Virginia’s Whipping Boy: The Strange Case of Virginia Woolf and Edmund Gosse
Caricature of Edmund Gosse by Max Beerbohm
by Andre Gerard
The following exploration evolved from research done while preparing Fathers: A Literary Anthology, a book of personal father essays and poems by the likes of Margaret Atwood, Winston Churchill, Doris Lessing, Philip Roth and Virginia Woolf. In the process of writing the introduction, I became aware that personal writings about fathers constituted a relatively recent area of writing and that Edmund Gosse was one of the first practitioners, if not the first, of such writing.
As my interest in Gosse deepened, the anthology also came to include the epilogue to Gosse’s Father and Son (1907), Gosse’s “Leslie Stephen” essay (1924), Virginia Woolf’s “Leslie Stephen” (1932) and Woolf’s “Edmund Gosse” (1931). Juxtaposing Woolf’s “Leslie Stephen” against Gosse’s, I was struck by similarities of attitude, detail and style. Curiosity about these essays and about the intensity of Woolf’s intellectual engagement with Gosse led to the conclusion that a good deal could be learned about Woolf and her work by thinking about her relationship to Gosse.
This paper will first glance at Woolf’s public criticism of Gosse, criticism in which she came dangerously close to posthumously outing him as homosexual. It will then go on to briefly look at some of what she had to say about him in her diaries and letters, before exploring the possibility that Woolf used elements of Gosse in both Orlando (1928) and To the Lighthouse (1927). The paper will then conclude with speculations about why Gosse was so important to Woolf.
Since Woolf’s life is well known, but Gosse’s less so, I will start with a brief biography of Sir Edmund. Born in 1849, raised the only child of strict Puritan Plymouth Brethren and motherless at seven, Gosse had a gift for friendship and for making favourable connections. Arnold, Browning and Tennyson provided personal references for him when he applied for a position as Cambridge Clark Lecturer in 1883 — a position initially granted to Leslie Stephen — and in the course of his life he developed close friendships with Alma-Tadema, Thomas Hardy, Rider Haggard, A.E. Housman, Henry James and Robert Louis Stevenson, to name only a few of the more famous.
Despite a lack of formal education and, in the words of Henry James, “a genius for inaccuracy” (Thwaite 2), Gosse became the pre-eminent man of letters of his generation, eventually writing hundreds of critical pieces as chief reviewer for the Sunday Times. He is credited with bringing Ibsen, Gide and Sassoon to the attention of the British public and with championing the neglected John Donne. His many books include nine volumes of poetry, seven volumes of biography, several collections of essays and, of course, his most famous work, the patremoir Father and Son.
Although he became Librarian of the House of Lords (1904-1924) and was knighted in 1925, Gosse had his detractors. Aldous Huxley called him “the bloodiest little old man I have ever seen” (Thwaite 472). According to Evelyn Waugh, “[h]is eminence sprang from his sedulous pursuit of the eminent….I saw Gosse as 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” (Thwaite 502). In point of fact, Gosse died May 16, 1928, while undergoing prostate surgery.
On May 31, two weeks after his death, and the day before Orlando was sent to the printer, Woolf noted his death as follows: “Gosse is dead, & I am half reconciled to him by their saying in the papers that he chose to risk a dangerous operation rather than be an invalid for life. This kind of vitality always gets me” (D3: 184). The comment is atypically generous, as, of all his detractors, Woolf was one of the strongest, both in public and in private.
Almost nine years earlier, in an October 2, 1919 review of Gosse’s Some Diversions of a Man of Letters, titled “Mr. Gosse and His Friends” (E3: 105-198), Woolf was politely scathing. Her review describes Some Diversions as “sober, discreet, mellow, judicious, the fruit of love, no doubt, but of love which has been familiar with its object for so many years that it is now respectful rather than passionate.” She then goes on to compare Gosse’s writing to the letters of Edward Fitzgerald, of which she says, “How the love of good writing oozes and drips from every page! How fresh and green his pastures remain!” The clear implication is that, unlike Fitzgerald’s, Gosse’s literary pastures are sere and brown.
Woolf’s review damns with faint praise, even when she slightly moderates her tone by genuinely praising Gosse for his cattiness, his “quick sense of the oddities and vagaries of other human beings” and his “delight in the foibles rather than in the passions of mankind.” Part of the delight in reading her review is the touch of malice inherent in the politic shift of her ending. Gosse is acknowledged as an ambassador “between the hostile sections of society,” yet the conciliatory stance of Woolf’s closing remarks still brings out Gosse’s constant striving to ingratiate himself, his fascination with “[o]ld ladies and traditions, the charm of high civilization, and the amenities of aristocracy.”
As cutting as the Some Diversions review was, Woolf’s next Gosse piece was evencrueller. In “Restoration Comedy” (E3: 445-448), an October 18, 1924 Nation and Athenaeum review of The Life of William Congreve, revised edition, by Edmund Gosse, and Restoration Comedy by Bonamy Dobree, she states that Gosse’s standard “is not the highest,” and then she writes:
He does not create a character when he writes a biography; he does not
penetrate to the depths when he writes a criticism. But his pages are
completely free from the extravagance of the creative, or the turbidity of
These comments are waspish, yet their real sting derives from their being limited to the opening paragraph of the article. The rest of the essay is completely given over to a thoughtful examination of Dobree’s book.
After Gosse’s death, Woolf’s criticism became even more open. In 1932, Woolf used her review of Evan Charteris’s The Life and Letters of Edmund Gosse as an instrument to excoriate Gosse (E5: 248-257). Her attack on Gosse, though cloaked in velvet, is a minor masterpiece of personal criticism, almost as vicious as Pope’s attack on Colley Cibber in the Dunciad. Gosse, we are told,
could be as touchy as a housemaid and as suspicious as a governess. He
could smell out an offence where none was meant, and hoard a grievance
for years. He could quarrel permanently because a lamp wick was
snuffed out too vigorously at a table under his nose. Hostile reviews threw
him into paroxysms of rage.
Again and again, Woolf’s vivid portrait of Gosse is animated by antipathy. Her Gosse “hints, he qualifies, he insinuates, he suggests, but he never speaks out.” In his biographical work, she says, he is a man who “is kept by his respect for decorum, by his decency and his timidity, dipping and ducking , fingering and faltering upon the surface.” He is “someone who is always a little afraid of being found out.”
The phrase “someone who is always a little afraid of being found out” is a most suggestive one, as Woolf at this point in her essay goes on to toy with posthumously outing Sir Edmund as homosexual. She first talks about Gosse’s “innate regard for caution,” and his “scrupulous observance of the rites of society,” before raising “the warmth of his youthful affection for Hamo Thornycroft.” She goes on to connect Gosse to the Robbie Ross – Oscar Wilde scandal, and then, for good measure, also mentions André Gide and E. M. Forster.
These innuendoes about Gosse’s sexuality would have been intelligible to many members of Bloomsbury and to others who knew Gosse well. In her biography of Edmund Gosse, Ann Thwaite looks closely at Gosse’s relationship with Thornycroft, and points out that while their friendship was probably not a sexual one, its strong homoerotic overtones were the subject of gossip.1 Lytton Strachey, for instance, when asked if Gosse were a homosexual, replied “No, but he’s Hamo-sexual” (Thwaite 194).
Not surprisingly, the tone of Woolf’s article attracted worried attention. Her diary entry for June 24, 1931 mentions rebukes by Maurice Baring and Evan Charteris: “In the interval, old bibulous Maurice Baring red as a turkey cock, a survival from the Regency as I feel, came following to clear Gosse’s character; which he did—but Evan Charteris had already done it—amiably enough” (D4: 31).
Woolf’s public position was relatively mild compared to her private comments. The following October 30 entry from her 1926 diary records her impressions of Gosse when he chaired a meeting of the Royal Society of Literature where Vita Sackville-West gave a lecture on “Some Tendencies of Modern English Poetry”:
Then Gosse introducing Vita at Royal ——– something. I never saw the whole hierarchy of lit. so plainly exposed. Gosse the ornament on the tea pot: beneath him file on file of old stout widows whose husbands had been professors, beetle specialists doubtless, meritorious dons; & these good people, ruminating tea, & reflecting all the depths of the suburbs tinctured with literature, dear Vita told them were “The Hollow Men.” Her address was read in sad sulky tones like those of a schoolboy; her pendulous rich society face, glowing out under a black hat at the end of the smoky dismal room, looked very ancestral & like a picture under glass in a gallery. She [Vita] was fawned upon by the little dapper grocer Gosse, who kept spinning round on his heel to address her compliments & to scarify Bolshevists; in an ironical voice which seemed to ward off what might be said of him; & to be drawing round the lot of them, thicker & thicker, the red plush curtains of respectability. There was Vita, who was too innocent to see it, Guedalla, & Drinkwater. I dont regret my wildest, foolishest, utterance, if it gave the least crack to this respectability. But needless to say, no word of mine has had any effect whatever. Gosse will survive us all. Now how does he do it? Yet he seemed to me, with his irony & his scraping, somehow uneasy. A kind of black doormat got up & appeared to be Lady Gosse. (D3: 115)
Intriguingly, in a draft of To the Lighthouse Woolf describes the old char Mrs. McNab as “nothing but a mat for kings & kaisers to tread on”(Dick, 285). As I will try to demonstrate later, Gosse and his family may well have been on Woolf’s mind when she wrote To the Lighthouse.
Class snobbery and personal antipathy aside, the major reason for Woolf’s assault on Gosse was probably professional. Gosse was the foremost critic of his day, a Helen Vendler or Harold Bloom gatekeeper, but one with far better connections and far more influence than would ever be possible today. As T. S. Eliot was to write in his 1931 Criterion review of Evan Charteris’s The Life and Letters of Sir Edmund Gosse, “The place that Sir Edmund Gosse filled in the literary and social life of London is one that no one can ever fill again, because it is, so to speak, an office that has been abolished” (Thwaite 506). Gosse owed much of his social prestige to his exceptional connections and to his regular reviews for The Athenaeum andthe Sunday Times. He also wrote 19 entries for the Dictionary of National Biography and the 11th Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, to which he was chief literary advisor, includes 49 entries by him. For the late Victorians, for the Edwardians, and for the Georgians, Gosse was an authority sans pareille. He was a gatekeeper to be respected and feared.
Woolf published her first piece of literary criticism in 1904 (Lee 215), and as she grew in confidence and strength she must have found it galling to have to compete with the ever more venerated and ever more conservative Gosse. This critical tension took on new dimensions with the publication of her books and with the founding of Hogarth Press. Though Arnold Bennett wrote at least two reviews of Woolf’s early novels,2 Gosse seems not to have given her books much attention.3 When it came to Hogarth Press, he spoke disparagingly of Virginia and Leonard’s efforts in preparing Leslie Stephen’s Some Early Impressions. “Mr. and Mrs Woolf, who have published the little volume,” sniffed Gosse, “supply no further information” (Silhouettes 317).
Gosse also would not have been complimentary when Hogarth Press brought out “The Wasteland” in 1924. In her biography of Gosse, Ann Thwaite talks about Gosse’s hatred for both Eliot and Pound, citing Sassoon’s report of Gosse dismissing Eliot “as a ninny—a conceited literary humbug” (Thwaite 504). Gosse’s opinion of Leonard Woolf was even less favourable. In a 1924 letter to Sidney Colvin (D1:xxv), he describes Leonard as follows:
Leonard Woolf. . .is the son-in-law of our old friend Leslie Stephen,
having married Virginia. I have never had any communication with
him. . . a perverse, partially educated alien German, who has thrown in his
lot violently with Bolshevism and Mr Joyce’s “Ulysses” and “the great
sexual emancipation” and all the rest of the nasty fads of the hour. Is no
use for us to strive with such a man. He would only redouble his sarcasms
Gosse’s error riddled letter was prompted, in part, by Leonard’s criticism of R L S in a 1924 Nation and Athenaeum essay.4
A professional area of even more importance to Woolf was the biographical, and here, too, Gosse was the grand old master. “Biography is my foible” (Thwaite 413) he wrote to Leslie Stephen in 1882, though at the time he was still best known as a poet. Over the years he transformed his foible into a vocation by writing and publishing hundreds of biographical pieces and several books. He had a flair for mixing the personal with the public, and his Gray, published in 1882, won him enormous reputation from numerous luminaries such as Thomas Hardy, Robert Louis Stevenson, Swinburne and Leslie Stephen. Despite repeatedly being challenged on factual errors in his works, his biographical standing was so high that he was entrusted with the lengthy two-page article on biography in the 11th Edition of The Encyclopaedia Britannica.
Anyone ambitious to make a mark in the field—as Woolf certainly was—had to contend with Gosse. Even late in life, when thinking of biography, Gosse was not far from Woolf’s mind. Writing in her diary on Tuesday, October 22, 1940, she observed, “I thought biography is like the rim of sea anemones left round the shore in Gosse’s Father & Son” (D5: 332). Eleven years earlier, on June 30, 1929, Desmond McCarthy’s observations about the recent discovery of private papers by Boswell prompted the entry, “And father never knew; & Sir Edmund Gosse is dead” (D3:238). There is respect and regret in this remark, recognition of a passion shared. Juliette Atkinson, in her masterly Victorian Biography Reconsidered,5 has pointed out that “Woolf did not create a biographical trend but instead recast a pre-existing one.” The metaphor is a good one. Respect or not, recasting involves melting down. Some of Woolf’s monumental accomplishments in the field of biography were shaped by her responses to Carlyle, Lee, Stephen and Gosse.6
Respect and recognition is also evident in the Charteris review, where her attack is tempered by recognition of Father and Son as a “masterpiece,” as a classic and “a most original and entertaining book.” She is willing to say that if his writing suffers from an innate regard for caution “much of the fault must be laid upon his age.” In her 1939 “The Art of Biography,” Woolf goes farther and credits Gosse with helping biographers win “a measure of freedom.” She recognizes that he “dared to say that his own father was a fallible human being.” Unfair and savage as her attacks on Gosse often were, she was clear sighted enough to recognize some of his accomplishments, and her relationship with him could have been similar to her relationship with Arnold Bennett—frank, yet marked by mutual respect.7
As it was, Woolf’s dislike for Gosse seems to have found its way into her fiction. Vita Sackville-West, at least, had no hesitation in identifying Gosse as Nicholas Greene in Orlando, and in a 1928 letter to her husband, biographer Harold Nicolson, she wrote “Nicholas Greene you will recognize as Gosse” (as qtd. in Glendinning 202). While subsequent readers and critics have also found other antecedents for Greene,8 these antecedents do not preclude the identification of Gosse with Greene. The mantra of “life literature Greene toady,” the description of Greene as “the most influential critic of the Victorian age,” and uncomplimentary Greene-related comments such as “Literature was an elderly man in a grey suite talking about duchesses” also help make a strong circumstantial case for seeing Greene as a caricature of Sir Edmund Gosse (O: 161, 158, 160).9 Perhaps the strongest piece of evidence is the fact that Sir Nicholas, like Sir Edmund in real life, is an expert on John Donne.
Orlando is not the only novel with a possible Gosse figure or figures. Gosse was often on Woolf’s mind while she wrote To the Lighthouse. In an April 1926 letter to Vita Sackville-West, for instance, she writes. “But Lytton thinks me narrow minded about Gosse. I say I know a mean skunk when I see one, or rather smell one, for it’s his writing I abominate” (L3: 242). And in a letter to Edith Sitwell on March 27, 1927, Woolf writes, “Did that little grocer Gosse write about you? In a rage I cancelled his paper, but I wish I had seen what he said–” (L3: 356).
A case can be made for Charles Tansley and, to a lesser extent, William Bankes as Gosse figures in To The Lighthouse.10
The Gosses’ stay with the Stephens family is one piece of evidence. Woolf was a hyper-observant eight year old when Edmund and Nellie Gosse first stayed with the Stephens at St. Ives, and the dislike which the Ramsey children feel for “the little atheist” Charles Tansley (TTL 11), as well as Cam’s snubbing William Bankes and refusing him a flower, may well have been suggested by feelings engendered in the young Virginia on that and subsequent visits.11Woolf already had to compete with the Dictionary of National Biography for time with her father,12 and she would have resented as further competition Gosse and the numerous other admirers who trailed after Sir Leslie.
The Tansley-Gosse hypothesis is strengthened by Mrs. Ramsay’s thought about Tansley and Ibsen: “What he would have liked, she supposed, would have been to say how he had been to Ibsen with the Ramsays. He was an awful prig—oh yes, an insufferable bore” (TTL 18). If Gosse was well known for championing Donne, he was even better known for having brought Ibsen to the attention to the British public. If Woolf had Gosse in mind while creating Tansley, the Ibsen reference serves to develop the identification, and it also subtly detracts from a very real accomplishment of Gosse’s. Woolf would have savoured diminishing Gosse by giving the Ramsay family precedence over Tansley in its relationship with Ibsen.13
Readers simplistic enough to read To The Lighthouse as a roman a clef might well see the Stephen family, not Gosse, as the first to champion Ibsen.
Tansley’s shop-keeping origins also link him to Gosse, at least imaginatively. When Tansley says, “My father is a chemist, Mrs. Ramsay. He keeps a shop,” (TTL 18) he firmly places himself in the working class. While Gosse’s father was a biologist, not a chemist (a shop keeping druggist according to the British sense of the word), Woolf repeatedly, as shown above, thought of him as “little grocer Gosse.” The label is a class-conscious put down of the class-conscious Gosse. In a nice ironic touch, Tansley’s chemist origins also supply a scientific flavour. There may be a further irony, as well as an attempt to disguise too obvious an identification, by giving Charles Tansley nine brothers and sisters, whereas Gosse was well know to be an only child.
Even Charles Tansley’s name can be decoded as a private joke at the “little grocer” Gosse’s expense.14 With his first name, Charles brings Darwin to mind—Charles Darwin—the man against whom William Bankes measures himself. Tansley’s surname connects him to Sir Arthur Tansley (1871-1955), Cambridge trained botanist and pioneer ecologist.15 Thus Charles Tansley’s first and second names connect him to biology and, through biology, possibly back to Gosse.16 Gosse’s father, Philip Henry Gosse, was a self-taught biologist, not a shopkeeper.
Whereas Darwin and Tansley were giants in their field, Philip Henry—though a competent observer of nature and one of the first to popularize acquaria in England—was, in some circles at least, a figure of ridicule. A deeply religious man and occasional preacher, he was the author of Omphalos: An attempt to Untie the Geological Knot (1957). Published two years before Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859), Omphalos was an attempt to reconcile modern theories of geology, palaeontology, biology and evolution with the Biblical account of Creation, and it was based, in Edmund’s words, “on the cosmogony of Genesis.” (Life 277). In The Life of Philip Henry Gosse (1890), Edmund described his father as “a man of very singular character,” a man “less in sympathy with the literary and scientific movement of our age than, perhaps, any writer or observer of equal distinction” (Life vii) Later, in his much acclaimed Father and Son (1907), Edmund, somewhat unfairly, built up a portrait of his father as a religious fanatic.
When, late in To the Lighthouse, Lily thinks of Charles Tansley “preaching love from a platform,” and of the “red, energetic ants, rather like Charles Tansley” (TTL 212), Woolf might be both amusing herself at Gosse’s expense and gently mocking her own authorial omnipotence. Lily’s “interference in [the ants’] cosmogony” (TTL 213) parallels Woolf’s toying with Gosse. The use of a word as unusual as “cosmogony” calls attention to the cosmogony of To the Lighthouse. Even if Woolf is exploring and developing ecological ideas related to those of Arthur Tansley, the tone and the descriptive detail of the passage also allow for a Gosse connection.
One benefit of a Gosseian reading of To the Lighthouse—in seeing Gosse occupying part of Woolf’s imagination while she was writing the book—is that such a reading also leads to a rewarding biographical model for Lily Briscoe. Other critics have constructively seen Lily as incorporating elements of both Woolf and Vanessa.17 To these identifications, I add the possibility that Lily owes some of her identity to Emily Gosse.
Emily or “Nellie” Gosse was far more than a doormat, black or otherwise. She came from a successful family of homeopaths and chemists—in 1907 she inherited part of the Epps Cocoa fortune—and in 1874, when Gosse began courting her, she was a promising young painter who had apprenticed under Ford Maddox Brown and her brother-in-law, Lawrence Alma-Tadema. She was also a close friend of Hamo Thorneycroft’s sister Theresa, whom she had befriended when they were both in Maddox Brown’s studio.
Anne Thwaite describes Nellie Epps as “a feminist of the most attractive sort, totally aware of her own equality with men, but not strident in making them aware of it” (Thwaite 149). According to an aunt, when Gosse proposed to Nellie, she initially rejected him, because of “determination of will, she having willed that she will not marry, but prosecute her art with all her might, for, since she has no fortune, she wishes to be indebted to no one for a livelihood” (Thwaite 150). Gosse, however, was undeterred by her initial rejection and gradually won her over. They were married on August 15, 1875, and their honeymoon included a reading and painting trip to Cornwall. Nellie continued to paint and exhibit as at least as late as 1882, but her energies were increasingly focused on looking after her three children and her husband. An 1881 note from Edmund to her gives some idea of the sacrifice she made:
Please let me know by return of post:—
1. Where are my white flannel trousers and shirts?
2. Have I a decent pair of tennis shoes? (Thwaite 214)
The Victorian wife did not have to be a doormat, but she did carry a disproportionate share of domestic responsibilities.
Though Nellie gradually gave up her painting career, the Cornish connection was maintained, with the already noted visit to the Stephens in 1889,18 and further St. Ives visits between 1901-1910 (Whybrow 28-32). As an artist, as a painter of the Cornish coast, as a visitor and guest with the Stephen family at Talland House and as a woman who had to choose between domesticity and career, Nellie Epps Gosse has some plausibility as a prototype for Lily Briscoe.19
Considering such a possibility deepens understanding of the pressures Mrs. Ramsay puts upon Lily, and of the strength required by Lily to say no to William Bankes’s marriage offer. A Lily-Nellie identification also adds a further fillip to speculation about Woolf’s feelings toward Edmund Gosse: read as alternative history, Lily’s refusal of Bankes denies Gosse his marriage to Nellie. Such denial would have been particularly delicious, if, as is entirely possible, Woolf had had knowledge about the details of Nellie and Edmund’s courtship.
Another Gosse related model for Lily Briscoe is Sylvia Gosse (1881-1968), Gosse’s youngest daughter, less than one year older than Woolf and a likely childhood playmate. Never married, she assisted and supported Walter Sickert (1860-1942) for
over thirty years, and she even helped his third wife look after him during the last years of his life. Like Vanessa Bell, Sylvia was an early member of The London Group, and her paintings and etchings can be found in the galleries and museums throughout England, including the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. The parallels between her and Lily go beyond preferring a career in art to marriage. Just as Lily keeps “house for her father off the Brompton Road,” Sylvia Gosse devoted part of her life to taking care of her aging parents. According to Siegfried Sassoon, nephew of Hamo Thorneycroft and protégé of Gosse, she did so with a “sense of humour, and a keen eye for her father’s idiosyncracies.” 20
To see aspects of both Nellie Gosse and Sylvia Gosse in Lily Briscoe is to greatly deepen the texture of To the Lighthouse with regard to topics such as generational changes21 and multiplicity of the character.22 Maternal influence and generational pressure is certainly a powerful theme in To the Lighthouse, as evidenced by the following description of Mrs. Ramsay at the dinner table:
She was now formidable to behold, and it was only in silence,
looking up from their plates, after she had spoken so severely about
Charles Tansley, that her daughters—Prue, Nancy, Rose—could
sport with infidel ideas which they had brewed for themselves of a
life different from hers; in Paris, perhaps; a wilder life; not always
taking care of some man or other. (TTL 12)
Entertaining the idea of both Nellie and Sylvia in Lily sparks consideration of ways in which women artists gradually shifted socio-economic paradigms. In Painting Women, Deborah Cherry talks about matrilineal artist dynasties such the Backhouses, the Naftels, the Browns, the Gosses, and the Thorneycrofts (Cherry 22). Lisa Stillman (1865-1946), stepdaughter of Marie Spartali, the Lisa Stillman who Woolf described as “sobbing that Walter Headlam had chalked her nose with a billiard cue” (“Hyde Park Gate” 142) can also be added to that list. Indeed, Lisa Stillman, as a spinster artist acquaintance of Woolf’s, might also be seen as a Lily model.23
The possibility that Nellie Epps and Sylvia Gosse were — consciously or otherwise — models for Lily Briscoe, illustrates the benefit of thinking about Woolf in relationship to Gosse. Approaching Virginia Woolf through a Gosse shadow or filter helps to defamiliarize and make new, just as intelligent New Critical, Structuralist, Marxist or Lesbian readings do. For all the “ifs,” “maybes” and “mays,” new insights are yielded, old ones deepened. For students of Woolf’s life and readers of her works, the Woolf-Gosse relationship can be akin to the “odd-shaped triangular shadow” which helps Lily complete her painting in To the Lighthouse. The shadow “altered the composition of the picture a little. It was interesting. It might be useful” (TTL 217)
Seeing a Gosse shadow in To the Lighthouse also helps make sense of the unfairness of Woolf’s animosity toward Gosse. Thinking of her dislike for Charles Tansley, thinking of her “grotesque” ideas about Tansley, “lean and red and raucous” (TTL 212), Lily comes to the realization that “Half one’s notions of other people were, after all, grotesque. They served private purposes of one’s own. He did for her instead of a whipping boy. She found herself flagellating his lean flanks when she was out of temper” (TTL 212-213). The known facts merge with the life as fiction. Tansley, at this point, is Lily’s mental construct, just as Gosse was Woolf’s. Reading this passage and thinking of Gosse and Woolf, it is hard not to think that Gosse did for Woolf as Tansley does for Lily. “Real” as they are, Woolf and Gosse, Lily and Tansley transcend themselves as they oscillate between the particular and the representative.
Woolf’s “private purposes” in scapegoating Gosse were no doubt complex. Gosse and Woolf had much in common, particularly the early death of a mother and the complexity and intensity of their relationship with their fathers.24 Further, Gosse was both a rival for her father’s attention and, later, a rival for her father’s memory,25 and at the same time he was a father surrogate, a member of the patriarchy. He was also a rival as a critic. Worse yet, he was a professional critic rather than a man of letters. He was a rival as a biographer and as an authority on biography. He was also to be despised as a parvenu, a social climber, and a toady. All of those things told against him—yet perhaps nothing mattered so much as his being representative of those who often claimed Leslie Stephen’s attention when Woolf was a young child. Within the story, certainly, Cam’s denial of the flower to William Bankes and the cruelty of the young Ramsays to Charles Tansley are born of sharp childish resentment.
While Woolf’s purposes are ultimately unknowable, even “with fifty pairs of eyes to see with” (TTL 213), her attacks on Gosse may also have been a form of transference. In many ways Gosse was her double, personally as well as professionally. Some of the flaws that she attributes to him are flaws that she feared in herself. She, too, as she was well aware, could be ambitious, acerbic, spiteful and waspish. She, too, could be “false and fickle,”26 timid and touchy. She knew she had powerful snobbish tendencies of her own, and she knew the distortions they could lead to. In Gosse, she saw her worst fears realized, and by stoking her anger towards him, by using him as a whipping boy, she tried to keep herself honest.27
She knew herself as a powerful egotist, and yet she wanted to be objective about her ego. She wanted to study and analyze it as a specimen of consciousness.
As much as possible, she wanted to study the self without succumbing to the distortions of self. Demonizing one aspect of it, projecting it onto someone else, was a tool to help her maintain perspective and a degree of objectivity. It was also a warning to not become overly cautious in her explorations. To paraphrase her comment about Harold Nicolson’s Some People (1926), “[she was] as much the subject of [her] own irony and observations as [Gosse was].” Gosse was a mirror for her, a mirror which provided her with a way of further exploring the “trackless and tiger-haunted” corners of the “vast subject” of self (“Am I a Snob” 183).
1. In Virginia Woolf, Alexandra Harris calls attention to how important gossip was to Virginia Woolf and her friends (Harris 65).
2. Qilei Hang’s “Character, Politics, and Literary Controversy: Arnold Bennett and Virginia Woolf in Cyberspace” provides an excellent timeline and annotated bibliography of the Woolf-Bennett interaction (Hang 3), and it suggests the merits of creating a similar timeline for Woolf’s interaction with Gosse. It would also be interesting to contrast Woolf’s relationship with Gosse to her relationship with Bennett, a contrast invited by the opening words of Woolf’s Charteris-prompted Gosse piece
3. Gosse possibly reviewed The Voyage Out. In her diary entry for January 3, 1924, Woolf wrote: “Did I record a tribute from Gosse: that I’m a nonentity, a scratch from Hudson, that the V. O. is rotten.” No “tribute” has been traced, and it may well have been an oral remark which was reported to Woolf.
4. Leonard Woolf, “The Fall of Stevenson,” Nation and Athenaeum 34 (5 Jan. 1924), p. 517.
5. The conclusion of this splendid examination of Victorian biography discusses how Virginia Woolf drew on the work of her predecessors to advance her own artistic and cultural objectives.
6. Woolf’s impressive biographical accomplishments include two seminal essays (“The Art of Biography” and “The New Biographers”), three avowedly biographical books ( Orlando: A Biography, Flush: A Biography, and Roger Fry: A Biography), and dozens of biographical articles and reviews of memoirs and biographies.
7. In Three Guineas (1938), Woolf also seems sympathetic to Gosse. He appears not as a critic, but as someone injured by criticism (Chapter 3, Note 10).
8. Michael H. Whitworth, “Logan Pearsall Smith and Orlando,” Review of English Studies, 55 (2004), pp. 598-604. Whitworth’s argument for seeing Nick Greene as a composite character, incorporating elements of both Gosse and Pearsall Smith, is strengthened by Logan Pearsall Smith’s recollections of conversation with Woolf in “Tavistock Square”: “It was I and my associates, it was people like Goose [Gosse] and Robert Bridges, and all the respectabilities and solemnities and humbugs who wrote for papers like the Times Literary Supplement, who were the enemies of unfettered thought in England.” Logan Pearsall Smith, “Tavistock Square,” Orion, Vol II (1945), p.78.
9. Woolf also references Nick Greene in A Room of One’s Own (1929), where she has him impregnate Judith Shakespeare and cause her suicide.
10. Connecting Bankes to Gosse requires Wallendian mental agility. Woolf’s use of characters and names was often polysemous; and, whatever other antecedents they may have, Tansley, Bankes and Carmichael are also elemented by Mr Wolstenholme, Mr. Gibbs and C. B. Clark, the botanist. Their association with Lily Briscoe links the first set of men, and the second set is linked to the first by Virginia Woolf’s imagination (Moments of Being 73-74). William Bankes’s name, as Ruth Vanita argues in her insightful homo-erotic reading of To the Lighthouse (Vanita 173), was almost certainly derived from the historic William Bankes, Egyptologist and owner of Kingston Lacy, who had to go into exile from England 1841, to escape sodomy charges after being caught in compromising circumstances with a guardsman. Woolf’s Bankes is not openly homosexual—indeed, he is a widower—yet there are homoerotic overtones to the way in which he thinks of his youthful friendship with Mr. Ramsay. These overtones and his relationship to Lily Briscoe, along with conjectural daring, may link him to Gosse.
11. Evelyn Waugh’s lifelong dislike of Gosse (evidenced in the quotation cited earlier in this essay) started when he met Gosse as an eight year old (Thwaite, p. 502). This is in no way evidence that Gosse served as a model for Gosse, or even that Woolf remembered meeting Gosse while still a child, yet it does testify to the negative impact Gosse could have on a sensitive child.
12. In her diary entry of 1923, Woolf says of the DNB: “It gave me a twist of the head too. I shouldn’t have been so clever, but I should have been more stable, without that contribution to the history of England” (V2: 277).
13. Commenting on the holograph manuscript of To the Lighthouse, Susan Dick points out that “Charles Tansley, in particular,” “underwent a greater change during the revisions” than did other characters. Even more changes were made at a later stage. In the holograph version Tansley is associated with Sorel rather than with Ibsen (p. 135). Tansley preaching, the ants and “cosmogony” are also later additions, with no sign of them to be found in the holograph.
14. A word of caution. Even if this paragraph suggests that Woolf named Charles Tansley after Arthur Tansley to reinforce a biological identification, the Tansley surname masks rather than emphasizes. Susan Dick’s To the Lighthouse: The Original Holograph Draft shows that Tansley was originally named Tansy. Tansy would have provided a strong biological connection, as both the common tansy and tansy ragwort are well known plants in England.
15. Although Sir Arthur Tansley (15 August, 1871 – 25 November, 1955) was not knighted until 1950, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1915. Educated at University College London and Trinity College, Cambridge, Tansley later taught at these institutions and at Oxford. He was also a friend of Bertrand Russell.
16. It is also quite possible that Woolf’s purposes in linking Tansley to biology had nothing to do with Gosse. Biology, as Mark Hevert points out, is a major theme in To the Lighthouse. Mark Hevert, “‘Was there no safety?’: Suffering, Animals, and Religion in Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse.”
17. One the most exhaustive of these explorations is Daniela Munca’s “Virginia Woolf’s Answer to ‘Women Can’t Paint, Women Can’t Write’ in To the Lighthouse,” Journal of International Women’s Studies, 10: 4 (2009), 276-289.
18. Gosse also refers to an 1885 visit, but he may well have been mistaken about the date. “Leslie Stephen,” in Silhouettes, 317-326.
19. Lily’s surname also connects her to a known historic figure, the marine artist Arthur Briscoe. Briscoe painted and engraved mostly coastal scenes and maritime subjects, and his first one-man show, which included 35 watercolours, took place at the Modern Gallery in Bond Street in 1906. In 1925 the London print publisher H. C. Dickens brought out an edition of 75 of Briscoe’s etchings. Both Vanessa Bell and Arthur Briscoe were part of the British pavilion in the 1926 Venice Biennale.
20. Rupert Hart-Davis (ed.), Siegfried Sassoon Diaries 1923–25, London and Boston 1985, p.224. After a 1925 visit to the Gosse home, Sassoon wrote, “Sylvia was a great relief. She has such a sense of humour, and a keen eye for her father’s idiosyncrasies.”
21. The possible progression of Nellie Gosse to Sylvia Gosse in Lily, forms an interesting predecessor to the sequence of Robert Greene, Edmund Gosse, Logan Pearsall Smith in Orlando.
22. In a letter to Roger Fry (L3: 386), Woolf sees both her mother and Vanessa in Mrs. Ramsay.
23. In her notes to Hyde Park Gate News, Gill Lowe states, without naming sources, that critics have associated Lisa Stillman with Lily (Hyde Park 232).
24. Woolf does not seem to have made extensive comments about Father and Son in her private writings, although she does allude to the book in a 1926 letter, as well as in her October 22, 1940 journal entry. In both instances, it is the image of the sea anemones that she refers to, not the father son relationship; nevertheless, it is intriguing and rewarding to read To the Lighthouse as an elaboration and rebuttal of the biographical model developed by Gosse in Father and Son. Where Gosse fictionalized reality, Woolf realizes fiction.
25. Gosse first published his “Leslie Stephen” essay in 1924, when Hogarth Press brought out Leslie Stephen’s Some Early Impressions. Woolf’s “Leslie Stephen” was not written until 1932, the centenary of Stephen’s birth. In a March 8, 1927, letter to Vita Sackville-West, Woolf wrote, “Gosse still says, only two weeks ago, “Ah Mrs. Gosse doesn’t respect her father.” Her 1932 essay almost reads as a posthumous answer to Gosse.
26. In her April 7, 1931, letter to Ethel Smythe, Woolf wrote, “(I’m writing with the only pen, a gold one, slippery and false and fickle as Edmund Gosse–)”. (L4: 305)
27. Without connecting Nicholas Greene to Gosse, Alexandra Harris points out how in Orlando, Woolf also used the Greene figure to parody herself (Virginia Woolf 103).
About the Author:
Andre Gerard is the founder of Patremoir Press and the editor of Fathers: a Literary Anthology.