- Edmund Gosse: A Literary Landscape 1849-1928 by Ann Thwaite
Secker, 567 pp, £15.00, April 1984, ISBN 0 436 52146 6
But for its background in Father and Son the life of Edmund Gosse would hold for us, I imagine, only minor interest today. Here would be simply a success story of a slightly teasing sort, in considering which we are brought into passing contact with a great many persons of eminence in their time. An under-educated lad comes to London to a clerkship in the library of the British Museum. He is clever but by no means intellectual or even reflective, and he is handicapped by the notion that he is a poet. In no time at all he has made his way into the society and regard of the leading artists and writers of the age, and this position he retains for something like sixty years. Swinburne is devoted to him at the start, as is Siegfried Sassoon at the close, and Henry James is going to address over four hundred letters to him. He weathers two major storms, one emotional and the other resulting from a rash claim that if not a poet he is at least a scholar. Becoming Librarian of the House of Lords, he luxuriates acceptably amid aristocrats in stately halls. His last public appearance is in January 1928 as a pall-bearer at Thomas Hardy’s funeral in Westminster Abbey along with the Prime Minister, Kipling, Shaw, Housman, Barrie, Galsworthy, and the Masters of the Queen’s College, Oxford and Magdalene College, Cambridge – all of whom (with the exception of the dons) I recall as slightly marring the solemnity of the occasion by irresistibly suggesting a group of caricatures by Max Beerbohm. Shortly after this Gosse hurries off to Paris on a visit to André Gide, whose work he had been the first to commend to English readers. In May he undergoes a minor and a major operation in rapid succession, in the interval making arrangements about his next article in the Sunday Times. Within a fortnight he is dead.
What, then, of Father and Son, that record of a boy’s struggle to free himself from the unslumbering religious solicitude of a devoted but near-maniacal parent? It may be noted that of only a few events is a precise date recorded in the book: for example, that on 29 June 1859 Edmund Gosse, then aged nine years and nine months, added a new genus to the British fauna – phellia murocinta, or the walled corklet. In the main – no doubt with a considered art – chronology is kept vague. Thus the book as first submitted to Heinemann concludes upon an occasion the date of which has to be inferred. Gosse is in his 17th year and about to leave school for London when an extreme crisis overwhelms him. He cries out to the Lord Jesus, much as his father might have done, to ‘come now and take me to be for ever with Thee in Thy Paradise’. The Lord Jesus (like Godbole’s Shri Krishna in A Passage to India) neglects to come, and straightway the boy’s ‘artificial edifice of extravagant faith began to totter and crumble. From that moment forth my Father and I, though the fact was long successfully concealed from him and even from myself, walked in opposite hemispheres of the soul, with “the thick o’ the world between us”.’
Vol. 6 No. 8 · 3 May 1984
SIR: ‘There is no species of writing which requires the exercise of a finer sense of proportion, of a keener appreciation of the relative value of things and men, or of a deeper sense of literary responsibility.’ In quoting Edmund Gosse on the art of biography, Ann Thwaite gives to any reviewer a working standard for the assessment of her own book, Edmund Gosse: A Literary Landscape. I agree with your reviewer, J.I.M. Stewart, that it is an ‘admirable biography’ (LRB, 5 April), but then I had read the book before I read his review: from the review itself I could have got no clue as to what warranted the compliment. Reviewers for your paper aren’t short of words but when they are put to no better use than to summarise the book in question (at great length) I wonder what function they are supposed to perform – other than to save the reader the bother of going to the book itself.
What is admirable about Mrs Thwaite’s book is the skill with which she populates that literary landscape in which Gosse was so astonishingly dominant a figure. To a large degree she enables us to see how it was that a man of relatively modest intellectual gifts could earn the respect and affection of such a diversity of poets, novelists and statesmen. She makes us see how the amiability and the supressed capacity for friendship that enabled Gosse to survive his (in so many ways) preposterous upbringing also served him so well in the performance of an ‘office’ that, as T.S. Eliot remarked, did not survive him. Mrs Thwaite fully documents the shortcomings and failures but what stays in the mind is the stamina and enthusiasm of a man who (to take the most impressive example) single-handedly introduced the works of Ibsen to the English reading public. ‘You of all my friends in other countries, possess the deepest, truest, most poetical insight into what I mean by my work.’ So Ibsen wrote to Gosse. Gosse was then 23 years old.
Gosse’s ‘genius for knowing people’ was for a very large part of his life inseparable from his work as a mediator and a populariser of literature – relatively humble, even suspect functions, we may now think. However, at a time when – as Martin Dodsworth has said – English literature is running out of readers, when serious comment on literature is more and more felt to be the preserve of the university-based specialist, it is good to be presented with so full and well-composed a picture of a vanished literary culture. It is my complaint that no one reading J.I.M. Stewart’s review of Mrs Thwaite’s book would know why her ‘admirable biography’ was worth a moment’s attention.
University of Leicester
J.I.M. Stewart writes: Before I agreed on the telephone to a small curtailment of my review required through the exigencies of space, it concluded thus:
I am not confident that Mrs Thwaite has quite gauged the strength of these conflicting indignations in the mid-1920s. But she has done a great service in providing a full and judicious review, not only of Edmund Gosse’s career and personality, but also – as she very modestly says in her Introduction – of ‘matters concerning several generations of writers’. James Boswell put a similar achievement more rotundly: ‘… the whole exhibiting a view of literature and literary men in Great-Britain, for near half a century, during which he flourished’.
Vol. 6 No. 9 · 17 May 1984
SIR: Roger Knight’s letter in the last issue infuriated me. I thought J.I.M. Stewart’s piece (Letters, 3 May) absolutely marvellous, and because of it ordered Ann Thwaite’s biography straight away from the library.