Fond Father

Dinah Birch

  • Glimpses of the Wonderful: The Life of Philip Henry Gosse 1810-88 by Ann Thwaite
    Faber, 387 pp, £25.00, October 2002, ISBN 0 571 19328 5

Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son was one of the first and most wounding of the Edwardian attacks on the high Victorians. Casting himself as a ‘little helpless child’, Gosse represented his father, the naturalist Philip Henry Gosse, as a small-minded bigot. In Edmund’s case, the not uncommon inclination to see ourselves as pitiful victims when we remember our childhood was magnified by the wish to imply a heroic escape from the tyranny of an eminent Victorian. Even Edmund, however, was taken aback by the reaction when his memoir was published in 1907. He had not intended an all-out assault on the father he professed to see as ‘a good and even great man, whose character was too powerful not to have its disconcerting sides’. But the book was read as ‘a bitter cry from a world without tenderness and without gaiety’, or, as Frederic Harrison put it, ‘a story of rank cruelty and almost insanity’. Virginia Woolf agreed, speaking of the ‘almost insane religious mania of the father’. This, without question, was a book about the grim oppression of a life-denying father and the admirable resilience of a persecuted son.

Father and Son was the only book to survive the wreck of Edmund’s reputation after his death in 1928. One reason for its popularity was the assumption that it provided a reliable picture of a bizarre world. Edmund’s observations were thought to have the cool exactitude of his father’s studies of the private lives of sea anemones. Peter Abbs’s introduction to the current Penguin edition, first published in 1983, accepts the memoir as a faithful record of what happened: ‘As a documentary record we know, from other sources, that most of the facts are accurate.’ This is very much the impression that Edmund Gosse wanted to give. His own preface insists that the book is ‘scrupulously true’, ‘a document, as a record of educational and religious conditions which, having passed away, will not return’. Ann Thwaite’s 1984 biography of Edmund Gosse was already sceptical about such claims, but what had been a small skirmish in that book is the central campaign here. Fortunately, the Gosse family were inveterate letter-writers and journal-keepers, and not prone to throwing things out. Thwaite demonstrates that Edmund’s facts are contradicted by quantities of documentary evidence. Philip Henry Gosse was not a gloomy monster. He was a courageous and innovative scientist and a thoroughly likable human being.

We are used to the notion of Henry Gosse as a man who steered clear of danger – he was ‘born to fly backward’, his son asserted, and was generally characterised by a mulish refusal to stir from home. ‘He was . . . timid and reclusive, and he shrank from all avoidable companionship with others.’ It comes as a surprise, then, to learn of Henry’s sociable and venturesome youth. His father, Thomas Gosse, was an unsuccessful miniaturist, who made a shaky living by wandering the country and producing portraits on demand. His outspoken wife, Hannah, formerly a lady’s maid, was the real hub of the family. She was determined to educate her sons and, despite a chronic shortage of money, sent her second son, Henry, to a school where he could acquire a working knowledge of the classics. But schooling ended soon after his 15th birthday, and he began work as a clerk, on an annual salary of £20. It was a serious blow when he was made redundant the following year. The family’s response shaped his life: barely 17, Henry set off for Newfoundland as an indentured apprentice with a counting-house. He spent the next 12 years overseas.

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