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.
Gosse had no university education; he had gone to not very good boarding and day schools chosen by his father for the piety of the headmasters; and, perhaps most significant of all, as a child he had not been permitted to read any fiction, so that when once—as he records in a famous passage in Father and Son—while exploring a garret he came across a trunk lined with sheets of a sensational novel, he never doubted that what he read was an account of actual events, since the genre of invented events was simply unknown to him. In their preface to Transatlantic Dialogue: Selected American Correspondence of Edmund Gosse (1965), the scholars Paul F. Mattheisen and Michael Millgate attribute Gosse’s improbable success in a field which he had no business entering (“he was clearly ill-equipped to undertake full-scale critical work on major literary figures,” Mattheissen and Millgate sternly write) to his ingenious choice of areas of study where little, if any, scholarly work had been done, and which, further, abounded in minor figures who lent themselves to the “personal and discursive” treatment that was Gosse’s stock in trade. Scandinavian literature and seventeenth-century English literature were two such areas.
Perhaps even more remarkable, considering his solitary and odd childhood, was the young Gosse’s rapid, Norman Podhoretz-like conquest of literary London. He made it first with the Pre-Raphaelites (Ford Madox Brown, William Morris, and the Rossettis were among his earliest catches), then with Algernon Swinburne, Robert Browning, Coventry Patmore, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and Robert Louis Stevenson, followed by Sidney Colvin, William Archer, John Addington Symonds, Henry James, and Thomas Hardy—to mention only the most luminous of the literary figures by whom Gosse was taken up and to whom, in many cases, he formed close, lifelong attachments. When, three years before the disaster of 1886, he became a candidate for the newly founded Clark Lectureship at Cambridge, no lesser personages than Matthew Arnold, Tennyson, and Browning wrote warm letters of recommendation.
In assigning a first cause to the disaster, it is perhaps to this candidacy—and to the hubris behind it—that we should look. For if Gosse’s error-ridden book From Shakespeare to Pope: An Inquiry into the Causes and Phenomena of the Rise of Classical Poetry in England had not issued from a university press, it might not have provoked the devastating review it received in the August–October Quarterly Review, and certainly it would not have given the anonymous reviewer his first deadly sentence: “That such a book as this should have been permitted to go forth to the world with the imprimatur of the University of Cambridge, affords matter for very grave reflection.” (Gosse had been beaten out, by one vote, for the Clark Lectureship by Leslie Stephen—a defeat he took with equanimity because of the distinction of his rival—but then, to his delight, he was offered the job a year later, when Stephen dropped out. From Shakespeare to Pope was a book of the lectures that Gosse gave at Cambridge in 1884 and repeated on an American tour.)
Had Gosse not ventured into the academy, had he been content to remain in the world of amateur belles-lettres, his “literary felonies” (as K.R. Eissler characterized the errors in a similar case of scholarly insufficiency) might well have gone forever undetected. Such crimes are committed every day—as everyone knows who has ever done research in a library. Carelessness, sloppiness, misinformation, misquotation, and fudging of fact are commonplaces, not extraordinary occurrences. What is not commonplace is a wrathful Defender of the Spirit of Fact who occasionally comes forward to catch out an unfortunate wretch. Such a recent defender was Eissler who, angered by what he saw as a slur on the name of Sigmund Freud, devoted a whole book, Talent and Genius (1971), to demonstrating the errors in Paul Roazen’s book Brother Animal (1969). And such a defender, in 1886, was John Churton Collins, the writer of the anonymous review in the Quarterly of Gosse’s book, whose identity was an open secret from the start, but whose motives were never entirely clear.
Collins was a man of Gosse’s age—at the time of the attack, Collins was thirty-eight and Gosse was thirty-seven—and the two had been friends a few years earlier, but had drifted apart. Collins had all the qualifications for a career in literary scholarship that Gosse lacked: he had gone to Oxford, he had the instincts of a scholar, and he wrote with Leavis-like acerbity and authority. (Eliot, in his 1930 essay on Cyril Tourneur, characterized Collins’s introduction to the 1878 edition of Tourneur’s works as being “by far the most penetrating interpretation of Tourneur that has been written.”) But he was a luckless man. Where Gosse glided easily through life—he went from his job at the British Museum to one as translator at the Board of Trade, which permitted him leisure for reading and writing and brought in enough money to comfortably maintain his wife and three children in a pleasant London house—Collins had to struggle to stay above water. He was like a character in a Gissing novel—a harried, unfortunate man, with a wife and seven children to support; with no money except what he earned from teaching Greek and Latin in a cram school, from writing reviews, and from giving lectures for the University Extension Society; and with a disposition to depression, which grew worse as the years of overwork and disappointment continued.
Gosse had evidently only to walk into a room and charm everyone in it, while poor Collins would write in his journal after a dinner party, “The most striking figure there was, of course, Robert Browning, to whom I was not introduced and who had, of course, forgotten me.” (The journal entry is reprinted in a biography of Collins written by his son Laurence in 1912; except for a few letters scattered in university libraries and occasional references in contemporary letters and memoirs, this inept and inadequate exercise in filial piety is our sole source of biographical information about Collins.) Along with the social mortification that Collins had to swallow, he had to endure professional rebuffs. He was repeatedly passed over for academic positions: the Merton Chair of Language and Literature at Oxford, which he had helped to establish and confidently applied for in 1885, went, instead, to a philologist; it wasn’t until 1904 that he got a professorship at the University of Birmingham. His relations with editors were no less unhappy. A pathetic correspondence has been preserved by the National Library of Scotland (which I happened on, years ago, while doing some research on Gosse and Collins), in which Collins sends letter after letter to the editor of Blackwood’s magazine, inquiring after the fate of an article. (“This is the third or fourth letter I have written begging you to send me just one line to tell me what has become of my ‘Athenaeus Oxoniensis,’ ” he writes in 1877, and continues, “I really think an author who has taken such trouble as I have done to please you is not being exacting when after a piece has been retained three years…he ventures modestly to enquire after his bantling. I cannot reproach myself with impertinently and intrusively bothering you and I am sure there was nothing in the tone of my repeated letters which could in any way have annoyed….”) Was it any wonder that Gosse’s appointment to the Clark Lectureship should have galled Collins, and that he should have seized an opportunity to savage Gosse’s very vulnerable book with special, ill-concealed joy?
But lucklessness is like a disease for which there is no cure, and among the many ironies of “the Quarterly affair,” as it came to be called, is the devastating effect it had on the fortunes of Collins while leaving Gosse relatively unscathed. Like F.R. Leavis’s famous attack on C.P. Snow in 1962—where it was generally felt that while Leavis was “right,” he had been wrong to attack Snow in the intemperate way he did—Collins’s attack on Gosse illustrates the thanklessness and ill-advisedness of the task of the self-appointed guardian of truth and morals. To be right at the expense of another is one of the most unfortunate positions one can find oneself in, since, at bottom, it is the position of the tattling child. One of the earliest lessons we learn as children (it may be our earliest experience of paradox) is that tattling goes unrewarded, and thus is profitless. The “Look what he did!” atmosphere of Collins’s review gives it its bracing edge and piques our Schadenfreude (the pleasure of the other children listening to the tattler enumerate the sins of the naughty child), but eventually it sours on us.
Although the review caused a flurry of interest and excitement (the Pall Mall Gazette and the World, adopting the role of the excited siblings, took Collins’s side and pilloried Gosse daily in editorials), it brought Collins no real glory, and, in fact, shoved him the more decisively and irrevocably off to the side of the arena in which late-nineteenth-century literary life was being played out. The literary establishment—the grown-ups—closed ranks around its favored child, knowing full well how naughty he had been but declining to be dictated to by an impertinent outsider. Cambridge stood staunchly behind Gosse (what else could it do?), as did James, Symonds, Swinburne, Tennyson, Colvin, Stevenson, Archer, Howells, Browning, Hardy, and others, whose letters, carefully preserved by Gosse, form an authoritative primer on how to write comforting bullshit on demand.
On the other hand, poor Collins contrived, in the course of the Quarterly affair, to lose the single illustrious friend he had. In replying in the Athenaeum to Gosse’s reproach that “there are no stabs like those which are given by an estranged friend,” Collins had the unhappy inspiration of citing Swinburne, whom he had savaged in the Quarterly the previous year, as an example of someone who didn’t take criticism personally. “I believe, rightly or wrongly, that Mr. Swinburne’s critical opinions are often wild, unsound, and even absurd; that his prose style is still oftener intolerably involved, florid and diffuse; and that he has in consequence exercised a most pernicious influence on contemporary style and on contemporary literature…. But I have yet to learn that Mr. Swinburne considers me ‘no gentleman,’ ” the ever luckless Collins boasted—little knowing that Swinburne’s preternatural calm and forbearance under attack came of the fact that he had simply never read (or even heard of) the article in question. Once alerted to it, he let out a howl of outrage in the Athenaeum, calling Collins, among other things, “the pertest of all pupil teachers” and the Quarterly a “journal pour rire, graver at once and duller than its fellows of the more professionally comic press….”
Gosse, bloody but unbowed (one of his sharpest critics had been the author of “Invictus” himself who, under the initials H.B., wrote a series of Letters from London for the American journal The Critic, giving jocular blow-by-blow descriptions of “the scandal of the year”), went on to spend thirty more years writing, lecturing, and socializing, gradually becoming the venerable institution that it behooved the younger generation to want to knock down, and finally getting knighted, in 1924. Collins, meanwhile, went on slaving and struggling and getting nowhere, and finally, in 1904, during an episode of depression, he drowned in a river. Even in death he came off without dignity. During the inquest on his body (as reported by the London Times), a physician friend of Collins, attempting to convince the jury that Collins had not committed suicide, argued that he could have fallen into the river accidentally “while performing a necessary function.”
That Gosse made appalling mistakes in From Shakespeare to Pope is beyond question—but what these mistakes were about, psychologically speaking, remains somewhat mysterious. Ann Thwaite’s account of the Quarterly affair is very spirited, amused, and amusing—she has a sharp eye for the ludicrous and moves easily through the masses of documentation that the incident threw up, to create a brisk, farcical narrative—but it doesn’t answer the question of why Gosse did this thing to himself. Thwaite’s incuriosity about Gosse’s proneness to error—her treatment of it as if it were some sort of regrettable but not very interesting constitutional debility, like nearsightedness—leaves a hole in her narrative where one had confidently expected a mountain. Thwaite simply declines to examine Gosse’s errors. “It would be tedious to go through all his [Collins’s] objections in any detail,” she says offhandedly.
In one sense, of course, Thwaite’s implicit notion, that literary error is so common and universal that instances of it do not require special psychological explanation, is correct. The fact that all writers constantly make mistakes of fact and transcription is attested to by the professions of proofreader and fact checker. The checking departments of modern magazines routinely work with manuscripts that are as factually porous as Gosse’s. To quote a passage from a text and get every word right seems utterly beyond the capacity of all but the most nuttily obsessive among us. Thwaite herself, for example, in transcribing an eleven-line excerpt from a letter of 1890 from Gosse to Symonds (which I happen to have a holograph version of), makes five errors, most of them trivial, but one rather serious (she skips several pages and creates a sentence Gosse never wrote), and another that ruins Gosse’s grammar. It is as if we all need in some way to take possession of whatever passes through our hands, to leave our mark, to show that we have been there. What may look like mere sloppiness is in (unconscious) fact a studied assertion of personality.
But there are also errors animated by more specific and less innocent wishes than the general desire to be on stage all the time. These are the tendentious errors which twist facts in a way favorable to the writer’s thesis, and which are rightly called “felonies” (or, in Collins’s term, “delinquencies”), because of the way they undermine the foundation of fact on which the world of ideas is poised. Such an error, for example, was Gosse’s assertion that Edmund Waller was the first English poet to write in distichs (heroic couplets that contain complete thoughts); as Collins nastily pointed out, numerous English poets (Nicholas Grimoald, Robert Greene, George Sandys, among others) had written in distich years before Waller did. But since Gosse had declared Waller to be “the hero of this whole volume”—a study of the classical reaction to the “hysterical riot of the Jacobeans”—the reason for his “ignorance” of the work of Waller’s predecessors, which takes some of the luster off Waller’s heroism, is not hard to fathom.
To Gosse’s credit, most of his literary offenses are more gratuitous than felonious. I cannot resist quoting an example of the former (one that Thwaite omits), which gives a rich sense both of the extraordinary lengths that Gosse went to to ball everything up, and of the icy savagery of Collins’s attack. Collins writes,
In the life of Waller, Mr. Gosse finds this sentence: “Mr. Saville used to say that no man in England should keep him company without drinking but Ned Waller.” This becomes, in Mr. Gosse’s narrative, “George Savile, Lord Halifax, the famous viveur, and a pupil of Waller’s, in verse, said,” &c. (p. 236). It would be difficult to match this. Nearly every word is a blunder. Indeed, we will boldly say that, if our own or any other literature were ransacked, it would be ransacked in vain for a sentence which condenses so many errors and so much of that crassa negligentia, which is as reprehensible in writers as it is in lawyers and doctors. George Savile, Lord Halifax, who is apparently known only to Mr. Gosse as “the famous viveur,” was, as we need scarcely say, one of the most distinguished statesmen of the seventeenth century. He was in no sense of the word a viveur. He was not a pupil of Waller. He never, so far as is recorded, wrote a line of verse in his life. But there was another Lord Halifax, who might perhaps be known to Mr. Gosse only in connection with his convivial habits and his bad poetry, but who is known to everyone else as the Originator of the National Debt, as the Founder of the Bank of England, and as the most eminent financier in English history. It is this Lord Halifax who might, as the author of a copy of verses on the death of Charles II., be described as a pupil of Waller. And it is of this Lord Halifax that Mr. Gosse is probably thinking. But the name of this Lord Halifax was, unfortunately for Mr. Gosse, Charles Montague. The “Mr. Savile” alluded to, was in truth neither George Savile, Marquis of Halifax, nor Charles Montague, Earl of Halifax, but Henry Savile a younger son of Sir William Savile, and a younger brother of the Marquis.
That the strictly reared son of a fundamentalist minister should produce a book of such florid unreliability is ironic indeed, but perhaps only inevitable. The fanatical concern of Edmund’s parents with literal truth, which led them to forbid him any nonfactual literature (the Bible, of course, was considered factual), may have been the very wellspring of his “genius for inaccuracy.” In Father and Son, Gosse quotes a passage from the diary of his mother regarding a secret sin she had struggled against since childhood—the sin of inventing stories. “The longing to invent stories grew with violence,” the mother wrote. “Everything I heard or read became food for my distemper. The simplicity of truth was not sufficient for me; I must needs embroider imagination upon it, and the folly, vanity, and wickedness which disgraced my heart are more than I am able to express. Even now [at the age of twenty-nine], tho’ watched, prayed and striven against, that is still the sin that most easily besets me.” “This is, surely, a very painful instance of the repression of an instinct,” Gosse writes, and goes on to speculate whether his mother had not been “intended by nature to be a novelist.”
In his own case, the repressed instinct for invention surfaced in the form of made-up facts. That factual truth was an issue for Gosse is clear from such passages as the following, from From Shakespeare to Pope: “Here again, as everywhere where we look closely into the historic development of literature, we see the value of dates, and the paramount importance of a clear chronological sequence.” (Which in no way prevented Gosse—such is the power of the repressed to cloud men’s minds—from, for example, giving the date of Waller’s poem “To the King on His Navy” as 1621, even though the date 1626 appears as part of the poem’s full title.) “Never, in all my early childhood, did anyone address to me the affecting preamble, ‘Once upon a time!’ ” Gosse wistfully recalls in Father and Son. “I was told about missionaries, but never about pirates; I was familiar with humming-birds, but I had never heard of fairies.” Perhaps in recompense, the grown-up Gosse filled his books of criticism and biography with viveurs who never lived, events that never took place, and chronologies that invested the dry world of literary history with the timelessness of Never-Never Land.
Since the publication, in 1964, of Phyllis Grosskurth’s biography of John Addington Symonds, The Woeful Victorian, Gosse is commonly believed to have been a secret homosexual. Grosskurth published part of a letter of Gosse’s to Symonds (the mistranscribed letter of 1890 mentioned above—Grosskurth made only two mistakes in her extract), in which Gosse all but spelled out his personal knowledge of the “problem” by which Symonds was beset. In the letter, Gosse wrote:
I know all that you speak of—the solitude, the rebellion, the despair. Yet I have been happy, too; I hope you also have been happy,—that all with you has not been disappointment & the revulsion of hope? Either way, I entirely & deeply sympathise with you. Years ago, I wanted to write to you about all this, and withdrew through cowardice. I have had a very fortunate life, but there has been this obstinate twist in it. I have reached a quieter time—some beginnings of that Sophoclean period when the wild beast dies. He is not dead, but tamer; I understand him & the trick of his claws….
One of the surprises of Thwaite’s biography is its dearth of corroborative evidence for Gosse’s homosexuality; twenty years have elapsed since the publication of Grosskurth’s book, and the 1890 letter remains the single piece of hard evidence for the view of Gosse as a closet invert. Either he covered his traces extraordinarily well or the whole thing has been a misunderstanding. Leon Edel has argued for the latter view in the fourth volume of his biography of Henry James (The Treacherous Years, 1895–1901), writing that the 1890 Gosse letter “has been grossly misinterpreted as an admission by him of his own homosexuality,” and going on to say that although “Gosse did say to Symonds in this letter that there was an ‘obstinate twist’ in his life…the fuller text of the letter shows that he was alluding not to inversion but to his ‘cowardice’ in not taking originally a large-minded and generous view of Symonds’s ‘problem.’ ”
At the risk of sounding—and ending up—like Collins (and also marveling at the amount of scholarly trouble the adventitious appearance of a holograph can stir up), I must rebuke the admirable biographer of James for talking through his hat. There is nothing in the fuller text of the letter to substantiate Edel’s interpretation; if anything, the fuller text—which partly deals with a “beautiful study,” probably of a nude male model, which Symonds had sent Gosse, and which contains the statement “I have come out of the fire absolutely clear in conscience and without the shadow of a doubt as to right & wrong”—gives even greater credence to the Grosskurth view than does the extract alone.
Ann Thwaite writes, “When someone once asked Lytton Strachey whether Gosse was a homosexual, Strachey replied, ‘No, but he’s Hamo-sexual.’ ” The reference is to Hamo Thornycroft, a sculptor of Gosse’s age, with whom Gosse had a passionate friendship for many years, and to whom Thwaite believes Gosse was referring when he wrote to Symonds of the “obstinate twist” in his life and of “the wild beast.” Gosse’s letters to Thornycroft (which were preserved by Thornycroft) are clearly love letters, but they are letters that can also be read (and were written to be read) as the letters of one married man writing to another. There was never anything clandestine about the relationship. Gosse would go alone with Thornycroft on walking tours and fishing trips and boating excursions—which we know about today because of the letters Gosse wrote home to his wife, describing the banks of calamus on which he and his friend lay, the naked bathing they did, the alfresco meals they prepared, etc. Thwaite uses her eyes and ears and instinct to pick up the homoerotic atmosphere of the friendship, but she doesn’t go beyond the evidence. The question of Gosse’s homosexuality remains unanswered, but Thwaite’s delicate, sympathetic, and clearsighted treatment of the Thornycroft friendship has somehow laid it to rest.
In Ann Thwaite, altogether, Gosse has found a biographer of special temperamental affinity who, like himself, is more drawn to men’s “fireside ways” than to their unsheltered, inchoate public or private dramas, and who has filled her long biography with the sort of domestic details and anecdotes that Gosse’s own writings are filled with. In saying this, I do not in any way want to suggest that Thwaite’s book is superficial or overlong. I think her approach is right. If it faltered in the Quarterly affair—Gosse’s single larger-than-life appearance—it has served her admirably everywhere else. Gosse is one of life and literature’s Prufrocks, and to write about him as if he were Hamlet wouldn’t do at all. “I see his faults clearly, but am very deeply attached to him, by a kind of insoluble tie, like relationship,” Benson wrote of Gosse, and this could describe Thwaite’s attitude toward her subject. Her portrait of this touchy, feline, ambitious, cautious, snobbish, self-stroking, vivacious, generous, warm-hearted, and interesting man is an authoritative and just one. I recommend it to students of the art of biography as well as to aficionados of the Victorian literary scene.
March 14, 1985