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.

Newfoundland was an invigoratingly raw place in the late 1820s, occupied with cod fishing and seal hunting, and largely populated with Irish sailors. It was a bustle of activity, in which Henry could determine his own direction. His piety had so far been conventional, just as his interest in natural history had been no more than a desultory hobby. In this intense new world, they developed into the driving energies of his life. His work was not demanding, and seems to have left time to read, make friends, fall in love with a girl who married someone else, deliver speeches on politics, and grow up. In 1832 (‘the most memorable year of my life’, he was later to call it), he bought a book on microscopy, constructed a microscope, and began a systematic study of the insect life of the unfamiliar world around him. Both his science and his religion grew more disciplined. Matters of doctrine were not taken lightly in this precarious world, and Henry’s first ventures as a lay preacher in a Wesleyan chapel expressed a serious commitment.

By 1835, he was sufficiently confident to feel that he had outgrown Newfoundland. In a bold if misguided moment, he bought a farm in Quebec. He knew nothing of farming, but didn’t doubt that he could learn. In the three years he spent on his sixty acres, he did indeed learn – ploughing, planting, log-hauling and tree-felling failed to daunt him. The winters were savage, but he didn’t freeze or starve. More surprising still, his work as an entomologist advanced. He had grown besotted with butterflies, as he was later to recall: ‘I felt and acted as though butterfly-catching had been the great business of life.’ He supplemented his meagre income by teaching through the winter months. This drudgery brought nothing more than subsistence; he left the farm poorer than he’d been when he arrived. But he had gathered the materials for The Canadian Naturalist, his first book. His health, faith and optimism were undamaged by the bleak years in Canada. All that seemed necessary was somewhere a little warmer. He headed for Alabama, where he found a job as a teacher. Life was easier in the South, and there were astounding butterflies to capture and paint, but in spite of the ‘rich and almost virgin field for the pursuit of natural history’, he wrote: ‘I feel slavery alone to be so enormous an evil that I could not live here. I am already hastening to be gone.’

Gosse returned to England in 1839, his fortune still unmade. The uncertain 17-year-old was now a tough and widely experienced man, with the foundations of a practical education in collecting and observation that would enable him to make a career as one of the most widely read naturalists of his generation. But it was easier to starve on the streets of London than in the Canadian wilderness, and the next step was the hardest of all. Gosse took a dingy room, fed himself on eightpence a day (a piece of bread and a herring, eaten very slowly), and tried to find a publisher for The Canadian Naturalist. He was lucky, and secured a miraculous hundred guineas for a book that was to become one of the foundations of his reputation. With the energy that makes these early years so extraordinary, he went on to establish a boys’ school, which he ran single-handed (remembering Alabama, he was pleased to find that one of his young gentlemen was black), while consolidating his records of the natural history of the New World, and beginning extensive new studies of British invertebrates. Self-education accompanied the education of others, as it would throughout his life. His spiritual life also began to take new directions. It was during his London years that Gosse acquired a belief in the imminence of the Second Coming, when Christ would ‘send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other’. Matthew’s gospel goes on to warn that ‘of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven.’ This did not deter Gosse from obsessive calculation: ‘If my interpretation is right, the appearing of the Lord cannot overpass the year 1881.’ The hope that he might be among the chosen, that he need never taste death, was to remain with him for the rest of his life.

Still traumatised by his experiences in Alabama, he was immediately attracted by the radical egalitarianism of the Hackney Brethren. He broke with the sober Methodists, and joined what seemed to him a ‘Utopian dream of a Christian socialism’. The Brethren rejected the authority of all priests, ministers and established churches. The women of the group – they included Emily Bowes, the strong-minded governess he was to marry – were accorded full equality. Only the Bible could regulate belief and conduct. Gosse has often been identified with the Plymouth Brethren, whose practices had much in common with those of the congregation in Hackney. In one of her many salutary correctives, Thwaite points out that Gosse always denied any connection with Plymouth. No earthly company could claim his loyalty. He was simply a Puritan, or a member of the Church of Christ. The Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge gave him his first commissions as a scientific writer, and thanks to that he was able to give up schoolteaching. An Introduction to Zoology was followed by The Ocean, lucid and lively studies that were eagerly read by Britain’s growing army of amateur naturalists. It was an achievement that prompted further adventure. In 1844 Gosse set off for the Caribbean, where he spent two cheerful years recording the natural history of Jamaica. Heaven, he thought, might resemble ‘the mountain-woods of glorious Jamaica’.

Now in his late thirties, Gosse had the material and expertise to produce the stream of scientific writing that would make him financially secure. At last he was able to marry. Emily Bowes was 42, intelligent, used to independence, and fervently idealistic. Like Henry she was drawn to the uncompromisingly socialist Christianity she had found among the Hackney Brethren. Her proselytising among the poor was untiring, as was her writing. If Henry could popularise science, she could do the same for religion. Her tracts reached a staggeringly large readership – Thwaite reports that seven million copies were distributed. No longer young, the Gosses were lucky to have found each other, and still luckier to become parents. Young Edmund turned up punctually, ten months after the wedding – an only child, extravagantly loved and cherished. Thwaite briskly sweeps away Edmund’s pathetic picture of a desolate childhood. He was the centre of his parents’ active lives, closely involved in their circle of family and friends, encouraged in all his childish activities. Like his parents, he was lucky. But then, when he was six years old, his mother developed breast cancer.

Emily’s illness and death is the central event of Father and Son. Typically courageous, Henry and Emily tried a pioneering herbal treatment supposedly used by the Cherokee Indians who lived on the shores of Lake Superior. It didn’t work. Emily bequeathed the care of her son to Henry, with many prayers that the boy should be led to a safe reunion in paradise. Henry undertook the duty with a zeal that Edmund came to resent, implying that it was death his father really wanted for himself and his son: ‘He fretted at the delay; he would fain have taken me by the hand, and have joined her in the realms of holiness and light, at once, without this dreary alliance with earthly cares.’ In fact, Henry, now a Fellow of the Royal Society, was eagerly engaged with earthly concerns, even as he mourned his wife. He was writing a book that he hoped might reconcile religion with science. It was braver than anything he had done, and much less successful. Omphalos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot was published in 1857, the year of Emily’s death. It argued that all nature, organic and inorganic, moves in great cycles, and that the act of creation, however it is understood, must break into that cycle. When God made the world, Gosse explained, his work had necessarily to bear the signature of a history that had not happened. Evidence for events preceding the divine creation – fossils, for instance, or Adam’s navel, which gave the book its title – were ‘prochronic’; later events were ‘diachronic’. Both were legitimate matter for scientific study. The incompatibility between evolutionary and religious thinking was instantly dissolved.

Gosse was wrong, of course, but his argument was perfectly consistent, and it was not ludicrous. It was Charles Kingsley, a dangerous protagonist in any debate, who seems to have been largely responsible for the notion that Gosse claimed God placed fossils in rocks in order to deceive geologists – ‘one enormous and superfluous lie’. This was not what Gosse had said, even if it was only a short step away. Stephen Jay Gould, one of the few 20th-century scientists who have tried to do justice to Gosse’s thinking, pointed out that the problem with Gosse’s book is not that it is mistaken, but that it is useless. Its central hypothesis is entirely untestable. As Gosse affirms, there can be no perceptible difference between the products of prochronic and diachronic time. Omphalos was irrelevant, and it was coldly received. He had never had a reputation as a scientific thinker – his strength was in observation, not in debate. After the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859, events moved forward without further intervention on his part. Edmund Gosse presents the failure as a devastating blow to his father’s spirits, and it certainly added to the trials of this dark year in Gosse’s life. But not, as Edmund suggests, because he cared about the loss of worldly reputation. What grieved him was the end of any prospect of healing the widening divisions between religion and science. He worked on as a descriptive scientist with undiminished energy, producing the major work on British sea anemones and corals for which he was long admired and remembered. Gosse’s religion put him outside the pale of received scientific thought, but it also meant that such thought was not what mattered most to him. ‘If I am deceived, I am no loser by the belief,’ he wrote to an atheist colleague, ‘for it makes me very happy; but O my friend, if you are deceived, think what a terrible risk you run!’

The sour and sombre old age that Edmund sketches in Father and Son did not happen. Activity and happiness seem to have been what chiefly distinguished Henry’s closing years. He had married again three years after Emily’s death, and got on well with his sensible new wife, whose fortune eased his financial position. Nor was there any real rift with Edmund, despite their religious differences. Henry was as fond a father as ever, and took great pleasure in his grandchildren. Having done what he could to rectify the infidelities of polemical science, he felt quite justified in pursuing the work that suited him: preaching to fellow Christians in his Devon village, and observing the small creatures of the natural world. He was still capable of being carried away by new enthusiasms. Edmund was rather put out, on one of his many visits to his father, to find that butterflies had taken over: ‘his whole heart and time are given up to the butterflies. He can only spare us an hour this morning and another hour this afternoon.’ Henry was investigating the remarkable varieties of form to be observed in the penis of the male butterfly – ‘translucent and glittering and sparkling under the sunlight, like amber’. The generosity of God’s creation could be depended on in this world and the next.

It is no longer fashionable to condescend to Victorian science, and Ann Thwaite’s winningly partial biography is a reflection of a wider change of taste. Edmund Gosse now seems a slight figure beside his uncompromising father. Yet the parallels between the two lives are as suggestive as the differences. Both were able, hard-working outsiders. Edmund, like Henry, did not go to university, and for all the social success of his later years he never quite shook off the stigma of his Dissenting origins. Virginia Woolf, unerring in matters of social distinction, would call him the ‘dapper little grocer’. Edmund also followed his father in becoming something of a populariser, delighting in opening new worlds (Scandinavian literature, for example) to his readers. He too was pushed out of the intellectual mainstream as the result of a disastrous publication in mid-career; it was his 1885 book From Shakespeare to Pope, crushingly reviewed by the Oxford-educated Churton Collins, that did for him. In fact, the old naturalist was more fortunate than his son. His unshakeable beliefs limited the value of his science, but they meant that the world’s censure and cynicism could not touch him. Henry had visited paradise, in the forms of butterflies, corals and sea anemones, and in the pages of the Bible. But the Darwinian thought he resisted was to demolish his religion, while the craze for amateur collecting he promoted left the rock pools in ruins. ‘No one will see again on the shore of England what I saw in my early childhood,’ Edmund wrote: ‘the submarine vision of dark rocks, speckled and starred with an infinite variety of colour, and streamed over by silken flags of royal crimson and purple.’