The Unreliable Genius

Edmund Gosse: A Literary Landscape, 1849–1928

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

Edmund Gosse
Edmund Gosse; drawing by David Levine

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,…

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