Edmund Gosse - 'Father and Son' which has been described as the first psychological biography. "The comedy was superficial and the tragedy essential,"
Edmund Gosse, Father and Son: A Study of Two Temperaments, Heinemann, 1907.
Father and Son, a memoir first published anonymously in 1907, was Gosse's second book and is arecord of his struggle to 'fashion his inner life for himself.' The book describes Edmund's early years in an exceptionally devout Plymouth Brethren home. His mother, who died early and painfully of breast cancer, was a writer of Christian tracts. His father was an influential, though largely self-taught, invertebrate zoologist and student of marine biology who, after his wife's death, took Edmund to live in Devon. The book focuses on the relationship between a sternly religious father who rejects the new evolutionary theories of his scientific colleague Charles Darwin and the son's gradual coming of age and rejection of his father's fundamentalist religion. It was immediately acclaimed for its courage in flouting the conventions of Victorian autobiography and is still a moving account of self-discovery.
Father and Son is a classic account of a childhood, a much-praised autobiography published by Edmund Gosse in 1907, nearly 20 years after the death of his father, the naturalist Philip Henry Gosse. Over and over again, it was a reference to that marvellous book that followed my answer to the question, "What are you working on these days?", the standard question to a writer whose work is only vaguely familiar. For nine years or so, until 1984, I replied "Edmund Gosse," and for another six years (from 1996 until a few months ago) "Philip Henry Gosse." Again and again, my questioner's response was "Ah, Father and Son."
It is the only book by either of the Gosses that is in print today, though in the years between 1840 and 1928 they published between them more than 90 books, as well as masses of contributions to periodicals, on natural history in the father's case, on literature in the son's.
I first read Father and Son in the little green Heinemann edition I found on my parents' shelves when I was 16 or so. In the introduction to my biography of Edmund Gosse, I described it as "one of the formative books of my youth". But I think this might have been a case of being wise after the event, of rewriting the story, as Edmund himself did all the time. I looked at my own diaries recently, trying to find some enthusiastic reactions to that first reading, but it is simply one book among many in a list.
Most adolescents long to get away from the constraints and expectations of the parental home, and that over-anxious love so many of us experience. My parents were not fanatics of any sort. That Philip Henry Gosse was one is undeniable. But he was not (and Edmund knew he was not) the "monster" that some readers saw in Edmund's portrayal of his father. One of the strengths of Father and Son is that the father's humanity confronts us as much as his religious obsessions. Indeed, the book takes much of its power from what Edmund rejected. Over and over again Edmund's attempts to be fair to his father are negated by his theme. Looking back to the years long before, he rewrites history and paints an enthralling portrait of a desolate childhood and a difficult youth.
Father and Son was first published anonymously. This seems to have been a clever marketing ploy to arouse curiosity, and Edmund's name was soon attached to subsequent impressions. Edmund was also eager to test the water, to discover just how much he would be attacked for his lack of filial piety. The reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement wrote: "The author of this book has no doubt settled it with his conscience how far in the interests of popular edification or amusement it is legitimate to expose the weaknesses and inconsistencies of a good man who is also one's father." One reader saw the son as "beneath contempt, causing his father to be an object of ridicule", but most admired, and Heinemann declared the book to be the "Literary Sensation of the Season." The criticism died away; the praise remained.
When my biography of Edmund Gosse appeared, Geoffrey Grigson wrote of Father and Son and its writer: "That classic book was in its way its own author. Circumstances could be said to have written it for him." This was far from the case. The story comes as much from art as from life. Edmund himself realised that in writing a powerful and moving book, he had overestimated the dark side, suggesting the comedy was superficial, the tragedy essential. Vivid images stayed in readers' minds of the lonely boy reading aloud theology to his dying mother, of him pressing his pale cheek against the window-pane for interminable hours, of "the hush" around father and son "in which you could hear a sea anemone sigh".
Rudyard Kipling wrote to Edmund: "It's extraordinarily interesting - more interesting than David Copperfield because it's true." Edmund himself had stressed that at a time when fiction takes forms "so ingenious and so specious", it was necessary to state that his narrative was "scrupulously true". The introduction by Peter Abbs to the current Penguin Twentieth Century Classics edition continues to say that "as a documentary record we know, from other sources, that most of the facts are accurate".
I knew already before 1984 that this was not so, and more recently I have come across substantial further evidence in the father's parish notes, that shows how little Edmund cared for accuracy. (His friend Henry James once said he had "a genius for inaccuracy".) Edmund must have read his source materials years before, when writing his Life of Philip Henry Gosse (1890), then forgotten the facts and used a version of them to enrich Father and Son. There is a great deal of fiction in the book. I was amused, when searching out a copy of the current edition, to find it on the fiction shelves at Foyles. TH Huxley once wrote: "Autobiographies are essentially works of fiction, whatever biographies may be." It is the biographer's task to try to get at the truth.
· Glimpses of the Wonderful: The Life of Philip Henry Gosse by Ann Thwaite is published by Faber. - Ann Thwaite
"The comedy was superficial and the tragedy essential," Edmund Gosse says of his life in the classic, Father and Son. The tragedy he speaks of seems to be the fact that his parents were firm fundamentalist Christians who rejected Darwin's theory of evolution. But I see a different, more pervasive tragedy in his life, a tragedy that has far reaching implications for Christians today.
Gosse's father (Philip) was a biologist, a contemporary of Charles Darwin, one of the early illuminati to whom Darwin revealed his theory before he unveiled it to the public. Father Gosse conversed personally with Hooker and Darwin in the summer of 1857 concerning the theory of natural selection which Darwin was planning to make public.
After consulting with Carpenter, another scientist, both men decided to reject the new theory. But the model of origins they decided to hold included not only the Scriptural account of the creation of reproductively fixed "kinds", but also the notion of the fixity of the species. Carpenter, Gosse, and other nineteenth century Christians did not realize that species is a human classification, and not necessarily always the same as kind, the divine classification. The notion of fixity of species later fell, under investigational observation.
Father Gosse, shortly after his encounter with Darwin, published a book, Omphalos, to counter proposals then being set forth by Charles Lyell. Lyell's theories became the basis for uniformitarianism and the doctrine of slow, gradual evolution. Edmund saw the main argument of his father's Omphalos as the proposition that there was "no gradual modification of the surface of the earth, or slow development of organic form," but that the "catastrophic" act of creation produced instantly an earth with all the appearances of age.
The press instantly ridiculed Gosse's book, saying Gosse believed God hid the fossils in the rock to tempt geologists into infidelity.
According to Edmund Gosse, his father earnestly believed Omphalos wouid reconcile geology and Genesis. But, he says, " Alas! atheists and Christians alike looked at it, and laughed, and threw it away." Father Gosse was injured deeply by the scornful reviews, chilly letters, and rejection of his idea even by friends. Under the pressure of this disapproval, Gosse left London, severed connections with the British Museum and Royal Society, and went to live in isolation by the seashore, where he continued to collect and dissect marine specimens apart from the mainstream of the scientific-philosophic thought of his day.
Edmund Gosse makes it clear that his parents loved and respected the Word of God. One can hardly criticize them for neglecting the Word. Gosse says, "Pleasure was found nowhere but in the Word of God, and to the endiess" discussion of the Scriptures each (parent) hurried when the day's work was over." He says that to the end of his father's life he "continued to take an eager pleasure in the text of the Bible."
But his parent's faith had other characteristics as well, and one contributed strongly to the tragedy of Edmund Gosse. One might call the family credo anti-intellectual and ascetic, for it appears entirely wrapped up in itself, with insufficient concern for understanding and addressing the philosophy and spirit of the age. Gosse informs us that his parents "neither knew nor cared about any manifestation of current literature. To them, literature and science alike were useful only to keep the student "out of the worid," and provide employment. They felt it was wrong to find pleasure in literature, science, or any pursuit other than reading and discussing the Word of God.
Very little literature could squeeze the narrow strictures which formed the standards for the household. "The range of these (books) was limited," explains Edmund, ''for storybooks of every description were sternly excluded. No fiction of any kind, religious or secular, was admitted into the house.'' Gosse's mother believed that "to tell a story," that is, to compose fictitious narrative of any kind, or to read such "lies" was sin. She would not read any kind of poetry either, except Iyrical and subjective poetry. Thus, the household was clearly outside the popular current of thought. The Gosses had always been isolated and insulated from the outside world, and leaving London, the Royal Society, and the British Museum was only the severing of ties that were already worn thread thin.
Perhaps it was partly this anti-intellectual element, this separationist - isolationist complex in his childhood faith that tainted Edmund's life from the beginning. In addition, his father's early and complete withdrawal from the mainstream of culture rendered his influence ineffectual in scientific society as well, and just at a key time when a firm and outspoken biologist could possibly have plugged the holes and avoided the breaking of the dam.
Secondly, Father Gosse made the mistake of thinking that his ideas, or the tenets of accepted thought before Darwin, were as sure as the Word of God itself. He could not conceive that Genesis allowed for further specification. He was unable to deal adequately with the fossil evidence that was being discovered. His clinging to ideas of human origin, and his inability to separate the teaching of Genesis from his ideas about the teaching of Genesis, led him to scorn from scholars and saints alike, not to mention the loving but scorching scorn of his son Edmund, as related in Father and Son.
We can learn a lot from the tragedy of Edmund Gosse. Do we at times exhibit the same general tendencies.?
It is easy, in the light of all we know today, when Darwin's ideas are being challenged even by evolutionists themselves, when we've had 180 years or more to examine the fossil evidence, when we understand much more about speciation, and when creationists are supported by societies of like-minded scientists, to criticize Gosse. But we must remember the time in which he lived, and that though he wasn't correct in many of his speculations, he at least was one of the first to try to correlate Genesis and the fossil evidence. He at least recognized that all truth must fit together harmoniously; he was more intelligent than moderns who try to place Genesis and science in two separate boats "and never the twain shall meet."
The tragedy is that because his son's early life was so deprived of wonder, imagination, and what he calls "humanity," Edmund Gosse turned from his father's firm adherence to the Scriptures and the creationist explanation. What Philip Gosse held so tightly himself, he lost completely in his son. The humanistic, naturalistic explanation of life from which the father fled in horror, his son accepted and spread. That, it seems to me, is the real tragedy of Edmund Gosse. - Lorella Rouster
Edmund William Gosse (b. 1849–d. 1928) was the preeminent man of letters during the late Victorian and Edwardian periods. Although he worked in several genres—as poet, playwright, biographer, essayist, critic, literary historian, and bibliophile—the modernist contempt for all things Victorian meant that Gosse’s wider oeuvre fell into obscurity, and his posthumous reputation was sustained by only one book: Father and Son (1907). This autobiographical novel describes his family life up to the age of twenty-one, with his father, Philip Henry Gosse (b. 1810–d. 1888) a prolific and popular author of books on natural history and religion, and his mother, Emily Bowes-Gosse (b. 1806–d. 1857) a writer of evangelical narrative tracts. Gosse’s parents belonged to the Plymouth Brethren, and much of Father and Son concerns Gosse’s growing resistance to their religious expectations of him. Rather than becoming a religious missionary as his parents had hoped, Gosse became a literary evangelist, preaching a love of poetry, fiction, and drama. The nature of Gosse’s working life, first as a clerk-cataloguer at the British Museum (1860–1875), then as a translator at the Board of Trade (1875–1904), and finally as librarian of the House of Lords (1904–1914) allowed him spare time to devote to literary pursuits, and he cultivated friendships with such figures as Stevenson, Swinburne, Hardy, and James. By the age of thirty-five, Gosse’s literary career seemed promising, with a successful lecture tour across America, and an appointment as Clark Lecturer at Cambridge University. However, when Gosse turned the series of lectures given in America into a book, From Shakespeare to Pope (1885), published by Cambridge University, it proved to be full of inaccuracies, and became the focus for an impassioned debate about dilettantism in the teaching of English literature. John Churton Collins exposed the vague generalizations, random assertions, and blatant errors in Gosse’s vaunted scholarship: the affair was dubbed by The Critic as “the Scandal of the Year” (20 November 1886). Though disconcerted for a while, Gosse quickly resumed writing, and in addition to numerous essays (subsequently published as collections), he became well known for his biographies: Gray (1882), Congreve (1888), Philip Gosse (1890), Donne (1899), Jeremy Taylor (1904), Patmore (1905), Sir Thomas Browne (1905), Ibsen (1907), and Swinburne (1917). Early in his career, Gosse promoted Scandinavian literature, championing particularly the plays of Ibsen, while later in life, his enthusiasm for French literature developed into strong support for the work of André Gide. From the age of seventy up to his death, Gosse’s causerie and “ten-minute sermons” entertained readers, first in The Daily Mail and, later, in The Sunday Times. - www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780199799558/obo-9780199799558-0138.xml