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Edmund Gosse: nonconformist?

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By Michael Newton


“The trouble with you,” an old friend recently declared to me, “is that you have always been a conformist.” He meant that I had never undertaken that necessary radical break with my parents and their ideals and interests. Without such a generational rupture, it seemed to him, nobody could claim to be a fully independent, realised person. While he had been dropping acid and dropping (temporarily) out of college, I’d been reclining under a tree with John Keats. And surely there was nothing rebellious in that.

Edmund Gosse, that great forerunner of adolescent mutiny, might have disagreed with him. For it was in part by falling in love with the poetry of Keats and others that Gosse initiated the process that precipitated the crisis.

Portrait of Edmund Gosse by John Singer Sargent

Though there are famous precedents — most notably Shakespeare’s shrewdly riotous Prince Hal — it may be possible to trace our culture’s current certainty that the attainment of adulthood requires an act of rebellion to two late-Victorian nay-sayers: Samuel Butler and Edmund Gosse. Both published their record of filial disobedience just as the Victorian era expired, Butler’s The Way of All Flesh in 1903 and Gosse’s superb Father and Son in 1907. \ Both texts were to provide an extra dynamism to the early twentieth-century’s denunciation of its fathers’ and grandfathers’ world.

Brought up among the Plymouth Brethren, destined for a life of service and spiritual rigour, young Edmund Gosse found himself, by temperament, by nature, in opposition to the tenets and atmosphere of his parent’s milieu. Three things likely served to bring young Gosse to his act of refusal. First, there was simply his love of literature: when the teenage Gosse hears Shakespeare denounced as a soul burning in hell, his instincts make him ardently side with the despised and marvellous writer. For Gosse, reading prompted the revolution.  Gosse junior became a lover of many books; his biologist father, Philip Henry Gosse, saw the need for only one — the Bible, the book itself. More than this, Edmund believed that the interpretation of texts, as of people and the events of life, must necessarily be tentative, multiple, inconclusive; meanwhile Philip believed in the eternal inerrancy and permanence of the word.

Then there was the fact that for a young man in the 1870s devoted to poetry and the art of his time an adherence to Greece and a form of happy, hedonistic, paganism was inescapable. To love Keats and Shelley and Swinburne was to array yourself among the pantheon of the gods against the one God. The Hellenic charm of myth, of naiads and the gracious physique was greater than the offence of the tortured, abject body of the crucified Christ.

Finally, though it receives no direct mention in Father and Son itself, there was the force of Gosse’s rather mysterious sexuality.  Though he married and became a contented father, Gosse certainly desired men, or rather one particular man – the sculptor Hamo Thorneycroft.  (Siegfried Sassoon quipped that Gosse wasn’t homosexual, he was ‘Hamosexual’.)  Such a love could find no place among his father’s dour precepts.

Perhaps it is the alleged conformist in me, yet in reading Father and Son it proves hard not to find one’s sympathies divided between Gosse the father and Gosse the son. Young Gosse engages us, of course, and he is the pure, articulate lens through which we view the world of the book. And yet, it is the apparently dour, but actually loveably earnest, passionate, baffled and yet resilient father who somehow garners our love. When Gosse makes the final break and makes his declaration of independence, we both sense the release of liberty as we sorrow with the perplexed man who loses his son.

Father and Son remains a key book in our understanding of ourselves. We live in a world where for many the battle lines of generational conflict have blurred. Yet nonetheless the book’s gentle, humorous analysis of the tensions between parents and children continues to be indispensable. Indeed in the era of Dennett and Dawkins, Gosse’s vivid account of the crisis provoked in at least some of the faithful by Darwin’s theory makes the book even more timely than it looked when this edition was first prepared. And in a world where fundamentalist forms of religion are rather on the rise than on the wane, it seems likely that Father and Son will remain required reading for some years to come, as many more follow him in choosing, against the will of their parents, a path of their own.

Michael Newton teaches at the University of Leiden. He has edited Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son for Oxford World’s Classics, and Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent and The Penguin Book of Ghost Stories for Penguin. He is the author of Savage Girls and Wild Boys: A History of Feral Children and Age of Assassins: A History of Conspiracy and Political Violence, 1865-1981 (both for Faber & Faber) and of a book for the BFI Film Classics series on Kind Hearts and Coronets. He is currently preparing an edition of Victorian and Edwardian fairy-stories for Oxford World’s Classics.

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Image Credit: Portrait of Edmund Gosse by John Singer Sargent [Public Domain]. Via Wikimedia Commons.

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