- Reading Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son (1907) through a Dickensian Lens
Edmund Gosse and the Dickensian child-victim plot
In the index of any work about Charles Dickens, one rarely finds the name of Edmund Gosse (1849–1928); indeed, there is little obvious connection between the two writers. By the time Gosse was born in 1849, Dickens was already a figure of national importance, with a growing international reputation. Young Gosse would not, like many of his contemporaries, have grown up hearing adults discussing the latest installment of Little Dorrit (1855–57) or A Tale of Two Cities (1859), because in his Plymouth Brethren home all fiction was prohibited. An only child, young Gosse had scarcely any life beyond his “strange household,” a place in which all activities were undertaken in the knowledge that an Omniscient God made “a fourth in our company” (21–2).1 The “monotony and weariness” of Gosse’s religious upbringing (138) became the focus of his autobiographical work, Father and Son (1907), a poignant tragi-comic narrative which utilizes the Dickensian child-victim plot.
The sullen Pardiggle boys, the resentful Louisa Gradgrind, and the dispirited Pip are three of many Dickensian children who are forced into conformity with, or who suffer cruelty or neglect because of the beliefs of their parent or surrogate. In Dickens’s novels, the fate of the child often serves as a distressing measure of the absurdity of an adult’s mania. Mr. Gradgrind demands “nothing but facts,” Mrs. Clennam is obsessed with original sin, and Mrs. Jellyby by “telescopic philanthropy”: Dickens was fascinated by irrational passions that dominated the behavior of individuals, particularly when one of the outcomes of such convictions was the victimization of a child. The extreme Calvinist creed of Gosse’s parents, Emily (1806–57) and Philip (1810–88), had dictated their mode of parenting him in the 1850s, and now in 1907, aged 58, Gosse chose to present his evangelical childhood as a case-study of mid-Victorian life: “a record of educational [End Page 223] and religious conditions which, having passed away, will never return” (3). Just as the truth about Dickens’s early life caused widespread shock2 when the Autobiographical Fragment was incorporated into John Forster’s 1872 biography, so Gosse sought to astonish his readers by the revelations about his childhood. The figure of the precocious “Infant Samuel” whose “acquaintance with Scripture [was] so amazing” (104, 106) and its disparity with Gosse’s public persona in 1907 as not only “the pre-eminent, prolific, established and influential late-Victorian man of letters” (Lee 104), but also the Librarian of the House of Lords, shook many of his contemporaries. “To think of you, of all men, coming out of such an upbringing!” wrote the historian Frederic Harrison, but it was Rudyard Kipling who recognized the Dickensian parallel: “It’s extraordinarily interesting,” he wrote, “more interesting than David Copperfield because it’s true” (Thwaite 436).
The Fiction-Forbidding Mother
Despite the male orientation of the title, Father and Son, Gosse clearly positions his mother Emily as “unquestionably the stronger” of the two parents (11), and as the instigator of the prohibition against reading fiction. Emily was convinced of the heinous and ungodly nature of fiction, and although her husband, Philip, “never entirely agreed with her, he yielded to her prejudice” (117). To deny a child fairy stories is a peculiarly Dickensian trope, given Dickens’s much-vaunted belief in the importance of imaginative stories for children. Emily’s vision seems always to have prevailed in this household, gradually drawing Philip “to take up a certain definite position, and this remained permanent although she, the cause of it, was early removed” (11). Emily’s “early removal” was caused by breast cancer: Gosse was thus orphaned3 at the age of eight. Emily left her son as “a solemn charge” to Philip and so “the embargo laid upon every species of fiction” continued indefinitely (184, 117). Philip certainly recognized the importance of fiction: his own writing, infused with an earnest desire to explain the workings of God’s creation, employs poetry, mythology and even folk and fairy tales, wherever such analogies illuminated...