Father and Son by Sir Edmund Gosse

This is one of the most personal of biographies I have ever read. It was first published in 1907. It is also of its time a masterful document of religious thinking of the Non-conformist , puritan groups in England in the period from fifty years before. It is much more besides - a brilliant set of memories of early childhood and the way of thinking as a child. The stories of the relationships between each of his parents - the naturalist, non-conformist minister father, his incredible , stoic mother who died when he was only seven and the son himself in turn with them are breathtakingly told. The characters of his father and mother are wonderfully and tenderly observed. The writing is crytsal-like about religious feelings and the philosophy of the family members .

There is amazing material in this short memoir - ( It is a strong social history I wish I had read it when doing 19th British History) - highlighting the dilemma of the Creatonists with the new Lyell/Darwinian Natural Selectionists and their dramatic findings. Chapter five where the author Edmund Gosse described the almost personal destruction of his Scientist/Bible believing father when his compromising published work fails to gain the kudos he had hoped from his fellow scientists at the Royal Academy is perfectly realised and written.

Having said all of the above this memoir is also delightfully humorous at times and is so inciteful about the country folk in Devon where his father takes the young Gosse to live after the death of the beloved wife and mother. - to be near the sea where they can collect sea shore specimens. The chapel people here are wonderful.

If you have half an interest in the way our ideas have been formed over the last 150 years please read this superbly written shortish memoir and then please discuss.


John Kennedy said...

I am glad I wss induced to re-read this. I read it many years ago, and suspect I viewed it then as a sad but also funny account of a child being brought up among religious lunatics. Re-reading it I was struck by the immense sympathcy displayed toward the father, and indeed almost everyone mentioned - I think a retired minister's wife, Mrs Paget, is the only person in the entire book not to be presened sympathetically, and her appearance is brief.

Sorry as I felt for the child, I think I felt even more sorry for the young man away in London, receiving the constant anxious inquiries about the state of his soul, and being aexpected to answer impossible questions. This part of the book is almost painfully evocative.

At a period of my life which was probably about half way between my first and second readings of the book, I encountered, while living in Britain, people with much in common with the elder Gosse and members of his congregations. Kindly and admirable people in many respects, but alas, far more intolerable company than at least ninety percent of sinful humanity, and characterised by the mixture of humility and pride Gosse evokes. I remember thinking at the time that what Gosse described had coninued to exist long after his period.

John Kennedy

Faye said...

John - thank you for those thoughts and insights. Your mentioning of the young man in London dealing with his fathers letters of exhortations and sermons is hard to read and even to imagine how one could deal with it. I think Gosse the author writes of this deep seated emotional experience very well .

Another almost unbearably painful section for me was his experience as a seven year old being his mothers sole companion in the lonely poor flat in whilst she had her daily medical treatment for cancer - this contrasted with his remembered sorrow at not being able to get close enough to his mothers bedside when she was actually dying. Once again economically but powerfully remembered and retold .

What struck me as startling also was the bigotry towards Catholics in particular and also the Anglican communion which these good simple people were so open about. That warts and all social history comes home so strong in this well written memoir.

Neil said...

I have to confess that, before reading this book, my knowledge of Gosse was almost nil. So I am grateful to Faye for turning on the light.

It is indeed very personal, and is a valuable social history of middle class English life in the mid-late 19th century. It is also a valuable (certainly uncommon, perhaps unique) insight into the secretive world of the ultra-conservative Plymouth Bretheren sect at that time.

What a sad, intellectually stifling childhood he had. There was apparently no contact at all with other children until age 7 when his mother died and he went to live (briefly) with some cousins. "For a short, enchanting period of respite, I lived the life of an ordinary little boy." At age 10 "I was allowed, at last, to associate with a child of my own age" - the son of another member of the Plymouth Bretheren, but neither of them knew any games to play! They just walked around the garden and climbed on the wall.

He did not read a work of fiction until age 11 because fiction was sinful. This experience "was like giving a glass of brandy neat to some one who had never been weaned from a milk diet."

The book finishes with Edmund at age 16 or so, when he leaves school and goes to live in London. An Epilogue extends the story to age 20 and explains his loss of faith in the PB beliefs, and insisting on being allowed to think for himself.

"Father & Son" was written when Gosse was in his mid-50s and is the only autobiographical work he wrote. He became a celebrated poet, author, and a literary and art critic. How could such a talent have developed from the intellectual desert of his childhood? He doesn't say. Apparently, by his twenties his intellect had developed independently and he blossomed. His comments on this would have been welcome, but everything stops at age 16 (apart from comments about his loss of religion soon after).

In adult life Gosse was clandestinely homosexual, but "Father & Son" makes no comment on his developing sexual thoughts and influences as a teenager, when surely they would have been present. The inevitable conflicts between his emerging sexuality and his (and his father's) strict Calvinistic beliefs are not mentioned. Nor is the effect these awful dilemmas must have had on his struggle towards maturity.

So I was disappointed by the fact that Gosse "cops out" of discussing (or even speculating upon)the origins of his homosexuality in his early upbringing, and the effects of his intellectually deprived childhood on the intellectually superior adult he became. It is an autobiography which describes his life, but which (strangely for a critic) fails to analyse it.

By the way, I deplore the absence of an index and a bibliography. When I become ruler of the world all non-fiction books will have these essential features.

John Kennedy said...

Thanks, Faye and Neil. I found your comments interesting and thought-provoking.'

I agree, Faye, that the mother's final illness and death are particularly painful and moving to read. I suspect the hostility to Catholicism was just an extreme case of what was commonplace among middle cleas Victorians. It has been said. perceptively I think, that Muslims today are what Catholics were a century ago: for many in the mainstream strange alien beings with bizarre beliefs that put them beyond the reach of reason and utterly outside the realm of civilised society.

You know more about Gosse than I did, Neil. Apart from being aware of this book I had a vague idea that he was an influential literary critic. Maybe we have to bear in mind the attitude to homosexuality that prevailed when he wrote, and for long after. Homosexual activity was a criminal offence in most Anglo-Saxon countries until fairly recently: I think Tasmania proudly kept it on the statute books until after 1980. To offer even a suggestion that one was homosexual in 1907 would probably have been equivalent to hinting today at paedophile tendencies.

John K.

Neil said...

John is quite right, that Gosse could not have been frank about his homosexuality, or youthful homosexual feelings, when he was writing in 1907. But literate Victorian men writing about homosexuality were masters at using euphemisms and circumlocution to get their message across to others of similar persuasion. Surely Gosse would have experienced troubling homosexual feelings, or suspicions, during the period covered by this book, which must have been doubly difficult for him considering his strict religious upbringing and awareness of sins and the punishment awaiting anyone who transgressed. But there isn't even a hint of this in his account of his life to age 16. The Epilogue, which summarises the reasons for his loss of religious conviction, would have been an appropriate place to at least hint at these other difficulties. But not a word.

John Kennedy said...

Yes, maybe we have to accept that for all its power and vividness it is not a completely frank and honest picture. Probably this is true of all autobiographies. I have read that the Gosse was maried and had children. Perhaps this was a further inhibiting factor.

Faye said...

Dear Neil and John,
Thanks for alll the discussion - I particularly enjoyed thinking over your questioning of the veracity of autobiography . I realise I dont have the skills to analyse any further on that issue but I think its a very interesting and indeed important one . ie - what does one include and what leave out? So thanks for all of that .

From another angle I found the relationship he describes with his father particularly touching and often very tender. For me, an endeavour to explain the ordinariness , the sadness and tragedy of day-to-day living whilst capturing some of the loving , courageous and joyful parts goes to the essence of good story telling - and I think Gosse does that very well. I got the feeling that he learnt a lot about life from observation of his parents and associates.

By the way he was also in one of his career changes a librarian. i noted reading somewhere that he was the Librarian at the House of Lords for several years towards the end of his career.

Pat said...

Great comments, I really must try and read this one. Well done Faye for starting the discussion which turned out to be very fruitful.
I have just finished The Lemon Tree by Sandy Nolan. Very timely given the terrible situation in Gaza at the moment. It tells the story of the conflict from both sides, one wonders how many of those written about are still alive.Has anyone else read it?

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