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209 7. A BIOGRAPHY ON EDMUND GÖSSE Ann Thwaite. Edmund Gosse: A Literary Landscape, 1849-1928. London: Martin Seeker & Warburg; Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1984. £15 The subtitle of this important biography gives a revealing insight into the scope and viewpoint of the book. Although Edmund Gosse may not himself be considered a major Victorian literary figure, his life, spanning seventy-nine years, serves as a rich and colorful backdrop to the lives of such divergent literary geniuses as Robert Louis Stevenson, Henry James, Thomas Hardy, and Algernon Swinburne, all of whom were his close friends. Gosse wore many hats in his long life, including those of poet, essayist, novelist, translator, reviewer, editor, biographer, civil servant—and he outlived most of his literary contemporaries to become a respected and powerful Grand Old Man of English letters. Upon his death, T. S. Eliot called him the last of his kind whose death marked the end of an epoch. Ann Thwaite supplies us with a long-needed analysis of his life and influence. The only really definitive biography before her book was Evan Charteris' The Life and Letters of Sir Edmund Gosse, written with the family's cooperation three years after the literary pundit's death. It reads today like a neverending paean to a friend's greatness interspersed with long, undigested letters. Gosse himself, with biographies on Thomas Gray, John Donne, Sir Walter Raleigh, Jeremy Taylor, Sir Thomas Browne, Coventry Patmore, William Congreve and Algernon Swinburne, carefully lectured that biographers should be aware of the need for proportion and attention to detail and complained in a letter to a friend that "There is hardly a Life printed nowadays that does not offend by the publication of too much of everything—too many letters, too many extracts from diaries, too many 'impressions' contributed by unobservant people, too much undigested material of every description." I think Gosse would, on balance, have approved of Ann Thwaite's treatment of his life. In a wel1-integrated, engaging style which makes good use of the thousands of letters written to and by Gosse, Thwaite answers well the two thematic questions she poses for herself in her introduction: 1. How did a boy from a narrowly religious background, selfeducated and with few contacts in the literary power structure , become the man H. G. Wells called "the official British man of letters"? 2. Why was this high esteem replaced by denigration after his death? Thwaite promises in her introduction to present both blemishes and beauty marks, but she is clearly often overly 210 sympathetic to her subject. For example, she admits and documents Gosse's well-known "genius for inaccuracy" but excuses it on the grounds of a faulty memory which tended to gild the lily to make the story more interesting; besides, she says, his positive traits such as loyalty, industry, and dedication to literature are more important. She deals with his maliciousness, his snobbishness, his petulance, his logrolling , his collecting of important friends as understandable shortcomings, given his Plymouth Brethren background. Perhaps this occasional softness in Thwaite's approach is the result of Gosse's influence upon her own early life: she equates Father and Son and The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson as "formative books of my childhood" (her biography of Frances Hodgson, Waiting for the Party, is the only previous book of literary criticism ascribed to her). Two particularly interesting and controversial subjects associated with Gosse are his possible involvement in the T. J. Wise literary forgeries and his possible latent or actual homosexuality. Both questions are carefully analyzed by Thwaite with a predictable exoneration of Gosse in both. Thwaite's evidence exonerating Gosse in the Wise scandal is convincing; extensive use of letters shows that Gosse was being used by Wise to lend respectability to his enterprises. Gosse seems to have been flattered to advise Wise, to decipher his manuscripts, to write prefaces, to vet proofs, and to accept books into his own growing rare book library. Gosse's exoneration on the charge of homosexuality is not nearly so convincing. Again painstaking reading of letters convinces this reader that the great love of Edmund Gosse's life was the sculptor Hamo...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 209-211
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
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