J.I.M. Stewart

  • 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”.’

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in