Saturday, March 19, 2011

Edmund Gosse – ‘Father and Son’

Mentioned by Claire Tomalin in her Thomas Hardy biography as ‘one of the most powerful autobiographical books ever written’, and I can never resist a tangential recommendation like that. It is a surprising conclusion to a paragraph that otherwise depicts Edmund Gosse as a socialite with literary pretensions which his talent did not justify. It tells the story of Edmund’s childhood, spent mostly in rural Devon, and dominated by his father’s attempts to bring him up in accordance with his own Christian faith (he was a minister with the Plymouth Bretheren, who were / are Baptists with some sort of doctrinal difference or other). The Wikipedia entry on the father, Philip Henry Gosse – somewhat longer than his son’s page – gives several examples of critics doubting the truth of Edmund’s account, implying that it is self-serving. It also reports that Ann Thwaite, biographer of both men, ‘argues that Edmund could only preserve his self-respect, in comparison to his father’s superior abilities, by demolishing the latter’s character’. I’m not sure he quite does that, though. By the end, Philip Henry has certainly become a suffocating presence, and one that Edmund needs to escape in order to grow up himself, but that is hardly unusual, at the end of adolescence. There are plenty of moments, too, during which he forgets to be godly and is very charming:
Sometimes in the course of this winter, my Father and I had long cosy talks together over the fire. Our favourite subject was murders. I wonder whether little boys of seven or eight, soon to go upstairs alone at night, often discuss violent crime with a widower-papa?
A potent anecdote told just before this has Philip Henry singing a folk song, delighting his son with his ‘strange, broad Wessex lingo’, when some carpenters overhear and comment on the contrast between the song and the minister’s station. ‘I saw his eyes darken. He never sang a secular song again during the whole of his life.’ Christianity is always a limiting factor in this book. It gets in the way of life (and especially social life) as it should be lived.

It also gets in the way of Philip Henry’s professional life as a natural scientist. He is a man very specifically out of time. Towards the beginning of the book, after his wife’s death, he nobly rises to the financial challenges which ensue by undertaking a lecture tour: ‘The captain of a vessel in a storm must navigate his ship, although his wife lies dead in the cabin’, is how Edmund dramatises it. The lectures were a success, and had their audiences fascinated by the new possibility of being able to observe marine wildlife in aquariums. In any earlier age, this interest would not have been incompatible with religious faith, but this was 1856: Lyell and Darwin were in the process of changing the way the public thought about the creation of the world, and humanity. Gosse’s response was characteristically brave, misguided and bloody minded:
My Father, after long reflection, prepared a theory of his own, which, as he fondly hoped, would take the wind out of Lyell’s sails, and justify geology to godly readers of ‘Genesis’. It was, very briefly, that there had been no gradual modification of the surface of the earth, or slow development of organic forms, but that when the catastrophic act of creation took place, the world presented, instantly, the structural appearance of a planet on which life had long existed.
This was the subject of his book Omphalos, which did not sell well, being on the wrong side of the zeitgeist.

A similar rigidity runs through Philip Henry’s entire approach to bringing up Edmund, who acknowledges, ‘It was not in harshness or in ill-nature that he worried me so much; on the contrary, it was part of his too-anxious love’. Which makes sense: you don’t want the people you love to be eternally damned, after all. He eagerly rushes his son into baptism in his early teens, and Edmund complies, takes it seriously, becomes quite big headed about it. Gradually, though, he lets his natural inclinations take him upon a more sociable, and a more literate path. The sad thing is that you feel that these would also be Philip Henry’s inclinations, were it not for his faith. He delights in reading a poem of Scott’s out loud to Edmund, but will not allow him to read any of his novels. Relenting a little he allows him The Pickwick Papers, on the grounds that Dickens ‘exposes the passion of love in a ridiculous light’. On the subject of his second marriage, Philip Henry has to endure the fruits of his advice to Edmund to ‘testify “in season and out of season”’, and his son grills him about Miss Brightwen’s religious unsuitability – which he does purely as a duty, being fond of her personally. His father fudges the issue for once, an admirable exception to ‘his determination to pull the veil of illusion away from every compromise that makes life bearable.’

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