The Crux of Our Sundering


Father and Son, James Whistler, 1895

by Eric D. Lehman

Father and Son,
by Edmund Gosse,
Penguin Modern Classics (1989), 224 pp.

Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son: A Study of Two Temperaments was anonymously published in 1907 and faced immediate backlash in England due to its apparent criticism of Victorian morality and more specifically his own father. Nevertheless, the memoir found favor with others struggling to throw off the shackles of the Victorian Age, like George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells. It drew less criticism in America, where the rebellious son rather than the stern patriarch is treasured. In the introduction to the recent Penguin editions scholar Peter Abbs praises the courage it took to write such a revealing book in those days, as well as the author’s “ambivalence, his conflicting desires to preserve social decorum and yet seek existential truth.” Abbs does a great job of showing how this ambivalence allows the memoir to succeed as a work of literature, and focuses on Gosse’s technique to show that autobiography is a genre worthy of our attention.

In his 2013 article on Berfrois, “Beyond Memoir and Biography: Edmund Gosse and the Patremoir,” Andre Gerard further shows the importance of this book as a sort of Ur-text for the eventual genre of patremoir (and matremoir). He also does yeoman’s work in showing Virginia Woolf’s brilliant but unfair demonization of Gosse, something that may have led to Father and Son being overlooked by the modernists and their academic descendants. The work of Gerard, Abbs, and others have finally restored this patermoir to its place in literary history.

Let’s take that as a given. Let us also try to leave behind for a moment the weight of the book’s undeniable historical parable. Now that the shift from 19th century Victorian faith to 20th century self-determination is a matter for scholars rather than a living problem, we can look at this enduring piece of literature as what it truly is, an ambiguously tender memoir of the necessary but sorrowful breaking of son from father.

Ann Thwaite’s Glimpses of the Wonderful: The Life of Philip Henry Gosse, 1810-1888 (London: Faber and Faber, 2002) has provided a description of the “father” of the title counter to the one in popular imagination, and the review of Thwaite’s biography in The Guardian by D.J. Taylor criticizes the “son’s” memoir, saying Edmund was “horribly partial” and pointing out what an excellent childhood he actually had. However, this criticism and others like it arises from a misunderstanding of the art of autobiography, in which we must separate the narrator and the child. In fact, Gosse would probably enjoy Thwaite’s portrayal of the Reverend Gosse as much as his own. Though critical of Father and Son’s historical accuracy, she generously points out that Edmund was shocked by the literal-minded reaction to the book by both literary critics and religious critics alike.

Brought to Father and Son by its reputation for filial rebellion, I expected to find a book of a repressive Victorian childhood, a brutal tyrant, a desperate son, a “dramatic” confrontation. Instead, I found myself touched by his affectionate regard for both his parents. He shows them as intelligent, committed, strong. They are a vital part of both their small community and the larger English society. He calls them “cultivated” and shows them to be kind and concerned for his welfare. Both before and after 1907 we have seen far more troubled bildungsromans, far worse parents, far angrier children.

His mother, Emily Bowes, a writer of popular religious tracts, dies early in his childhood. The weight of her holiness and purity affects him throughout the book, and we might imagine, for the rest of his life. This death leaves “father and son” to live together in what we might expect to be an unpleasant family situation. However, despite their spiritual longings and solitudes, they have a generally good time together. “Sometimes in the course of this winter, my Father and I had long cosy talks together over the fire. Our favorite subject was murders.” These sorts of funny and touching interludes are a literary and emotional balance to the philosophical disagreement inherent in the narrator’s fifty-years-hence perspective. The emotional distance narrows for us as readers, and unless we are angry young men ourselves, we cannot help but be moved.

Of course, I might have felt differently had I first read the book during my own angry young years. In that respect, this book operates in a similar way to J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, which draws vastly different reactions to readers of different ages, from teenagers thinking Holden Caufield is the coolest kid ever to parents pitying his broken soul. In this case, Gosse is telling a story of “emancipation” from an upbringing and so clear lines must be drawn. We might fall on one side or the other, or be able to appreciate both points of view.

One of the sticking points of the book is his father Philip’s geological “theory” that God put fossils in the ground as a “test” for our faith. At the time it was immediately rejected by both religious and non-religious thinkers, but retains a sort of underground popularity amongst fundamentalist Christians, who might see Edmund’s memoir as a repudiation of their own faith. This is a divisive moment, because a modern, science-minded reader would instead see this theory as so ridiculous as to be impossible to defend. However, the son’s portrait of his father as a misled but genuine intellect is completely sympathetic throughout. As the narrator points out, it is not a “stupid” theory, it is one born of desperation, created by a man who was profoundly religious but also an enthusiastic naturalist. Philip wants to unite, not to divide. “But, alas!” Edmund writes. “atheists and Christians alike looked at it, and laughed, and threw it away…He could not recover from amazement at having offended everybody by an enterprise which had been undertaken in the cause of universal reconciliation.” A believer in this theory might even read this line and think the narrator sympathetic to its point of view. But what he is really sympathetic to is his fathers feelings.

The most he can really criticize the man for is “a congenital lack of that highest modesty which replies ‘I do not know’ even to the questions which Faith, with menacing finger, insists on having most positively answered.” Philip is too sure of things, and this fatal flaw causes him to lose his popularity in England, and later, to lose his son’s affections. However, this flaw is explained easily within the memoir itself, as after the death of his wife he puts all his affections and hopes into his work and into his young child. Its not so uncommon for a widowed parent to do this, and we only feel sympathy for the man who loses reputation and family, exiled to a small coastal village to spend the rest of his days with a few seashells and parishioners.

The son’s puerile appeal to “Lord Jesus” before going to London is another perfect example of how the book is misunderstood. As he “waited for the glorious apparition” of God to appear, and of course He did not, the boy “felt a faint shame” and then “the tea bell rang.” This is literary work at its finest, and shows not a real epiphany but the author making fun of his younger self and all childish ideas of faith. As he muttered to himself “The Lord has not come, the Lord will never come,” his faith “began to totter and crumble.” How seriously are we to take this juvenile crisis? With the perspective of fifty years, Gosse the author makes it clear with careful word choices that we are not to take his childish feelings as a serious climax after so much more thoughtful philosophy and theology. No, this is the work of a seasoned writer showing how small and silly the cruxes of our sunderings can be.

In describing this sundering, far from the unbeliever he was portrayed as by religious critics, Gosse only objects to religion “in a violent form,” which as he says “divides heart from heart.” He might be criticizing himself as much as his father at this moment, his own intolerance. “It sets up a vain, chimerical ideal, in the barren pursuit of which all the tender, indulgent affections, all the genial play of life, all the exquisite pleasures and soft resignations of the body, all that enlarges and calms the soul are exchanged for what is harsh and void and negative.” Is his father portrayed as “harsh and void and negative” throughout the memoir? Absolutely not. So, what is he talking about? His father’s “postal inquisition” of the son while he is at school? Or his own stubborn will?

In fact, he shows quite clearly that their “temperaments” are not opposites at all, but identical. His father’s “everything or nothing” attitude is mirrored in the son. Gosse must take “a human being’s privilege to fashion his inner life for himself,” and no developing adult could live under the level of scrunity and appeal from a parent that Philip places him under. In his father’s last letter we might see a religious fanatic. But at the same time we might see a father who just wants to “again have sweet and tender fellowship with my beloved Son, as of old.” He knows only one way to do that, through appeal to what was once a mutual system of belief. And the son, rightly but harshly, rejects it. Breaking away is necessary for young Edmund to become his own person.

Again, we must not confuse the adolescent son with the author of fifty years later. It may have been necessary to break away from his father, but his manner of doing so might have been more compassionate and understanding. Throughout the book Gosse as narrator is intensely critical of his own childish pride as one of the “saints” in this village, and even of his occasional longings for friends or freedoms. It is clear that his own “temperament” as he puts it in the subtitle is just as flawed and just as culpable for his unhappiness, and for his intolerance of his father’s point of view. The “disruption” between them, as he calls it, was inevitable, and therefore no one is to blame.

For the reader, the fact that father and son cannot get along is sad, so sad that we might want reconciliation rather than the obligatory break. Because of this emotional appeal, and because of the way these last chapters are written, the memoir can be read as a repudiation of all stubborn beliefs, not just those of a Victorian fundamentalist. We may sympathize with both Philip and Edmund without agreeing, and see them simply as different people, who cannot ever have the intimacy as adults that they once did. How many fathers and sons divide this way? More than do not, I would guess.

Perhaps that is why Edmund Gosse wrote this thoughtful and touching description of their time together, to give his father what his temperament did not allow him to in life. Perhaps he meant to teach tolerance to non-believers and believers, to encourage us to avoid the inflexibility that inevitably leads to hostility, to look for common ground, to share the world. And if we cannot agree, we can at least take a walk together along the shore, and enjoy the sunset.

About the Author:

Eric D. Lehman teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Bridgeport and his work has been published in dozens of journals and magazines. He is the author of twelve books, including Shadows of Paris, Homegrown Terror, and Becoming Tom Thumb. Follow him @afootinconnecticut, and visit his website at