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The Unreliable Genius

Edmund Gosse: A Literary Landscape, 1849–1928

by Ann Thwaite
University of Chicago Press, 567 pp., $25.00

Life, after dealing him an unspeakable blow at the age of seven with the death of his mother, was very good to Edmund Gosse; but posterity has not been kind to him. T.S. Eliot, Evelyn Waugh, and Virginia Woolf (among others) have left memorably snotty epithets. Eliot, reviewing Evan Charteris’s official biography, The Life and Letters of Sir Edmund Gosse, in the Criterion in 1931, wrote:

The place that Sir Edmund Gosse filled in the literary and social life of London is one that no one can ever fill again, because it is, so to speak, an office that has been abolished…. I will not say that Sir Edmund’s activity was not a very useful activity, in a social-literary world which is rapidly receding into memory. He was, indeed, an amenity, but not quite any sort of amenity for which I can see any great need in our time.

In his memoirs of 1964, Waugh wrote:

His eminence sprang from his sedulous pursuit of the eminent, among whom he was more proud of his intimacy with people of power and fashion than with artists…. I saw Gosse as a Mr. Tulkinghorn, the soft-footed, inconspicuous, illnatured habitué of the great world, and I longed for a demented lady’s maid to make an end of him.

In her diary, Woolf described a gathering in 1926 at which Vita Sackville-West “was fawned upon by the little dapper grocer Gosse,” and five years later, in a review of the Charteris biography, she said of Gosse:

It was no wonder that he overshot the mark, never quite got his equilibrium at parties which he loved, required to know the maiden names of married guests, and observed formalities punctiliously which are taken as a matter of course by those who have never lived in dread of the instant coming of the Lord, and have ordered their clothes for generations in Savile Row.

Perhaps the unkindest cut of all was the release in 1957 of Arthur Benson’s secret journal, which runs to over four million words, a great many of which are about Gosse—more than any other contemporary ever wrote about him, according to Gosse’s latest biographer, Ann Thwaite. While Gosse was busy sucking up to the English aristocracy, Benson was darkly watching him, and going home at night to record in his diary every last undignified thing Gosse did. For one of numerous examples quoted by Thwaite:

the difference of his behaviour when he is with people of consequence and when he is not is terrible. At the Ribblesdales, the Newtons, the Eltons he was all wreathed in smiles, jesting, on tiptoe, bowing. Yesterday he took offence at something at Lis Escop and stalked about pouting, looking gloomily at things, brooding. It is this awful valuation of people, thinking whether it is worthwhile being civil to them, demanding recognition from them, which sickens me….

Gosse is remembered today because, in 1907, he wrote Father and Son, a memoir of his childhood, which was immediately acclaimed as a minor masterpiece, and which continues to exert a strong and strange power over all who read it. Gosse wrote nearly fifty other books—of criticism, biography, literary history, fiction, and verse—but none of them are read today; only in Father and Son does he rise above his usual mushy urbanity (“the peculiar combination of suavity, gravity, malignity, and common sense always repels me,” Virginia Woolf wrote) and strike the pure note of durable English prose.

Edmund was the son of Philip and Emily Gosse, a pair of educated, genteelly poor fanatical Calvinists, whose favorite recreation was to interpret the Book of Revelation together (they thus diverted themselves in the evening as other Victorian couples played cards or the piano), and whose expectation for Edmund was that he would either die and go to heaven (he was a sickly child) or become a fundamentalist minister, like his father. Instead, the mother died of cancer, and the boy’s life, which hitherto had been merely narrow and odd and utterly dominated by religion (he had no playmates, no storybooks, no secular amusements) now became pitiably sad and bleak. The circumstances of the mother’s death were harrowing. She had fallen into the hands of a quack, who for four months subjected her to the most painful of futile treatments; in order to receive the treatments, she had moved to a house in Pimlico near the quack, taking her son with her. Remembering this period bitterly, Gosse writes in Father and Son, “Let those who take a pessimistic view of our social progress ask themselves whether such tortures could to-day be inflicted on a delicate patient, or whether that patient would be allowed to exist, in the greatest misery, in a lodging with no professional nurse to wait upon her, and with no companion but a little helpless boy of seven years of age.”

Soon after the mother’s death, the father suffered a lesser, but in some ways more permanently devastating, blow. Philip Gosse was a religious fundamentalist by calling, but a scientist by profession. He was a naturalist of some eminence, who had published works of zoology, ornithology, natural history, and marine biology, belonged to the Royal Society, and was the inventor of the marine aquarium. Like other Christian intellectuals of the time (the 1850s), but more acutely than most, he was racked by the contradiction between the theory of evolution, which was inexorably emerging from the work of Darwin, Wallace, Hooker, Lyall, et al., and the scriptural account of creation. As Edmund writes, “Every instinct in his intelligence went out at first to greet the new light.” But “it had hardly done so, when a recollection of the opening chapter of ‘Genesis’ checked it at the outset.”

In 1857, Philip Gosse published a book called Omphalos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot, which offered an ingenious way out of the theological dilemma posed by the existence of fossils, and which he confidently thought would bring him universal gratitude for its reconciliation of science and religion. Philip Gosse proposed that when the world was created in six days it was created with fossils already embedded in the rocks—just as Adam was created with his insignia of previous life that had never been lived: the navel—and as trees were created with marks of sloughed bark and fallen leaves that had never existed, animals with teeth worn away by exercise never taken, and so on for all living forms. Some ninety years later, Jorge Luis Borges was to write of the “monstrous elegance” of Philip Gosse’s thesis and to link it with the metaphysics of Augustine, Heraclitus, and Spinoza, among others. But in 1857 the book was a dismal failure. “Atheists and Christians alike looked at it and laughed, and threw it away,” Edmund writes in Father and Son. And

as his reconciliation of Scripture statements and geological deductions was welcomed nowhere; as Darwin continued silent, and the youthful Huxley was scornful, and even Charles Kingsley, from whom my Father had expected the most instant appreciation, wrote that he could not “give up the painful and slow conclusion of five and twenty years’ study of geology, and believe that God has written on the rocks one enormous and superfluous lie,”—as all this happened or failed to happen, a gloom, cold and dismal, descended upon our morning teacups.

This atmosphere pervades Father and Son and inevitably brings The Way of All Flesh to mind. But there is a crucial difference between the two accounts of childhood in clergymen’s households (which were published within four years of each other). Unlike Theobold Pontifex, whose special combination of stupidity and coldness makes him one of the most chilling villains of Victorian literature, Philip Gosse, as depicted by his son, is a remarkable and lovable man, if a stubbornly willful and extreme one. While Gosse is no fonder of religion than Butler—Father and Son is written from the viewpoint of a man who considers fundamentalist religion fanatical and repellent—his affection and admiration for his father gleam through the bleak pages of his autobiography and give it its unique pathos. (The passages in Father and Son devoted to expeditions to tidal pools on the Devonshire coast, where the naturalist and his little boy went in quest of specimens of sea anemones, and where, Gosse recalls, “my father became most easy, most happy, most human,” form some of the book’s most potent images.)

Ann Thwaite’s researches among unpublished family documents, to which she was given access by Gosse’s granddaughter, corroborate the son’s idealization of the father, and, indeed, suggest that the actuality of Gosse’s childhood was somewhat more benign and “normal” than the autobiography would have us believe. Thwaite points out that Edmund did play with other children, when he claims he never did, and says it was not true that he was his mother’s only companion during her ordeal in Pimlico: evidently a Mrs. Hislop had been there, too.

Thwaite’s attention to these discrepancies recalls Gosse’s review of Henry Festing Jones’s biography of Samuel Butler, in which he refuses to believe that Butler’s father was the monster that is Theobold Pontifex, and chastises Butler for being “incapable of confronting the incidents of his own life without colouring them, and without giving way to prejudice in the statement of plain facts.” Gosse’s strange and unconvincing insistence that Canon Butler wasn’t all that bad (“if Samuel Butler was really tormented at home, as Ernest Pontifex was, it is odd that some note of hostility should not have crept into his juvenile correspondence,” Gosse writes, and a few pages later adds, “After all, when the worst of Canon Butler is admitted, he was a Christian and a gentleman by the side of the appalling Pauli”) must spring from some personal motive, some anxious need to see his own father as good.

Thwaite’s underscorings of disparities between Gosse’s narrative and the “plain facts” have a different purpose. She has constructed the first half of her very intelligent and very readable biography to lead up to a dramatic incident in Gosse’s life—a searing humiliation he suffered in October 1886, which, like his father’s Calvary, was over a book. In this case, however, the difficulty was not a fantastical thesis, but horrendous factual error. And so Thwaite foreshadows the coming debacle with example after example of what Henry James called Gosse’s “genius for inaccuracy.” Gosse simply couldn’t—or wouldn’t—get facts straight. Even when he has his own journal in front of him while writing an account of a trip to Norway, he gets dates wrong, Thwaite notes, adding, “It was as if he wearies of accuracy.”

Gosse had come to London from Devonshire at the age of seventeen to work as a junior assistant in the cataloging department of the British Museum—a position procured for him by his father, through the intervention of Kingsley—and to try to make a name for himself as a poet. (The father appears to have accepted the son’s lack of a religious vocation, though for years after Edmund left home he was subjected to the almost daily “torment of a postal inquisition” by his father regarding the state of his soul.) Gosse’s verse was feeble (to put it charitably) and eventually he had to put his poetic ambitions to rest;* but he became successful in a field—that of literary criticism—for which he had even less apparent qualification.

  1. *

    Though as late as 1894 he was publishing stuff like this:

    Thank God, that, while the nerves

    decay

    And muscles desiccate away,

    The brain’s the hardiest part of men,

    And thrives till threescore years and

    ten;

    That, tho’ the crescent flesh be

    wound

    In soft unseemly folds around,

    The heart may, all the days we live,

    Grow more alert and sensitive.

    (from “In Russet and Silver”)

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