Classic of the Month: Father and Son by Edmund Gosse

I can’t believe how long it’s taken me to get to this splendid evocation of 1850s–60s family life in an extreme religious sect. I’d known about Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son (1907) for ages, and even owned a copy. Two of its early incidents – the son’s anticlimactic birth announcement in the father’s diary, and the throwing out of a forbidden Christmas pudding – were famously appropriated by Peter Carey for creating Oscar’s backstory in his Booker Prize-winning novel Oscar and Lucinda (1988), which I read in 2008 but didn’t much like. I was reminded of that literary debt when I worked for King’s College London’s library system and did a summer placement in the Special Collections department in 2011. For my “In the Spotlight” article about a book in particular need of conservation, I chose Philip Henry Gosse’s Omphalos, his well-meaning but half-baked contribution to the Victorian science versus religion debate, and did a lot of secondary reading about the Gosses and their milieu.

The book’s subtitle, “A Study of Two Temperaments,” gives an idea of the angle Gosse takes here: this is not a straightforward biography (after all, he’d already written his father’s life story in 1890) or a comprehensive memoir, but a snapshot of his early years and an emotional unpicking of the personality clash that results from fundamentally different approaches to life. While Gosse père (1810–88) was a devoted naturalist as well as a dogged believer in the literal truth of the Bible, even in adolescence his son (1849–1928) was a literature aficionado and troubled skeptic. Philip Gosse was a minister with the Plymouth Brethren and married late, at 38; his wife was 42, very late for contemplating motherhood in those days. Like Thomas Hardy, the infant Edmund was presumed dead at birth and set aside, so it’s thanks to keen-eyed nurses that we have these two late Victorians’ significant literary output today.

Although his first word was “book” and he could read by age four, Edmund was initially forbidden to read fiction. His mother quashed her own love of making up stories because she believed fiction was in some way sinful. It was always taken for granted that Edmund would follow his father into the ministry, and early on he had a sense of a split self: the external persona he put on to please his parents, and the deeper self that struggled to divine its purpose. He would cheekily test the limits of his familial faith by petitioning the Almighty for an expensive toy that he ‘needed’ and praying to a wooden chair to see if he’d be struck down for idolatry. The absurdity of such scenes is a welcome foil to the sadness of his mother’s death when Gosse was just seven. A year later the boy and his father moved from London to Devon, where both were captivated by the sea. (Indeed, if Philip Gosse is remembered as a natural historian today, it’s largely for his work on marine life – he discovered a new genus of sea anemones in 1859.) After Philip remarried, Edmund began attending a weekday boarding school and fell in love with literature, especially Shakespeare and the Romantic poets.

There’s a stretch of the book at about the two-thirds point that I found less compelling; much of it describes the other members of his father’s congregation (“the saints”) and the tedium of Sundays. It’s also a shame there isn’t a brief afterword that continues the story through to his father’s death. But for much of its length this is a riveting investigation of how the conflict between reason and religion plays out both within individual souls and between family members. The purpose here is to chart the course that led him out of religion and made the supernatural rift between him and his father permanent by the time he was 15 or so, and Gosse fulfills that aim admirably. In doing so he maintains a delicately balanced tone: Although he vividly recreates funny moments from his childhood, he also makes clear-eyed, scathing assessments of a religion that is ostensibly based on love but all too often veers towards judgment instead:

Here was perfect purity, perfect intrepidity, perfect abnegation; yet here was also narrowness, isolation, an absence of perspective, let it be boldly admitted, an absence of humanity. And there was a curious mixture of humbleness and arrogance; entire resignation to the will of God and not less entire disdain of the judgment and opinion of God.

[H]e allowed the turbid volume of superstition to drown the delicate stream of reason.

He who was so tender-hearted that he could not bear to witness the pain or distress of any person, however disagreeable or undeserving, was quite acquiescent in believing that God would punish human beings, in millions, for ever, for a purely intellectual error of comprehension.

Even so, this is a loving portrait, as well as a nuanced one, and a model of how to write family memoir. I enjoyed it immensely, and will no doubt read it again.

My rating:


Further reading:

  • Glimpses of the Wonderful: The Life of Philip Henry Gosse 1810–1888 by Ann Thwaite
  • In the Days of Rain, Rebecca Stott’s memoir of growing up in the Plymouth Brethren in the 1960s

15 responses

  1. How interesting, I’d heard of this but never cottoned on to the fact that it is memoir. Sounds like a fascinating read. I’ve not read a classic for ages – I’m well overdue another Trollope!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. If it weren’t for this monthly classics challenge I’ve set myself I wouldn’t read any, so I guess it’s served its purpose!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This book was just featured in a Wall Street Journal article this weekend!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh wow, that’s a great coincidence! What was the article about? (I think WSJ articles are all behind a paywall.)


  3. Sorry, I was in too much of a rush when writing that comment!
    It’s a weekly feature where someone is asked to pick five favorite books with a similar theme. This week’s column was written by Erica Wagner, she picked five memoirs of fathers by sons.
    J.R Ackerley – My Father and Myself
    Paul Auster – The Invention of Solitude
    Edmund Gosse – Father and Son
    Blake Morrison – When Did You Last See Your Father?
    Geoffrey Wolff – Duke of Deception

    She says the Gosse memoir is poignant and often hilarious.

    (I thought it was interesting that she picked the Geoffrey Wolff book over the more well known one by his brother Tobias.)


    1. Terrific! I love Erica Wagner; she’s one of my heroes (an American who “made it big” in literary criticism in the UK). I would agree with her two descriptors of the Gosse book, and I’m interested to try the other four she named.


  4. This sounds like quite a reading experience and extra satisfying for you to have finally made it through, having intended to for some time now. Stories which contain the “tedious Sunday” theme always make me feel a little guilty because it’s one of my favourite days of the week (and has been since I was a girl – for its emptiness, mostly) but I can totally relate to the frustrations that other children/adults describe when their Sundays were/are so different from mine. I think the first time I can remember finding this in a book was in the Little House books, with Laura and Mary having to sit still SO long.


    1. I was raised in a Pentecostal church, and services plus getting there and back always took up the whole of Sunday morning. For years afterwards, any weekend without church just felt wrong. After multiple years of not bothering, I’m now back to attending a church regularly, but thankfully it takes only an hour and a half at most out of our day, and that’s if we stay for coffee in the hall after service. Nowadays it serves more of a social than a supernatural function. We find it provides a nice rhythm to the week, and sets us up for a good productive Sunday afternoon and evening of some work plus kitchen and garden tasks.


  5. My mother has taught this for years, along with Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, I think as an example of the growing tendency in the late C19/early C20 to start dismantling or challenging people previously seen as uncomplicatedly heroic; she also uses it to discuss the tensions between scientific progress and late Victorian religious dogmas. It’s nice to know that it’s also quite a good read!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Brill! I have a copy of Eminent Victorians I’ve always meant to read too; maybe that can be a Classic of the Month later this year. One of my favourite moments of the book, which I didn’t actually mention, is when he first realized that his father was fallible. Before that father and Father were pretty much interchangeable.

      For as much as I love the Victorians, I also love the slightly later figures who started pushing against some of the period’s mores and tropes, like Hardy.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Flipping love Hardy! Rereading him only brings his brilliance closer to home.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. […] month’s classic was Father and Son (Edmund Gosse); this month is Fathers and Sons, the 1861 novel by Ivan Turgenev (1818–83). I […]


  7. Adelaide Dupont | Reply

    My copy of Gosse and FATHER AND SON belonged to my Uncle – who had a similar relationship with his father [Catholic was the patriarchal faith in that instance].

    And I looked your bog up because I wanted to be sure that Gosse’s first word was indeed book.

    Was surprised you didn’t quote the line about the skeleton – it was so funny – or his elders and betters thought it was funny. And where it came from – he observed his father cutting up animals and birds.

    And Foster up above – the fallibility moment – the first time he knew his father could lie and had lied.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m pleased that you found my blog and got an answer to your specific question. It’s now been nearly three years since I’ve read this, so I can’t discuss it with any level of detail, but thank you for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. […]  See the excellent, informative post on F & S by Bookish Beck at her blog HERE […]


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