Monday, 19 October 2009

Fathers and Sons: Philip Henry and Edmund Gosse

This is the principal book that we will be discussing during our next tutorial, when we will be exploring the relationship between father and son as described in autobiographical writing. Right at the end the author Edmund Gosse, an early twentieth century man of letters, states that the book is not an autobiography but is the history of his relationship with his father until this breaks down catastrophically in his twenty first year, in parallel with Gosse's description of his emerging sense of self.

The father, Philip Henry Gosse, was a talented Victorian zoologist and a zealous member of the extremely puritanical Plymouth Brethren. He wrote a book two years before the publication of The Origin of Species in which he sought to explain why the geological evidence of the antiquity of rocks can be reconciled with the biblical evidence that the world was created in seven days. This book, Omphalos, failed however to satisfy either the Evolutionists or the Creationists.

His spiritual journey had led him towards an Evangelical and Calvinistic sect in which Faith and not Works is the only path to Salvation. His reading of the Bible and in particular his interpretation of the Book of Revelations lead him to believe that the Second Coming is imminent, with the Elect – naturally including him and his son – borne to heaven where they would be reunited with his wife. These extreme beliefs, along with his relatively low income, resulted in the comfortless and arid home in which Edmund grew up. Relationships with other boys, particularly those who are not Saved, were not encouraged; frivolities were forbidden; works of fiction were not to be read and pictures other than on religious topics were not to be seen; Sunday was strictly observed, with two services and attendance at Sunday School and with only bible reading and praying in between.

Yet the father loved the son: in overseeing his son's development in this way he was following not only his own inclinations but was also fulfilling the vow that his wife had asked him to make on her death-bed. And the son loved the father; even the slowly-dawning awareness that his father was not infallible and omniscient did not of itself affect that love.

The sickly and lonely child grew into a boy that in his eleventh year was able to enjoy the company of other boys outside his sect in the Devon coastal village they now lived, with the unspoken compact between them that they would not mock him as one of the 'Saints' in his sect if he did not attempt to wash them with the Blood of the Lamb. He also went to school, having up till then been haphazardly educated by his father, at first in the village school and later at an a boarding school for Evangelicals in nearby Teignmouth, but in both places his solitary upbringing and religious beliefs stopped him from making friends.

When seventeen he was allowed by his father to go and live with relatives in London, but the father did not relax his efforts to ensure that the son remained among the elect. Edmund received frequent, often daily letters, which cross-examined him about his spiritual life and to which answers were demanded. Finally on holiday in Devon in his twenty first year he begs his father to let him alone; the father explains he is doing everything for his good and his salvation; the son leaves; the father immediately writes a letter, quoted almost in its entirety, which refuses to accept the son's desire for autonomy.

The final paragraphs of the book celebrates the changes in society during his lifetime and the disappearance of the narrow puritanical outlook on life described in so many nineteenth century biographies and autobiographies.

The reading of this book caused me to think deeply about my relationship with my father and to write about it in another post at considerable length. This left me little time to read the other prescribed books dealing with this primal relationship in the Waugh family over three generations.

No comments:

Post a Comment