Monday, May 20, 2013
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.
It is sometimes the fortune of quite prolific writers to be remembered for just one book. This has certainly been the fate of Edmund Gosse (1849-1928). He produced many volumes of poetry, but they are all now forgotten. None of his poetry is re-published or appears in anthologies; and having never sighted any of it, I’m in no position to pass judgement on it. He also wrote official biographies of a few people (including his father) and a mountain of literary criticism. But as is the way with literary criticism, most of this has now been superseded and is consulted only by Lit Crit specialists. I do know that in his last years, there were much younger writers (such as Aldous Huxley) who regarded him as a pompous old bore who was too inclined to lord it over his youngers and betters, and to see himself as the Grand Cham of the whole London literary scene.
Gosse was happily married and had three children, but he was homosexual by inclination, a fact which he admitted to a few friends (like the similarly inclined John Addington Symonds) only when he was in middle age. This may have inflected the attitudes of some younger writers towards him.
But there is one book by Gosse, and one book only, which has continued to be a minor classic and has rarely been out of print over the last century. This is Father and Son, and my recent re-reading of it reminds me of how good it is.
Subtitled “A Study of Two Temperaments”, it is Gosse’s autobiographical account of his relationship, in childhood and adolescence, with his father Philip Gosse. The account ends when young Gosse is 17 or 18 years old. It is often hailed as an early attempt at psychological autobiography and it is frequently cited by cultural historians when they wish to say negative things about the domestic power of Victorian fathers.
Edmund Gosse was an only child. His father was 38 and his mother 42 when he was born; and his mother died when he was about 6 or 7. Philip Gosse was a scientist – a marine biologist and the author of respected textbooks. But he was a man of limited and literalist Christian views, even by the standards of the Victorian age. Gosse Senior was a Plymouth Brethren with exclusivist beliefs about the salvation of his own sect (the only group of Christians to interpret the Bible correctly, apparently) and the impending damnation of everybody else. He hoped to train his son in the same views, but Father and Son records the strain and breakdown of their relationship as Edmund developed an aesthetic sense of his own.
Philip Gosse hoped to rout Charles Darwin’s newly-published notions of Evolution by Natural Selection. He researched and wrote a book called Omphalos, which was meant to harmonise all observable natural phenomena with a literalist interpretation of Genesis. He was bitterly disappointed, however, when even fellow Christians like Charles Kingsley failed to back him up. (Father and Son has an amusing vignette of Philip Gosse leaving Kingsley waiting in the garden when he came to call, as Philip refused to interrupt the Bible class he was conducting). It is worth reading the passages about this as a salutary reminder that, in historical fact, and despite later exaggerations by some secularist propagandists, many nineteenth century Christians had little difficulty in reconciling the theory of evolution with their Christian faith.
Poor old Philip Gosse found himself estranged from most Christian intellectuals as well as from the scientific community. So Gosse, father and son, settled in rural Devon, where Philip continued his sea-shore research and conducted Plymouth Brethren services in the local Brethren “Room”. And Edmund, baptised by total immersion at the uncustomarily young age of 10, was groomed to be a “saint”. With his father, he had to make local calls of charity (which he hated) and spend the whole Sabbath reading only the Bible. A Miss Marks almost married his widower father, but she left in a huff when he delayed proposing to her. Philip Gosse eventually married a Miss Wilkes, whom young Edmund liked for her gentle and tolerant nature – but it was his father who made the rules and dominated the household.
There are many arresting anecdotes in Father and Son. One of the best-known (partly because – with acknowledgement – it was re-hashed by the Australian Peter Carey in his 1988 Booker Prize-winning novel Oscar and Lucinda) concerns Philip Gosse’s rage when he discovered that two house-maids had been celebrating the “popish” feast of Christmas. He took the plum pudding they had prepared and buried it in the garden. There was also Philip’s rage and disappointment at those who were ardent in the Plymouth Brethren faith only for a short time before falling away. And there is the tale of the crazy woman who briefly abducted the boy Edmund from his conventicle. And the description of Mrs Paget, wife of a retired Baptist minister, who put fear into Philip Gosse by being able to argue better from Scripture than he could.
But the real subject is always Edmund’s growing-away from his father. There was that epiphany in childhood when he realized his father didn’t know everything. There was his wilful wickedness as a child when he tested God by praying to a stool to see if God would punish him. There was his adolescent discovery of Shakespeare and of Greek art at the boarding school he was sent to (which was not as narrowly Christian as his father thought it would be). Consequently there was the adolescent Edmund’s horror when he heard of the half-crazy Brethren girl Susan Flood, who tried to smash all the plaster casts of Greek statuary on display as the Crystal Palace as she believed they were malign heathen idols.
Fittingly, the main part of the book ends with the adolescent Edmund, on a calm and beautiful evening, praying for Jesus to take him… and when Jesus doesn’t take him, he realizes definitively that his ways will never be his father’s.
Father and Son was written when Edmund Gosse was nearly 60 and his father long dead. The chief tension in the book is between Edmund’s renunciation of his upbringing, and yet his continuing affection for his father, who was clearly no fool. From a safe distance of time, the younger Gosse can see that the older Gosse was attempting to do his best by his lights, and that he did indeed impart to him much interesting information about the natural world. Hence the tone is more often wryly humorous and ironical, rather than outraged or horrified. When Edmund Gosse does directly condemn his narrow religious upbringing, it sounds like editorialising.
Oddly, my reaction was that if one could remove the religious aspect from it, much of Edmund’s rural childhood would sound idyllic – his walking on the seashore; his absorption in producing watercolours of marine life, as he was encouraged to do by his father. The style is beautifully clear and readable, one notable aspect being Gosse’s determination to stick to the point of his relationship with his father. Hence this is not a complete autobiography of his first 18 years and much (including, one assumes, sexual urges) is not part of the record. Of his boarding school years, for example, we hear nothing except that the school eventually didn’t appeal to his father; and that young Edmund once naughtily locked an usher into the school’s cellar.
Only occasionally, Gosse’s style can become pretentious. In Chapter 5 he mentions “an inspissated gloom” and in Chapter 9 he talks of “the mildest and most febrifugal story-book” (Look ‘em up, folks.). Usually he is clarity itself, flavoured with an urbane irony, as in his introductory words in Chapter 1:
“This is the study of… a state of soul once not uncommon in Protestant Europe, of which my parents were perhaps the latest consistent exemplars among people of light and leading.”
He comes up with some delightful aphorisms, as when describing his stepmother in Chapter 10: “She was never a tower of strength to me, but at least she was always a lodge in my garden of cucumbers.”
In Chapter 12, he says when he was at school:
“I suppose that my queer reputation for sanctity, half dreadful, half ridiculous, surrounded me with a non-conducting atmosphere… A state in which conversation exists not, is for me an air too empty of oxygen for my lungs to breathe it.”
One of the best passages of extended irony (too long for me to quote here) is in Chapter 4, where (though “I have no longer the slightest wish myself to denounce the Roman communion”), he reflects on the extreme anti-Catholic bigotry in which he was raised, which left him having nightmares about the Scarlet Woman of Babylon, the Beast 666 and so on.
And finally, to set the nerves rattling, there is the account in his Epilogue of the moment when he at last stood up to his father, who had the habit of cross-examining his adolescent religious conscience:
“My father had once more put to me the customary interrogatory. Was I ‘walking closely with God’? Was my sense of the efficacy of the Atonement clear and sound? Had the Holy Scriptures still their full authority with me? My replies on this occasion were violent and hysterical. I have no clear recollection what it was that I said – I desire not to recall the whimpering sentences in which I begged to be let alone, in which I demanded the right to think for myself, in which I repudiated the idea that my father was responsible to God for my secret thoughts and my most intimate convictions.”
Freud, deluded man, believed that each man, in his innermost core, really wanted to kill his father. This is plainly nonsense, and yet there is a point where every young man, if he is going to grow up at all, has to separate himself from his father. Rarely has such separation been expressed with such force, and such pathos, as in Gosse’s account.
It remains only to say that modern biographers (including Anne Thwaite) have made a strong case for the idea that Edmund Gosse grossly exaggerated the tyranny of Philip, who was apparently a gentler soul than his son made out. Perhaps it was very much the way Samuel Butler caricatured his clergyman father in his fiction. I can believe this, but I still see Father and Son as a classic of subjective portraiture.