaging; I prefer no woman to her; but know, Sir, that I scorn to marry her in compliance with your Wishes. No! Never shall it be said that I obliged my Father.'" We all admired the noble Manliness of his reply. -- Love and Freindship, Jane Austen juvenilia
Elizabeth Bennet is too intelligent to be “blind to the impropriety of her father’s behaviour as a husband. She had always seen it with pain; but respecting his abilities, and grateful for his affectionate treatment of herself, she endeavoured to forget what she could not overlook, and to banish [his shortcomings] from her thoughts.”
However Austen's heroines might feel about their imperfect fathers, they keep their thoughts to themselves.
Anne Elliot’s “sense of personal respect to her father prevented her” from reminding him that he had taken Mrs. Clay, a poor widow of undistinguished birth, into his household, so he hardly had grounds for complaining about her friendship with the widow Mrs. Smith.
Maria and Julia Bertram are outwardly dutiful but inwardly rebellious where their stern father is concerned. Austen makes a point of telling us so early in the book. Because the "flow of their spirits" is repressed in his presence, "their real disposition[s]" were unknown to Sir Thomas. Fanny Price feels guilty because she doesn't feel sad when he leaves for Antigua: "Fanny's relief, and her consciousness of it, were quite equal to her cousins'; but a more tender nature suggested that her feelings were ungrateful, and she really grieved because she could not grieve. Sir Thomas, who had done so much for her and her brothers, and who was gone perhaps never to return! that she should see him go without a tear! it was a shameful insensibility.” I have written elsewhere about how Austen shows sympathy for Sir Thomas.
Honoring one's parents applies to conduct, even if the child can't feel true affection. In Barbara Hofland’s 1814 novel The Merchant’s Widow, a dashing young lawyer is held back financially by his mother’s gaming debts. Her death frees him to propose to Louisa, the girl he loves, but Louisa’s brother Henry thinks Frederic should observe a mourning period: “The faults of a parent, in my opinion, absolve a child from affection to a considerable degree, yet I did not say they absolved him from duty… if his delicacy for his mother’s memory [holds him back from proposing to Louisa immediately] I shall certainly honour him more, and love him better.”
This stricture included criticizing one's parents to others. Talbot in Love and Freindship, Jane Austen's hilarious send-up of romantic novels, (quoted above) disparages his father to his "particular friends" whom he has only just met.
Poor Eleanor must deliver some insulting news to her house guest Catherine Morland; General Tilney is unceremoniously booting her out of the house: “[N]o displeasure, no resentment that you can feel at this moment, however justly great, can be more than I myself—but I must not talk of what I felt.."
“Have I offended the general?” said Catherine in a faltering voice.
“Alas! For my feelings as a daughter,” [Eleanor answers,] “all that I know, all that I answer for, is that you can have given him no just cause of offence."
I have found similar statements in other literature of the period. I am not saying that Austen is copying these other books; I'm saying this shows that Rory Muir is correct: honouring your parents by refraining from criticizing them was a wide-spread social convention.
In Richard Cumberland’s 1794 play The Jew, Frederick has to tell his friend Charles that his (Frederick's) father has fired him (Charles). “By my soul, Charles, I am ashamed to tell you, because the blow is given by a hand I wish to reverence. You know the temper of Sir Stephen Bertram; he is my father, therefore I will not enlarge upon a subject, that would be painful to us both.”
Few dutiful daughters could match the self-discipline of Ellen Cary, one of the heroines of The Gipsy Countess. When Ellen's stepmother confines her in an insane asylum, she cannot bring herself to think about, let alone comment on, her father's possible role in her betrayal. In a despairing letter begging for rescue, she asks the Gipsy Countess to please “seek the dreary abode of the wretched Ellen Cary,* whither she has been treacherously betrayed by the most designing of women, authorized by –- Oh, God, spare me the horror of announcing that name so awful! So sacred! So abused! For the sake of that name I beseech you, yes, madam, on my bended knees I beseech you, conceal within your own bosom my wrongs and my sufferings!” So Ellen doesn't want anyone to know her parents have packed her off to an insane asylum because it might reflect badly on her father. That's filial loyalty.
The lady she appeals to, Julia Ossington, rushes off to rescue Ellen without telling her sister-in-law Rosanna where she has gone. As Julia later explains: “Tell me now, dearest Rosanna, if after such an appeal as this I had any right to betray a secret so guarded by the caution of its owner, and from motives so laudable as that of filial respect to the character of a father whom she had reason to suppose leagued with his wife in the most diabolical plans for her destruction?”
Australian writer Mikaella Clements despises Mr. Woodhouse so much that his presence detracts from the gentle comedy of the novel for her. She compares Emma’s father to a vampire: “He has a cloying, parasitic need to keep people close. He is the ugly thing in the corner, sucking up everyone’s life force just to keep himself warm. This father, Mr. Woodhouse, is treated by his daughter and the other characters as though he were an adorable nervous wreck, one who must be coddled and looked after, treated with respect and unquestioning love.”
And Emma does give him respect and unquestioning love. Mrs. Weston praises her for it: “Where shall we see a better daughter?”
Henry "felt himself bound as much in honour as in affection to Miss Morland, and believing that heart to be his own which he had been directed to gain, no unworthy retraction of a tacit consent, no reversing decree of unjustifiable anger, could shake his fidelity, or influence the resolutions it prompted... The general was furious in his anger, and they parted in dreadful disagreement."
But Catherine's parents will not give their blessing unless the General withdraws his opposition. "Their tempers were mild, but their principles were steady, and while his parent so expressly forbade the connection, they could not allow themselves to encourage it," and this despite the fact that Henry is an adult, well over the age of 21.
Henry and Catherine obey the parental edict. They can not even call themselves engaged. Mrs. Morland only relents far enough to look the other way when Catherine receives letters from Henry. Fortunately the General allows the marriage after his daughter Eleanor unexpectedly becomes a Viscountess.
Austen concludes Northanger Abbey with a tongue-in-cheek poke about the expectation that novels contain a moralizing message: "I leave it to be settled, by whomsoever it may concern, whether the tendency of this work be altogether to recommend parental tyranny, or reward filial disobedience."
Disobliging one's father is not such a big deal today as it was in Austen's time and in fact it adds to the romantic drama. The writers of the 2007 Northanger Abbey movie didn't include this delay of the marriage. In the movie version, Henry tells Catherine he has broken with his father, may never speak to him again, and he will probably be disinherited. He asks Catherine to marry him anyway, and she joyfully accepts.
* Ellen is referring to herself in the third person, a dramatic convention of the time, just like the letter that Henry says Catherine will find at Northanger Abbey: "At last, however, by touching a secret spring, an inner compartment will open—a roll of paper appears—you seize it—it contains many sheets of manuscript—you hasten with the precious treasure into your own chamber, but scarcely have you been able to decipher ‘Oh! Thou—whomsoever thou mayst be, into whose hands these memoirs of the wretched Matilda may fall’—when your lamp suddenly expires in the socket, and leaves you in total darkness.”
"The Address of a Frenchwoman," my short story for the Quill Ink anthology Dangerous to Know, focusses on Tom Bertram, the feckless heir of Mansfield Park. My story covers the period of Tom Bertram's life when he goes off to enjoy himself at the races, then comes home dangerously ill. After his recovery, he becomes "useful to his father," Sir Thomas.