- 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”.’
To this ending of Father and Son Gosse, at the publisher’s instance, added the section he called ‘Epilogue’. Chronology is again uncertain. We are not told in what year Philip Gosse addressed to his son the letter of ‘crowning importance’ upon which the Epilogue closes. But Ann Thwaite, in her admirable biography, produces something definite: Gosse wrote a long reply to this letter on 19 January 1870, three years after he left home to take up his employment in the Museum. Significantly, perhaps, the reply has a good deal to say about money, since Gosse is still dependent on his father for anything beyond necessities. This has to be borne in mind when we move forward three years further to a yet longer letter (printed in extenso by Evan Charteris in his biography of Gosse published in 1931) in which the son strives to arrive at some accommodation with his fundamentalist parent by declaring himself to be one who will ‘cling to nothing so much as to the Godhead of Christ’. Is this disingenuous? Just when may it be said that Gosse, like Gibbon, ‘suspended the course of his religious inquiries’ and simply thought about the topic no more?
There is a virtual dismissal in Father and Son itself, set in the Epilogue just before we are given that final letter from Philip Gosse. Edmund Gosse claims the right to protest against the ‘untruth’ that ‘evangelical religion, or any religion in a violent form, is a wholesome or valuable or desirable adjunct to human life’. A whole page follows of indictment so vehement that the qualifying ‘in a violent form’ is of little effect. But the denunciation comes from the man in his mid-fifties as he writes his book. Back in the mid-1870s, when he has already, in his own phrase, ‘pushed’ himself into ‘a powerful clique’ of people eminent in literature and the arts, he is still lodging with pious ladies chosen by his father – ladies who deprecate artistic associations as sadly ‘lowering the spiritual tone’ – and is teaching in a Sunday School a class of ‘about twelve boys, aged thirteen to fifteen or more’. Mrs Thwaite says that ‘he never spoke out as an agnostic, not even after his father’s death.’ But ‘spoke out’ must here mean something like ‘went boldly on public record’. To his intimates he was candid enough. To John Blaikie, one of his earliest friends, he recounted in 1874 how, on the occasion of an accident that had put him in fear of death, ‘the Christian revealed religion had never seemed so little worthy of belief.’ When A.C. Benson asked him what he believed he answered: ‘Nothing supernatural, thank God!’
This last is a witticism of sorts, but it appears to have been not preponderantly by wit that Gosse made his conversation – as he undoubtedly did – extremely attractive. It was rather through a temperamental gregariousness, by an unflagging eagerness to converse, to entertain and be entertained by good talk, conducted at whatever level of intimacy was appropriate to the occasion. To this he undoubtedly added a malleability, a willingness to defer to the persuasions of an interlocutor, which to a hostile view might appear to indict the author of Father and Son as something of a Vicar of Bray. He would ask those devout ladies with whom he lodged to say a prayer with him before going to bed as readily as he would receive a more sophisticated lady’s whimsical injunction to send her vulgar postcards. He liked giving pleasure and arriving at charitable verdicts – although these latter, publicly pronounced, might be negated in private later on. Arthur O’Shaughnessy (a fellow-worker in the Museum, and the poet who believed that deathless ditties build up the world’s great cities) is ‘the most blameless of gentle spirits’ and also ‘that poor idiot’. These are not quite irreconcilable statements, but O’Shaughnessy would have been much more pained by one than by the other.
Osbert Sitwell, a stout admirer of Gosse, was to insist on ‘the sheer quality of fun which he possessed in the highest degree’. But Sitwell also takes occasion of Gosse’s having to wear a patch over an eye to compare him to a pirate chief who ‘sailed the seas under his own flag’. There was undoubtedly a predatory element in Gosse’s voyagings alike in British and Continental society. ‘It was very kind of Mr Scott,’ he writes to his father ‘to ask me to a little party of people who were all sure to be useful to me.’ ‘If I had been crafty, I had my reward,’ he comments on a successful coup that secured him the acquaintance of the elusive Danish poet, Frederik Paludan-Müller. The craft was commonly innocent enough, consisting in the despatch of a letter expressive of feelings pitched between admiration and reverential awe according to the celebrity of the person addressed. Once a meeting was secured, Gosse knew that he was home and dry, for almost nobody to whom he presented himself failed to cultivate his acquaintance thereafter. ‘Algernon took to you at once,’ Mrs Madox Brown told him, ‘as is seldom the case with him.’ So Swinburne was hooked. Gosse was good, too, at what may be called refreshers. ‘The fact that you have allowed me to love you as a friend,’ he wrote to the painter William Bell Scott, ‘can never make me cease to revere you as a Master.’
Gosse’s marriage would seem to have been undertaken, at least in part, from motives similar to those informing the manner of his enlarging the circle of his acquaintance in general. Along with Ellen Epps he acquired as a brother-in-law Lawrence Alma-Tadema, a painter of Dutch extraction whose assiduity in applying a very small talent to the creation of very large canvases devoted in the main to celebrating the grandeur that was Rome had brought him fame, wealth, and a London house which Gosse was able to describe as ‘one of the most famous private dwellings of our time’. Alma-Tadema was also a devoted family man; he put on a splendid wedding reception, and shortly after the bridal couple returned from their honeymoon he departed for Italy, so that Edmund and Nellie could begin their married life as sole tenants of the famous family dwelling. It made an odd address for a library clerk in the British Museum. In another merely material regard the marriage held promise for Gosse. Nellie had no income of her own, but she was an Epps, a name mighty in the world of cocoa. The Gosses had to wait thirty years for their cocoa money, but it was a substantial sum when it came.
The marriage sounds humdrum, and there is little sign that Gosse was more than mildly stirred by it. ‘Nellie’s nature,’ he wrote to his father on the eve of the wedding, ‘soothes, sustains and perfects mine in a manner indescribable’; she is ‘womanly, and yet not in the least a fool’. But if the marriage began on the plains it ended, if not on the heights, at least a good deal higher up. Gosse became devoted to his wife and children; Nellie was calm, poised, affectionate and essentially regnant to the end of his days; the relationship survived all the assiduous tuft-hunting which grew upon him in old age. But it survived something more. In 1879 Gosse fell deeply in love with a young man called Hamo Thornycroft.
Thornycroft was a sculptor, and it is surely a point of some curiosity that in this sudden and overwhelming passion Gosse was, as it were, blazing a trail for Henry James, who at a more mature age was to fall for another blond and handsome wielder of mallet and chisel in the person of Hendrik Andersen. Gosse’s was the more fortunate choice – as also, I think, the more revelatory experience. In his letters to Thornycroft he can be felt as virtually discovering a new self. Thornycroft (like Nellie) appears to have taken the situation in his stride, maintaining an eager pleasure in Gosse’s company, holidaying with him and making him his best man.
The episode – if it can be called that – prompts a rummage. A letter of Gosse’s to John Blaikie contains expressions which, in Mrs Thwaite’s words, ‘one might more usually use to a lover’. A certain Theo Marzials, who later ‘became addicted to Dr Collis Browne’s Chlorodyne and to boys’, sends Gosse what is patently an amorous effusion. Gosse writes (to Nellie) from Cambridge of ‘a mass of handsome ruddy strong-backed youth’ playing tennis. ‘How beautiful and really how Greek it is! ... I wish you were here.’ John Addington Symonds detects in Gosse’s play, King Erik, ‘tender sympathy with the beauty of men as well as with women’. And, of course, there were those boys of ‘fifteen or more’ whom Gosse obstinately went on teaching in Sunday School. Was Gosse, then, homosexual? Asked this question, Lytton Strachey replied: ‘No, but he’s Hamo-sexual.’ Sassoon (who was Thornycroft’s nephew) agreed with this. Mrs Thwaite relegates to a note her own eminently sensible belief that ‘the confession of strong feelings at one period for one person of the same sex’ fails to qualify for membership of the club.
Finally, there is the near-disaster brought upon Gosse by what Henry James called his genius for inaccuracy. It wasn’t just that he got his dates all wrong and muddled identities. There was, one has to admit, more inspiration to it than that. He could develop an argument from the absence of books in Ibsen’s house, and it would turn out that he hadn’t been shown the library. He could offer ‘always voted right at elections’ as a translation from the Norwegian where ‘distinguished himself on the battlefield’ would have been better. And – most famously – he had pronounced upon Sidney’s Arcadia while believing it to be a poem. On all this ground he escaped destruction only because his principal antagonist, Churton Collins, was a cantankerous pedant, and because the fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge, closed ranks round their guest, the Clark Lecturer. But many of the new race of ‘English’ dons, professionally equipped, were essentially as hostile as Collins, insisting that one could only dismiss as a fraud a man who thought to edit Donne’s letters without first acquiring the ability to read secretary hand.
But principally his eventual reputation suffered because of something else. Finding himself in his closing decade much out of sympathy with the generation of writers coming to their maturity around him, he ought in prudence to have reflected upon the disabilities of age and held his peace about work which irritated and baffled him. Instead, he attacked it whenever he had opportunity, speaking of T.S. Eliot as ‘a ninny, a conceited literary humbug’, and of James Joyce as ‘a literary charatan of the extremest order’. Frequently in his weekly causeries he wrote from this standpoint to an effect of arrogance which engendered an answering hostility on the part of younger men and women. Gosse spoke of ‘the nasty fads of the hour’, and Aldous Huxley thought Gosse ‘the bloodiest little old man I have ever seen’.