Beyond Memoir and Biography: Edmund Gosse and the Patremoir


Portrait of a Father and his Son, Gabriel Decker, 1850

by Andre Gerard

Ever since Edmund Gosse published Father and Son in 1907, father memoirs have caused a kind of Linnean unease. Talking about Gosse’s book in The Development of English Biography (1927), Harold Nicholson said it is not “a conventional biography; still less is it an autobiography. It is something entirely original; it is a triumphant experiment in an entirely new form.” Almost seventy years later, Mary Gordon, at work on The Shadow Man: A Daughter’s Search for Her Father (1996), wondered if she wasn’t writing “some non-fiction genre whose proper name has not yet been found.” More recently, Michael Frayn, speaking of My Father’s Fortune (2010), said that “it’s not really autobiography; it’s a memoir of my father.”

Critical father writing is distinct enough, numerous enough and good enough to merit genre status. Neither memoir nor biography, it is a unique hybrid, a hybrid worthy of scholarly attention and a hybrid for which I propose the name of patremoir. In the following discussion, I will consider why the patremoir emerged when it did, and why Gosse should be given credit for originating it, even if it took more than fifty years for other writers to follow in his footsteps.

Biographical books about fathers were being written long before Gosse. In fact, Gosse probably knew about Puritan biographies of the father, encomium books such as Increase Mather’s The Life and Death of That Reverend Man of God, Mr. Richard Mather (1670) and Cotton Mather’s Parentator (1724). Such biographies were Puritan ‘plain style’ documents of religious instruction, doctrinal pieces that portrayed the father as a religious exemplum rather than as an individual. Gosse certainly knew of the Reverend Cotton Mather, and in an essay titled “American Folk-song” he referred to him as a “surly watch-dog of old times.” Gosse may well also have known that for over 38 years, Cotton Mather served under his father as minister of Boston’s prestigious Second Church. In Gosse’s struggles to break free of the influences of his powerful father and of his father’s religion, Cotton Mather would have provided a powerful cautionary figure.

What distinguishes Gosse’s Father and Son from Puritan biographies and from all other previous father biographies is its critical nature, and the way it combines memoir and biography. Open, personal writing about one’s own father did not appear until the end of the 19th century. To write about the father was to sit in judgment upon him, and for most cultures this was a taboo too strong to be overcome. The Greeks, despite their searingly perceptive stories about father-child interactions, did not attempt to do so — nor did the Romans, the Renaissance Italians, the Elizabethans or even the Romantics. Paradoxically, but not surprisingly, given the rigid paternalism of the age and the attendant psychological pressures, critical father writing is a product of the Victorian era.

In considering Gosse’s role in making a new kind of writing possible, it is important to distinguish between critical father writing and conventional father writing. What made Father and Son different, what makes it the first of a new genre is, as Virginia Woolf acknowledged in “The Art of Biography,” that Gosse “dared to say that his own father was a fallible human being.” Significantly, early reviewers, though largely enthusiastic, had reservations about the “close anatomisation by a son of a father,” and the Times Literary Supplement even raised the question of “how far in the interests of popular edification or amusement it is legitimate to expose the weaknesses and inconsistencies of a good man who is also one’s father?”

While close anatomization made Victorians uneasy, conventional father writing was common in Victorian times. The great Victorian life-writing boom saw many writers publish conventional biographies of their fathers. Prior to 1907, dutiful sons such as A. C. Benson, Winston Churchill, Wilkie Collins and Hallam Tennyson all produced father biographies, as did equally dutiful daughters such as Hypatia Bradlaugh Bonner, Josephine Butler, Teophilia Carlile Campbell and F. M. Redgrave.

But as with much of Victorian biography, such books made plaster saints of their subjects. Motives of love, grief and respect aside, reflected social status was often a strong motive for writing these biographies. In an essay titled “In the Name of the Father: Political Biographies by Radical Daughters,” Helen Rogers suggests that such biographies could also be written to honour and guard the father’s status and his political views. Similarly, Julie Codell, in “Victorian Artists’ Family Biographies,” argues that in the case of an artistic father, such biographies were written not just to enhance and maintain the reputation of the father, but also the market values of his artwork.

In 1890, Gosse himself had published one of these conventional father biographies, The Life of Philip Henry Gosse, FRS, and it was the reception given to this book which eventually led him to produce Father and Son. Henry James – Gosse’s friend – praised The Life of Philip Henry as a “singularly clever, skilful, vivid, well-done biography,” and John Addington Symonds wrote to Gosse saying, “I wish there were more of you in your Father’s Life. You could write a fascinating autobiography if you chose; and I hope you will do this. Only how can we do veracious psychological self-portraiture?” According to Anne Thwaite, author of excellent biographies about Edmund Gosse and Philip Henry Gosse, George Moore went further, telling Gosse, “I admire your book for itself, and still more for the book it has revealed to me, but I missed the child, I missed your father’s life and your life as you lived it together — a great psychological work waits to be written — your father’s influence on you and your influence on him.”

These encouragements of Symonds and Moore suggest at least a couple of reasons why Gosse came to write Father and Son. As well as reacting against his father, Gosse was reacting against the strong sense of psychological pressure engendered by the formality and the conventions of the Victorian age. Although himself very much a Victorian gatekeeper and fearsome arbiter of taste, Gosse had achieved his position by, as he wrote to Symonds, “ a repression which amounts to death.” He saw himself, for part of his life at least, as a corpse “obliged to bustle around every time the feast of life is spread.” Writing Father and Son was — as he describes his act of filial rebellion in the concluding sentence of that book — an opportunity to throw off “one for all the yoke of his ‘dedication,’ and to take “a human being’s privilege to fashion his inner life for himself.”

Masculinity and fatherhood were not straightforward concepts in the Victorian era. The work of scholars in the mid 1990s such as David Amigoni, Joseph Bristow, Trev Broughton, Claudia Nelson and John Tosh helps to understand some of the pressures working on Gosse and his fellow Victorians. In Invisible Men: Fatherhood in Victorian Periodicals, 1850-1910 (1995), Nelson, for instance, examines “shifting attitudes towards paternity” and the way in which the position of the father “vis-à-vis the Victorian family was increasingly ambivalent and even antagonistic.” Similarly, John Tosh, in his seminal A Man’s Place: Masculinity and the Middle-Class Home in Victorian England (1999) analyzes the complexity of the evolving negotiation between masculinity and domesticity, and underlines the decline of deference towards the father.

L-R: Portrait of Sir Edmund Gosse, by John Singer Sargent, 1886; Philip Henry Gosse, photograph by Maull & Polybank, 1855

This decline in deference found its way into the literature of the age, and Gosse would have been very familiar with many of the edgy father-son portraits to be found in Browning, Dickens, Meredith, Trollope and others. Think, for instance, of Trollope’s The Small House at Allington (1864) in which Lord Porlock and his father [De Courcy] hate “each other as only such fathers and such sons can hate.” Think, too, of Samuel Butler’s The Way of All of Flesh. Published posthumously in 1903, just two years before Gosse started work on Father and Son, this autobiographical novel presents a passionate, highly critical portrait of the father as a cruel, insensitive tyrant. “To Butler,” as Gosse was later to write, “fathers in general, as a class, were capable de tout.”

In conventional biography there was also a decline in deference. As Gosse, Nicholson, Woolf, and, more recently, Richard Altick and Juliette Atkinson have argued, late Victorians were tired of “wordy hagiographical tomes,” with all their “attendant hypocrisy and evasiveness.” Though James Antony Froude’s warts and all biography of Carlisle (1882) created a scandal, biography gradually became more critical, more open and more honest, and this honesty extended to descriptions of fathers. For instance, both John Stuart Mill (1873) and Anthony Trollope’s (1883) autobiographies contain implied criticism of the father, even if the father descriptions in both books are outwardly respectful. Almost certainly, Mill’s carefully nuanced portrait of his father had a strong influence on Gosse when he sat down to write Father and Son.

Clifford Machan’s study of autobiography as a historically defined genre also helps to understand why Gosse was able to write Father and Son when he did. Machan’s conclusion to The Genre of Autobiography in Victorian Literature (1994) points out that when “Victorian autobiographies are studied as representatives of a single genre rather than specialized subgroups, various kinds of intertextuality that result from the larger Victorian culture become more apparent.” Machan then goes on to assess the motif of parent-child dynamics in the autobiographies of several of his subjects (particularly in Mill and Gosse), and he concludes by saying that “as the personalities of the fathers and sons differ, so do the dynamics of each father-son relationship and the strategies adopted by each author-son to define his independent identity.” Radical as Gosse’s treatment of the father-son relationship may have been, he was writing within the framework of a vigorous autobiographical tradition in which Victorian autobiographers used external pressures to “explore their own personalities and analyze their mental development as a means of explaining or defending their engagement in social discourse and public works.” The stresses of parent-child relationships, even if handled with deference, were important motifs in Victorian autobiography.

Both as professional biographer, and as a critic of autobiographical and biographical writing, Gosse was uniquely qualified to write Father and Son. “Biography is my foible,” he wrote to Leslie Stephen in 1882, and he subsequently proved his passion by writing several volumes of biography, as well as numerous pieces for the Dictionary of National Biography. Gosse also wrote many items for the Encyclopaedia Britannica, eventually becoming editor of the Belles-Lettres section, and he wrote the lengthy “Biography” article for the Encyclopaedia. In this article, which Nicholson called “a lucid exposition of what, in effect, is ‘pure biography,’” Gosse describes biography as “the faithful portrait of a soul in its adventures through life,” and he also states that “the peculiar curiosity which legitimate biography satisfies is essentially a modern thing and presupposes our observation of life not unduly clouded by moral passion or prejudice.”

Gosse had a strong conception of biography as an evolving form, and he welcomed and encouraged scepticism and change. Speaking of great Victorians, from his essay “The Agony of the Victorian Age”, he even went as far as to say that the “worst in the pretentiousness of their age is to be found enshrined in the Standard Biographies (in two volumes, post octavo) under which most of them are buried.” In the preface to Critical Kit-Kats (1896), a collection of biographical sketches, Gosse expressed a desire to take biography in new directions:

We are familiar with pure criticism and with pure biography, but what I have here tried to produce is a combination of the two, the life illustrated by the work, the work relieved by the life. Such criticism as is here attempted is not of the polemical order as the biography excludes that. We cease to be savage and caustic when we are acquainted with the inner existence of a man, for the relentlessness of satire is only possible to those who neither sympathise nor comprehend. What is here essayed is of the analytical, comparative, and descriptive order; it hopes to add something to historical knowledge and something to aesthetic appreciation.

He would also have been aware of and, no doubt, been influenced by such autobiografictions — to use a word championed by Max Saunders — as A. C. Benson’s The House of Quiet (1904), George Gissing’s The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft, (1903), and William Hale White’s The Autobiography of Mark Rutherford, Dissenting Minister (1881). While these relatively experimental works do not particularly focus on paternal pressures, they use biographical and autobiographical elements to explore personal, intimate stories and uncertainties about self.

Gosse’s fame and authority as a literary critic, and his close connection with many of the leading literary figures of the day, ensured wide dissemination of his ideas. On publication of Father and Son, he received numerous letters warmly praising his book. As he had done so on the publication of The Life of Philip Henry Gosse, Henry James again wrote of his admiration. He had read Father and Son with “deep entrancement,” he praised the book’s “vivacity and intensity,” the “frankness and objectivity,” and he called it “the best thing you have ever written.” H. G. Wells wrote, saying among other things, “This is a book I would ill-spare as any book, and I perceive I only begin to know you.” Rudyard Kipling wrote, “It’s extraordinarily interesting — more interesting than David Copperfield because it’s true.” And as late as 1928, at Thomas Hardy’s funeral, George Bernard Shaw told Gosse about recently rereading Father and Son: “I read it when it first appeared; but this second time was the test; for I could not lay it down until I had been right through it again… It is one of the immortal pages of English Literature.” In America, too, Father and Son was well received, with Howard Furness and William Dean Howells among those writing enthusiastic letters to Gosse.

Literary influence is notoriously hard to establish, yet convincing arguments can be made for Gosse’s influence, both in particular and in general terms. The Henry James letter is perhaps evidence of particular influence, as well as of general, as within seven years of writing it James published Notes of A Son and Brother (1914), a book that covers the years of James’ adolescence and young adulthood. Notes of A Son and Brother, as the title suggests, contains a considerable amount of father material, most of it conventional in form. The fastidious, ever so precise and controlled Henry James was never going to wholeheartedly embrace Gosse’s methods. All the same, in the introduction to the Critical Edition of Notes of A Son and Brother, Peter Collister points out how Henry’s treatment of his father’s letters reflects “an uncertainty of genre” and how he considered the material subject to his “own weaving hand.” James, while not overtly voicing criticism, carefully subsumed his father’s story to his own, and both Andrew Taylor in Henry James and the Father Question and Alfred Habegger In A Life of Henry James, Sr. provide examples of how selective James was in probing his father’s life, how judiciously he shaded his father’s portrait.

While Notes of A Son and Father is not critical enough to be a patremoir, its nuanced use of carefully selected details from the father’s story to advance the son’s own story suggests a Gosseian influence. Henry James certainly influenced James Baldwin, and if Gosse did influence James then he might also be seen as an indirect influence on Notes of A Native Son. A direct influence is also possible, although there is no published evidence of this. If Baldwin was aware of Father and Son, he would have noted and responded to the strong parallels between Gosse’s family situation and his own.

Evidence for direct influence on other writers is easier to establish. Siegfried Sassoon, for instance, was mentored by Gosse, and the elderly Gosse encouraged and supported Sassoon in the writing of Memoirs of A Fox-Hunting Man. Gosse also had a very strong influence on the Waugh family, as Alex Waugh acknowledges in Fathers and Sons. The influence, referenced in the title of Waugh’s book, was immense. Both Gosse and Father and Son were tightly woven into the DNA of this tortured, father-centered, writing family. For early generations Gosse was also a physical presence and, in the case of Arthur, a slightly suffocating surrogate father. Arthur’s son, Evelyn Waugh, thus had reason to savage Gosse. The following Gosse description is from his 1964 memoir A Little Learning:

His eminence sprang from his sedulous pursuit of the eminent, among whom he was more proud of his intimacy with people of power and fashion than with artists…. 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.

The problem when considering Gosse and the Waughs — or even Sassoon, for that matter — is how to disentangle personal and literary influence. The personal influence was powerful, yet the autobiographical practices of Father and Son, and the ideas the book raised about father and son relationships, also profoundly marked the Waugh family. Certainly, here is a Gosse ghost in much of Evelyn’s work, and also in his fathering. Thinking about Gosse and the Waughs raises the question of whether Gosse’s influence might not be social as well as literary. How many real life father-child relationships were altered by Gosse and the thoughts and feelings he generated? Even if he has been forgotten by many, over the years Gosse has figured in dozens of diaries, journals, memoirs, autobiographies and biographies, and also as a model or character in books such as Malcolm Bradbury’s Stepping Westward, Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda, Antony Powell’s A Question of Upbringing, Colm Toibin’s The Master and Nigel Williams’ My Life Closed Twice.

I would argue that Father and Son’s success made possible a rich, varied, and rewarding progeny. Father memoirs such as Paul Auster’s The Invention of Solitude (1982), Augusten Burrough’s A Wolf at the Table (2007), Philip Roth’s Patrimony (1991), and Geoffrey Wolff’s The Duke of Deception (1979), all follow in the tradition of Father and Son — as, indeed, do Vivian Gornick’s early mother memoir Fierce Attachments and more recent mother memoirs such as Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother? and Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Gornick, incidentally, has openly acknowledged her debt to Gosse.

But while Father and Son is an important and influential book, it did not single-handedly usher in an era of critical memoirs about fathers or mothers. Indeed, patremoirs did not emerge as a significant form until over half a century after the publication of Father and Son. As the following bar graphs demonstrate, critical father memoirs were not published until the 1960s (Clarence Day’s 1936 Life With Father excepted), and critical mother memoirs did not appear until the 1970s. The graphs emphatically demonstrate the increasing popularity of matremoirs and patremoirs. They also show the precocious nature of Gosse’s “act of filial rebellion.”

Graph #1 Patremoirs: number published by decade

Graph #2 Matremoirs: number published by decade

These graphs raise the question of why patremoirs did not begin to appear with any regularity until after the 1960s. Part of the answer may be that the publication of patremoirs follows very closely on the heels of the emergence of confessional poetry as an acceptable form. Perhaps before other writers could follow Gosse’s early example, they and their society had to move “beyond customary bounds of reticence or personal embarrassment.” The development and success of confessional poetry made it possible to share intimate and sometimes embarrassing or shameful personal details of self and family. It became possible for offspring to talk openly about what had previously been taboo. Following on the guarded confidences of Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz” (1948), Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” (1951), and Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays” (1962), the intimate raw-seeming intensity of confessional poems such as Anne Sexton’s “All My Pretty Ones” (1962), Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” (1965), and John Berryman’s “Dream Song 384” (1968) liberated prose writers to write more openly about their fathers.

If anything, the publication gap between Father and Son and subsequent patremoirs enhances the case for Gosse as father of the patremoir. Gosse was simply a man ahead of his time. The first critical father memoir to appear after Father and Son seems to be J. R. Ackerley’s My Father and Myself (again excepting Day’s Life With Father, and also John Mortimer’s 1963 father play, Voyage Round My Father). Posthumously published in 1968, this frank and often self-indulgent book has even been called “a classic of twentieth-century memoir.” On publication, My Father and Myself was reviewed in major papers and literary magazines such The Times, The New York Review of Books and Harper’s Magazine. Will Self, Emma Tennant, Angus Wilson and Donald Windham are only a few of the many who offered high praise. More importantly, in 1982 the Pen / Ackerley Prize was established for a British literary biography of outstanding merit. Recipients of this prize include Dianna Athill, Alan Bennett, Antony Burgess, Michael Frayn, Blake Morrison and Lorna Sage, and Ackerley’s impact on the publication of literary biography and parental memoirs is irrefutable.

And yet, though Ackerley appears to be a patremoir Prometheus, his achievements are secondary to Gosse’s. For one thing, Ackerley almost certainly read Father and Son. Not only was he literary editor of The Listener — the BBC’s literary magazine — from 1935-1959, he numbered among his many literary friends Siegfried Sassoon, once a close protégée of Edmund Gosse. Whether Ackerley actually read Father and Son or not, the case for influence is strong, so much so, in fact, that it created its own reality, and on publication, critics and the public connected My Father and Myself with Father and Son. In his biography of Ackerley, Peter Parker states that “My Father and Myself was promoted as a volume in the tradition of Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son, and further comparisons were made by the reviewers.” My Father and Myself owed part of its success to Father and Son, and in turn My Father and Myself enhanced the reputation and influence of Father and Son.

Gosse’s legacy continues to grow. As the number of patremoirs and matremoirs increases, such books are catching the critical attention of writers and scholars. In The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative (2001), Vivian Gornick uses the father writings of J.R. Ackerley, James Baldwin, Edmund Gosse, and Geoffrey Woolf to illustrate some of her ideas about writerly voice and self-definition. More recently, Roger Porter published Bureau of Missing Persons: Writing the Secret Lives of Fathers (2011), a critical study of fourteen father memoirs; and Thomas Couser, author of Memoir: An Introduction (2011), is currently working on a book about American father memoirs. Couser, incidentally, proposes that such books be called patriographies. While this word has not yet achieved broad currency, in May of 2013 Anthem Press will be bringing out Stephen Mansfield’s two hundred page Australian Patriography: How Sons Write Fathers in Contemporary Life Writing.

The important thing is to recognize father memoirs – patriography or patremoir – as a distinct literary genre, a genre based on using the father as raw material for constructing or defining a separate self. It’s all about how we create ourselves. Father memoirs offer rich fodder for psychologists, family therapists and literary critics. Rich fodder for fathers and children. Rich fodder for all of us. Imagine comparing Edmund Gosse to Virginia Woolf, Angela Carter to Doris Lessing, Franz Kafka to Philip Roth: comparing the ways in which such writers fashioned or refashioned their inner lives by exploring their father (or mother) as a fallible human being. Recognizing the patremoir as a genre would encourage comparative study of such books as Blake Morrison’s And When Did You Last See Your Father? And Michael Frayn’s My Father’s Fortune, or Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, and in so doing would provide readers and scholars with new tools of cultural and literary analysis.

Father and Son was created, in part at least, as an instrument of social analysis Gosse described his book as “the diagnosis of a dying Puritanism” and “the record of a struggle between two temperaments, two consciences, and two epochs.” Genre study of father and mother memoirs offers fresh ways of exploring the relationship between the self and society. The history of the patremoir might be used to study social taboos and the way in which they can be altered. Patremoir studies might help to reassess the importance of confessional poetry and how confessional poetry contributed to a decline in public reticence, and categorizing and comparing patremoirs could be useful in examining specific social concerns such as abusive behaviour, disease, aging and war.

About the Author:

Andre Gerard is the founder of Patremoir Press and the editor of Fathers: a Literary Anthology.