Tom has just begun reading Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son
. Gosse was one of the important late Victorian literary critics – he wrote a general history of English literature, several large volumes, a very useful book. Father and Son
is his autobiography, or at least part of his life story. Gosse’s parents were members of the last generation of real Puritans; their dogged questioning of Anglicanism led them deeper into dissent until they settled in an odd little church called the Plymouth Brethren, Biblical literalists. The newly married couple’s favorite shared pastime was trying to make sense of the Book of Revelations. Mencken definition of Puritanism
sticks with us to this day (thanks, Leslie
), and the label has stuck, truthfully enough. But the American Fundamentalist is like a cheap degraded imitation of his real Puritan forebears. He’s like Las Vegas souvenir keychain Elvis compared to actual Elvis, as you may infer from the cheap and specious reasoning in the article Leslie cites. You can glimpse the real Puritans in accounts of the Counter-Reformation; they are all over England in the 17th century. You can see their later descendants in the New England of P.T. Barnum’s childhood. And one quality that is totally unexpected among them is joy. Gosse’s parents had that quality, even though the early years of their marriage were difficult, and just as things were beginning to get easy Emily Gosse, Edmund's mother, was diagnosed with breast cancer, for which there was no treatment at the time. The Gosses practiced, joyfully, a most scrupulous unworldliness. They did their bit of the world’s work and they read the Bible and they enjoyed this blessed assurance that came with a complete and willing trust in and submission to the mystery of God’s will. These were not the sort of people who think God gets them Oscars or wins football games for them. They were kooks but it is impossible not to admire them. They were truly heroic people.
To top off everything, Gosse’s father was a zoologist, a real lover of science, enjoying good professional relations with, of all people, Darwin and Lyell. Philip Henry Gosse’s fame peaked in the years when biology and geology were converging to reveal 1) a longer timeline of earth’s history than the Biblical timeline, and 2) the changeability of species. Zoology was the bit of the world’s work that the elder Gosse did, and he loved it. You knew the moment had to come sooner or later, the moment when irrefutable biological fact and Biblical inerrancy met. Gosse pere tried to reconcile both in a hpothesis that was so silly, especially coming from a man of his intelligence and knowledge, that it made him a laughing-stock, the great humiliation of his life. His theory, roughly put, was that God had planted misleading geological evidence for evolution as a test of faith. I am sure there are people who believe this now, but his contemporary Victorian audience knew that this was just ludicrous.
He couldn’t follow biological theory where it was going, though he was able to go on doing a lot of zoological work; locating and identifying and classifying new species of tide-pool creatures. He was a bit of a tide-pool creature himself. It was the loss to the field of a wonderfully trained mind. A tragedy with just that little bit of farce to it that makes you forgive human frailty.
But the story of this controversy is only an incident in Edmund Gosse’s narrative. The book is really about what it was like to grow up with these peculiar people.
Gosse’s mother was a writer of devotional poetry. She had her son quite late in life, especially for those days, and died of breast cancer when he was eight. In the years after her diagnosis, as she traveled about London seeking treatment and often in terrible pain, she became a great harvester of souls, converting people she met on the street by the force of her arguments and her formidable will power. She was the great moral force of the little household, and on her deathbed she made her husband promise to dedicate their son to God’s service, that is, to teach him to become the kind of servant of God that they were, to carry their mission further.
The story of Gosse’s childhood and adolescence is the story of how he found his way out from under this dreadful obligation.
Gosse is little regarded now as a critic because the thing that interested him in literature was its pleasure, the pleasure of beautiful language and feeling. This was a luxury that the English and American modernist writers, looking at the shambles of Europe after World War I, felt was rather less than indispensable. But the world into which Gosse escaped from the Plymouth Brethren was the fullest flowering of Victorian culture, buoyant, optimistic, rich, busy, and serious about things like pleasure and beauty, And, oddly, his upbringing peculiarly fitted him for responsiveness to literary pleasure. He clearly started out with that sensitivity – he detested bad writing as soon as he could read – but the long daily Bible readings had the effect of steeping his imagination in the language of the King James Bible. But there was another, salutary effect; close attention, and the absence of self-sufficiency, by which I mean the absence of the starting assumption that he knew it all already. He was a man who had broken a sacred deathbed promise to his mother and escaped into a secular world of which he knew little.
I had a friend years ago (we’ve lost touch) who was an ex-Muslim. He had turned to Marxism, of all things! We used to have long arguments, usually in bars. He was bitter, and I don’t believe in bitterness, I don’t believe that a general pose of cynicism does anything except let the real bastards steal the good things of the world right out from under you while you are admiring your own superiority. His cynicism was cover, too, for a lot of pain that he wouldn’t own up to. One night I got really exasperated with him. I said “You’ve gone from being a true believer in one book to being a true believer in another book. There’s no difference. Maybe the problem you have is that you keep thinking you can get everything out of one book.”
Gosse escaped this hazard; he was moved by the Word, and he learned early that it was because he was moved by words. When he eventually discovered literature (all works of fiction were forbidden) he found a garden of earthly delights which those passionate, enthusiastic, analytical Bible readings had strangely fitted him to enjoy. His quite voluminous body of criticism is testament to this enjoyment. But in Father and Son
it seems to me that any reader should pay close attention to what he says about books. Because he is not putting anything on, he is not trying to impress anybody with cleverness.
A book like this only gets written because it tells the story of the defining experience of a person’s life. The story demands to be told, as the Rime of the Ancient Mariner demands to be told.
Nothing in this book is quite what you would expect, and that’s a good thing. There are undoubtedly reticences – he was a Victorian, for crying out loud! – but what he does tell you is so strange that it reminds me of how sketchy and cartoonish my usual ideas about things are. It reminds me how I go about my day vaguely feeling that I know about the world, unreflecting, navigating it by means of conventional ideas that I don’t examine unless I bump into something that demands closer attention. Everything that disturbs our sense of knowing it all, our sense that we know the exact price of all the goods in the shop, is salutary. In taking in the basic facts of Gosse’s life we may think we know all about him, but what we are taking for knowledge is not to be confused with what we get byexperience.
In this book I enter a world that was culturally remote even from the society that was contemporary to it. How much more remote it must be from me here today! And yet when I read it I feel like I am not escaping, but getting deeper look into, my own world. We need our sense of what it is to experience anything to be continually refreshed. Life is short, there’s too much to do, and our faculty of stereotyping and working from sketchy views of relationships and things is necessary just to get through the day. But when we look into our own relationships to things, when we want to know what we can know, when we hope to judge and act from the best motives, we have to stretch our imagination and sympathies to their outermost reach. We can’t just go looking for what we already know.
With this thought I've been compiling a list of writers, like Gosse, whose works you might pass on the shelves of a secondhand bookstore without realizing that they are worth picking up. I'll post it separately.
Labels: books, edmund gosse, literary criticism, old books