Tuesday 20 November 2018

Gosse's Protest – and After

Towards the end of Father and Son – a book I've greatly enjoyed (re)reading – Edmund Gosse finally throws off his heroic restraint, born of filial loyalty and love, and issues a blistering denunciation of the kind of harsh, narrow evangelicalism that blighted his early years. It's a brilliant passage...

'Let me speak plainly. After my long experience, after my patience and forbearance, I have surely the right to protest against the untruth (would that I could apply to it any other word!) that evangelical religion, or any religion in a violent form, is a wholesome or valuable or desirable adjunct to human life. It divides heart from heart. It sets up a vain, chimerical ideal, in the barren pursuit of which all the tender, indulgent affections, all the genial play of life, all the exquisite pleasures and soft resignations of the body, all that enlarges and calms the soul are exchanged for what is harsh and void and negative. It encourages a stern and ignorant spirit of condemnation; it throws altogether out of gear the healthy movement of the conscience; it invents virtues that are sterile and cruel; it invents sins which are no sins at all, but darken the heaven of innocent joy with futile clouds of remorse. There is something horrible, if we will bring ourselves to face it, in the fanaticism that can do nothing with this pathetic and fugitive existence of ours but treat it as if it were the uncomfortable antechamber to a palace which no one has explored and of the plan of which we know absolutely nothing.'
[Though his father, as Gosse goes on to point out, believed himself  'intimately acquainted with the form and furniture of this habitation, and he wished me to think of nothing else but the advantages of an eternal residence in it'.]

  There was an extraordinary strength in Gosse that enabled him not only to survive the torments of his childhood and make the painful but necessary break with his father, but to go on to achieve, from a standing start, great eminence in the literary – and social – world. His essays are little read now, his poems even less, but Father and Son undoubtedly survives, and so does the image – more of an after-image now – of Gosse, the great man of letters of his time, 'the snobbish, prickly, disingenuous literary politician', as John Gross describes him in The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters
  The young Gosse's ascent of the literary and social ladder began when he started work as a librarian at the British Museum – at the time, in Gross's phrase, 'a hive of rondeliers' – and it continued smoothly by means of Gosse's assiduous cultivation of literary connections. Despite his lack of any academic background, he was elected Clark Lecturer at Cambridge in 1880, but when the lectures were published in book form, he suffered a major setback in the form of a vicious review in the Quarterly by John Churton Collins ('a louse in the locks of literature,' as Tennyson called him). Unfortunately Collins was right about the lectures, which were riddled with inexcusable errors, but once again Gosse's resilience proved itself, as he was soon back in business, writing, politicking and cultivating yet more connections among the literary great and good. He even achieved his dream job – Librarian of the House of Lords, a position that gave full rein to his snobbishness, his careerism, his fussiness and his extreme touchiness. As Gross writes, 'His touchiness was even stronger than his snobbery, and his governessy instincts were stronger than either.'
  After his reluctant retirement from the House of Lords, he spent his last years as chief book reviewer on the Sunday Times. Evelyn Waugh, a kinsman who had known Gosse all his life, recalled him in those years:
'Unlike Desmond MacCarthy, who succeeded to his position, he had little natural amiability or generosity ... I saw Gosse as a Mr Tulkinghorn, the soft-footed, inconspicuous, ill-natured

habitué of the great world, and I longed for a demented lady's-maid to make an end of him.'
 And yet, Gosse sustained a large number of seemingly genuine, affectionate and good-natured friendships with a very wide range of people. There must have been amiability and generosity there – and besides, Gosse can surely be forgiven a great deal.


  1. Thank you for your posts about this book. I had not read it, but began it immediately on your recommendation and I thought it was remarkable. His description of a hideous childhood Sunday was startlingly similar to my own experience some 100 later which was a bit disconcerting.

  2. Thanks for commenting, Karen. Glad you're enjoying the book – and sorry to hear your childhood Sundays were that bad!