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Getting It Wrong: An Exchange

In response to:

The Unreliable Genius from the March 14, 1985 issue

To the Editors:

Janet Malcolm’s excellent review of the new life of Edmund Gosse [NYR, March 14] shows clearly that his notorious errors are not mere slips, but are rightly called “felonies.” One example that has not been noticed before is his detailed account of seeing George Henry Lewes with George Eliot in Bellagio, “leading the ‘brainy’ revels” at Serbelloni, guide-book in hand, reading aloud for the benefit of fellow travellers (Charteris, pp. 35, 297). The Leweses did stay at Bellagio for one night; they went in a boat to see the Villa by the evening light. But it was on June 18, 1860, when Gosse was eleven. He never met George Eliot. His silly attacks on her novels destroy any claim he may have had to critical acumen. “I for one can find not a word to say in favour of Daniel Deronda,” he wrote. Of Middlemarch he could only say that it was a “remarkable instance of elaborate mental resources misapplied, and genius revolving, with tremendous machinery, like some great water-wheel, while no water is flowing underneath.”

Now that Thomas J. Wise’s forgeries are recognized [see Christopher Ricks’s review, “The Case of the Crooked Bookman,” NYR, February 28], it is interesting to find Gosse writing in 1919 that George Eliot “actually printed privately for her friends two little garlands, Agatha (1868) and Brother and Sister (1869), which are the only ‘rare issues’ of hers sought after by collectors, for she was not given to bibliographical curiosity.”

Gordon S. Haight

Woodbridge, Connecticut

To the Editors:

Janet Malcolm’s review of Ann Thwaite’s Edmund Gosse raises the issue of scholarly fact, and the possible motives for error. Therefore I wonder why she has chosen to write, on a second occasion, that K.R. Eissler has written “a whole book” to challenge my Brother Animal: The Story of Freud and Tausk, when she knows that he has in truth written two such books against that one of mine.

Paul Roazen

York University

Downsview, Ontario, Canada

To the Editors:

In her very interesting and sympathetic review of my Edmund Gosse, Janet Malcolm certainly proves that literary error is universal. But does it really, as she suggests, often merit psychological explanation?

Arthur Benson’s journals were not available until 1975 (fifty years after his death in June 1925), not 1957, as she says. It is Theobald Pontifex, not Theobold; and although C.S. Lewis in the Oxford History of English Literature gives three possible versions of Nicholas Grimald’s name, he does not authorize the one Ms. Malcolm uses. Churton Collins, whatever the Times obituary may have said, actually died in a ditch, dyke or drain not many miles from here—certainly not in a river. And Hamo Thornycroft was not married when he and Gosse exchanged their most loving letters.

These are trivial errors, like so many; but as error obviously fascinates Ms. Malcolm, it seems worth letting her ponder on her own.

Ann Thwaite

Norfolk, England

Janet Malcolm replies:

1) Edmund Gosse’s attacks on George Eliot’s novels are silly indeed, and in the essay from which Gordon S. Haight quotes, Gosse makes such bald factual errors about Middlemarch that one wonders whether he actually ever read the book. But, as it happens, the “felony” of which Mr. Haight accuses him—saying that he saw George Henry Lewes with George Eliot at Serbelloni—is one that Gosse (for once) is entirely innocent of. The letter to Charteris containing the account of the ” ‘brainy’ revels” was written in 1905 (from Bologna), and in it Gosse does not claim to have seen either Lewes or Eliot at Serbelloni; he merely mentions seeing “George Eliot’s rather preposterous husband”—by whom he can only have meant John Cross, since Lewes (who never was her husband anyway) died in 1878. The passage reads:

We went, in the wake of the Divine Being [Lady Desborough], to Villa Serbelloni above Bellagio, and it is a shrine well worthy of her presence. I could perfectly well imagine her there, among the fountains and the laurels. But for common mortals it is too confined, and we fell into a piège of horrid “intellectual” English people, male and female, who wished to cluster round, and be intense, and talk about “literature.” I disgraced myself being frightfully rude, and then we fled away. George Eliot’s rather preposterous husband was leading the “brainy” revels. If there is anything I hate on my travels, it is this kind of thing. Rather the facchino in his blindness than a circle of chattering academical English people.

2) It would be flattering indeed to twice capture the undivided attention of K.R. Eissler, but I’m afraid that Paul Roazen will have to be content with the single mauling he received at Dr. Eissler’s hands in Talent and Genius. By the time Dr. Eissler’s came to write Victor Tausk’s Suicide (1983), his interest in giving Mr. Roazen a hard time had subsided and been replaced by a kind of repelled fascination with the person of Tausk himself. The centerpiece of the book, and its apparent raison d’être is a rather sensational and previously unpublished document revealing the details of an abortion that was attempted (without success) on Victor Tausk’s fiancée, Hilde Loewi, a few weeks before Tausk’s suicide, on July 3, 1919.

3) Ann Thwaite’s enumeration of the errors that appeared in my essay scarcely shakes my belief in Freud’s concept of psychic determinism, which holds that our most trivial accidents are impelled by unconscious motives; one of my lapses—writing “75” for “57” while I was retyping my manuscript—has afforded me a surprising personal illumination. But I agree that not all literary errors need lead to psychological speculation about the writer—if only because not all errors are made by the writer. Gosse, for example, was jeered at in a letter to the Pall Mall Gazette because he wrote of Sappho and the “Aetolian”—rather than the “Aeolian”—school; but then a letter came from Kegan Paul of the publishing house of Trench & Co., saying that the error was not Gosse’s but a printer’s—that it had even been caught by Gosse but unfortunately was never corrected. Similarly, my misspelling of Nicholas Grimald was actually Churton Collins’s misspelling—I simply copied “Grimoald” from his article in the Quarterly Review. (It looked peculiar, but could Churton Collins be wrong?) Also, I would classify Mrs. Thwaite’s comment about Hamo Thornycroft’s not yet being married “when he and Gosse exchanged their most loving letters” as a quibble rather than as a correction of error. One sometimes deliberately deviates from literal truth (especially if one isn’t German) in order to get on with the business of writing. I wrote that Gosse’s letters to Thornycroft can be read “as the letters of one married man writing to another” to get around the clumsiness of “one married man writing to another” to get around the clumsiness of “one married man writing to a soon-to-be-married man.” But Mrs. Thwaite is quite right to challenge my use of the word “river” to describe the small body of water in which the luckless Collins inexplicably drowned. I wanted to avoid the word “dike,” which in American usage commonly refers to an embankment controlling a body of water, rather than to the water itself, but “river” was a poor substitute—considering that the dike measured only six feet across and four-and-a-half feet deep. I am grateful to Mrs. Thwaite for permitting me to experience at first hand some of the sheepishness that Gosse must have felt when he was caught in one of his unconscious twistings of untidy actuality into the orderliness of fiction.

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