«KATHY REES Edmund Gosse (1849–1928) is known today for one classic text, Father and Son (1907), the account of his early life from 1849 to 1870 in ...»
EDMUND GOSSE’S FATHER AND SON:
RENEGOTIATING BIOGRAPHY THROUGH ILLUSTRATION
Edmund Gosse (1849–1928) is known today for one classic text, Father
and Son (1907), the account of his early life from 1849 to 1870 in his
Plymouth Brethren home. It is a profile of mid-Victorian dissenter
religion, where the recollections of the urbane narrator are periodically animated by the voice of the precocious but fragile child-focaliser. On publication the book was applauded for its psychological insight, but the author was admonished for his unfilial betrayal of the father, Philip Gosse (1810–88), who had been a popular and respected writer, one who was regarded as ‘the David Attenborough of his day’ (Gould 100). A tragi-comic pathos is generated by the tension between the son, youthfully resisting the Brethren rules and restrictions, and his loving but demanding father, anxious to secure his son’s soul for eternity. This inter-generational conflict is sharpened by the strictures of Gosse’s evangelically driven mother, Emily Bowes-Gosse (1806–57), who prohibited her son any access to fiction, believing it to be a dangerous distraction to Christian service. Contemporary readers of Father and Son were thus astonished that a child who had been deprived not only of fairy tales and mythology, but also of poetry and drama, had become ‘the pre- eminent, prolific, established and influential late-Victorian man of letters’ (Lee 104): ‘To think of you, of all men, coming out of such an upbringing!’ wrote the historian Frederic Harrison to Gosse (436). It was a story of literary rags to riches.
The generic elusiveness of Father and Son attracted critical attention from the start: was it an autobiography of Edmund the son (it is told in the first person), or was it a biography of Philip the father? The genus of Father and Son was further complicated by the fact that Heinemann published it simultaneously in London and New York using different subtitles. For English readers, the subtitle read A Study of Two Temperaments: that word ‘study’ suggests an examination, or an investigation, of two contrasting states of mind. Furthermore, in his preface, Gosse describes the work variously as ‘a document’, ‘a record’ and ‘a diagnosis’ (F&S v), characterising the work as analytical and objective. For American readers, however, the same book was subtitled Biographical Recollections, purporting to be a memoir of Philip. As a portrait of Philip, however, Father and Son contradicted many of the
PEER ENGLISHclaims made seventeen years earlier in Gosse’s biography of his father, The Life of Philip Henry Gosse, F.R.S. (1890). In her comparison of these two works, Catherine Raine concludes that The Life emphasised Philip’s poetic side ‘in order to glamorise Edmund’s literary ancestry’, while Father and Son denies ‘his father’s imaginative power’ so that Gosse’s own literary talent might ‘spring up all the more miraculously in the inhospitable soil of Calvinism’ (78). Father and Son was a gamble, but it paid off: the fame of the later book obscured the significance of the earlier work. Indeed, it was an informed risk: between 1890 and 1907, Gosse positioned himself at the hub of London literary and social life, interacting with writers, artists, publishers and journalists, and he was well aware of the shifting attitudes to biography. Indeed, he had contributed to that sea-change himself with The Custom of Biography (1901), in which he attacked conventionally ‘devotional’ life writing, the custom of burying ‘our dead under the monstrous catafalque of two volumes (crown octavo)’ (195), and with The Ethics of Biography (1903), in which he famously urges the biographer ‘to be as indiscreet as possible within the boundaries of good taste and kind feeling’ (323).
Certainly, by 1927, Father and Son was heralded as ‘a triumphant experiment in a new formula’ being ‘not a conventional biography; still less...an autobiography’ (Nicolson 146). Its slippery genre still fascinates and frustrates readers.
Five years after its successful launch, Gosse published Father and Son in the form of The Booklover’s Edition (1912), a version enhanced by eight full-page illustrations of the ‘people and places mentioned in it’ (F&S ix).1 Having searched ‘in bureaux and albums’, Gosse selected for inclusion two (painted) portraits of his mother (dated 1814/152 and c.1825 respectively), two photographs of his father (taken in 1855 and 1857), the views of his two childhood homes first in London and later in Devon, and portraits of the two significant females in his life after the death of his mother in 1857: his governess, Miss Marks, and his stepmother, Miss Brightwen. Gosse was interested in the imbrication between biography and portraiture: this is evident in his earlier works of
literary history, in particular, the four-volume series English Literature:
An Illustrated Record (1903–5), written with Richard Garnett. This work seeks to use portraits pedagogically, as is emphasised in the publisher’s
introduction to the first volume:
It appeals to the eye as well as to the ear, and the reader becomes attracted to the writings of this or that writer, and feels his enthusiasm enkindled, he desires to know, and to know instantly and without disturbance, not only
The publishers suggest that the reader’s understanding of literature is enhanced by his familiarity with the writer’s physiognomy. In 1905, clearly excited by this approach, Gosse enlarged his Short History of Modern English Literature (1897) to include portraits of the writers described therein, making explicit connections between their physical
appearance and their literary expression:
We cannot account for the sinister sharpness of Sterne’s face, for Tennyson’s dark majesty, for the rugged and stormy head of Ben Jonson, but we are forced to recognise that they are severally consistent with the intellectual character of these men’s writings. (vii) Similarly, in The Booklover’s Edition, Gosse emphasises the value of his ‘illustrations’ in assisting ‘the comprehension of [his] text’, since they were ‘as scrupulously genuine as the narrative itself’ (F&S ix). Gosse’s use of the word ‘illustrations’ merits particular attention here: the purpose of an illustration is ‘to make clear or evident to the mind; to set forth clearly or pictorially; elucidation; explanation; exemplification’ (OED). However, in a text that was already known to be generically elusive, written by a man whose slipshod scholarship had earned him a reputation which his friend Henry James characterised as a ‘genius for inaccuracy’ (Thwaite 339), Gosse’s reassurances ring rather hollow. 3 In this article, then, I shall examine the subjectivity of Gosse’s illustrative choices and explore the destabilising effects of his belated insertion of pictorial images into an already published text.
Catherine Raine’s insightful summary of Gosse’s personal motives in presenting his father differently in the 1890 Life and in the 1907 text offers a useful foundation for my discussion of Gosse’s choice of illustration and his use of caption in the 1890 and the 1912 texts. The frontispiece portrait of Philip in The Life (Fig. 1) conveys the impression of a man of energy and vision: his gaze goes beyond the frame of the picture, suggesting his open and enquiring mind, probing the mysteries of the natural world. The oval format affords the subject an iconic status, while the reproduction of Philip’s signature, characteristic of his closing in family letters, adds a touch of intimacy and warmth.
Figure 1: Frontispiece of The Life of Philip Henry Gosse, F.R.S. (1890).
Figure 2: Illustration of Philip Gosse in The Booklover’s Edition of Father and Son (1912), opposite page 360. The caption reads: ‘But what does my Lord tell me?’
A rather different ambience is created by the photograph of Philip (Fig.
2) inserted into the epilogue of the 1912 Booklover’s Edition; here, Philip’s direct gaze is confrontational, and the low angle of the photograph and the featureless rectangular format exacerbates Philip’s dominating bearing. Gosse employs a caption from his anecdote (on the adjoining page) about Philip’s imperious mode of conduct in religious discussion, his tendency to appeal to scripture: ‘But what does my Lord tell me?’ (F&S 360), and the detail of the hand rifling the pages of the book, by implication a Bible, appears to enact the caption. The use of these two photographs reiterates Raine’s observations about Gosse’s self-serving manipulation of Philip’s life and character: it illustrates Harold Evans’ famous opening line of Pictures on a Page that ‘the camera cannot lie, but it can be an accessory to untruth’ (xii).
The task of depicting his mother was more difficult. Emily had died from breast cancer in 1857, when Gosse was only eight, and photographs of her would have been emotionally charged as family icons of her saintly endurance. Chapter three of Father and Son poignantly describes Emily’s diagnosis, abortive treatment, and deathbed avowals. Gosse gleaned much of the detail for this chapter from his father’s moving testament to Emily’s exemplary Christian death, A Memorial to the Last Days on Earth of Emily Gosse (1857), in which Philip recalls Emily’s desire that the young Gosse might have some means of keeping in remembrance his mother’s features [since] no portrait of my beloved existed, except one which was taken in her early childhood, and another taken in youth, which is in the possession of a distant relative in America. (66) As a result, three deathbed portraits were made: a watercolour impression (Fig. 3) and two photographs, one of which became the frontispiece of Memorial (Fig. 4). Fifty-five years later, Gosse, with all five portraits before him, had to decide which of them to publish in The Booklover’s Edition. He had to choose between the portraits of youthful vitality (Figs. 5 and 6) or the images of deathbed sanctity (Figs. 3 and 4).
Gosse chose the former, thereby suppressing the image of the saintly Emily, the way she wanted to be remembered in 1857; he presented to the public the youthful images that compromised everything that Emily valued by the time she died.
Figure 3: Watercolour portrait of Emily Bowes-Gosse on her deathbed,
1857. Gosse Family Papers: Add. 9713. Reproduced by kind permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library.
Figure 4: Frontispiece of A Memorial to the Last Days on Earth of Emily Gosse (1857) by Philip Henry Gosse. Reproduced by kind permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library.
Figure 5: Illustration of Emily aged eight in The Booklover’s Edition of Father and Son (1912). The caption is ‘On the Slopes of Snowdon, from a painting by Sir William Beechey R. A.’.
Figure 6: Illustration of Emily Bowes-Gosse in The Booklover’s Edition of Father and Son (1912), captioned ‘My Mother’.
For readers of the unillustrated editions of Father and Son, Emily has often been idealised as the gentle antidote to Philip’s stern fundamentalism, ignoring Gosse’s allusions to her strident
evangelicalism. 4 Emily’s writing, however, reveals her religious fervour:
she produced two books of spiritual verse, over sixty tracts, numerous magazine articles, and a book of guidance for Christian parents titled Abraham and His Children or Parental Duties illustrated by Scriptural Examples (1855). In the preface to Abraham, Emily reminds fellow parents that: ‘We hold in our grasp the seal on which the soft ductile impressible wax of infant character is to be moulded’ (iii), an emphasis that was noted by the reviewer of Abraham in an 1855 edition of The Evangelical Magazine: ‘the mission of woman in the early culture of the young is strikingly set forth’ (338). Emily’s moulding of young Gosse’s character was determined by the belief that children should be protected from the temptation of fiction. In an article entitled ‘More Raw Apples’ (1855), Emily ‘strikingly’ sets this forth for the readers of The
You may feed the young mind and infant imagination on [trite and foolish nursery ditties] and your child will like them. But if you make the mistake of thinking it is too soon to begin with spiritual teaching, and that you had better pave the way with nursery rhymes and other trash, you will find not only that you have lost the fairest and most favourable opportunity one human being ever has of influencing the mind of another, but also that you have been cramming it with sour apples till its appetite is lost for wholesome food. I was reminded of this yesterday morning, on being awakened by a little fellow at my side, who had crept out of his crib at daybreak. ‘Mamma’, said he, ‘what is that about “Heigh diddle diddle, and the cow jumping over the moon?”’ I said, ‘Do you believe that story dear? Do you think that cows ever can jump over the moon?’ ‘Yes, I do, ma’. ‘And do you suppose that dishes can run away with spoons?’ ‘Yes, mamma’. ‘What a stupid child!’ you will exclaim. Very well, your children may be wiser; but what I should think of great importance is—are you wiser than to teach your children all the nonsense you learned when you were a child? Time is short. Your child may die this year. Do all you can for him while you have him. Work while it is day, lest