I had never heard of Edmund Gosse but I wanted to read his memoir Father and Son published 1907 when I learned a few weeks ago that it was a favorite book of one of my favorite writers, Vivian Gornick. I decided therefore to go with it for the 2020 Back to the Classics category - choose a classic about a family.
Father and Son tells the story of the English writer and critic Edmund Gosse's early life growing up with his father the naturalist Philip Henry Gosse. Edmund's mother Emily Bowes Gosse was accomplished too, a painter and writer of Christian poetry. Edmund's parents were members of a small religious community known as the Plymouth Brethren. It was strict. The reading of novels was forbidden by Edmund's mother, no holiday celebrations and the bible was taken literally. Despite all this, though, according to Edmund, it wasn't an unhappy childhood in the early years :
"My Father and Mother lived so completely in the atmosphere of faith, and were so utterly convinced of their intercourse with God, that, so long as that intercourse was not clouded by sin they could afford to take the passing hour very lightly .. So long as I was a mere part of them, without individual existence, and swept on, a satellite, in their atmosphere, I was mirthful when they were mirthful and grave when they were grave ...the mere fact that I had no companions, no storybooks, no outside amusements ... did not make me discontented or fretful because I did not know of the existence of such entertainments"
But then when Edmund was eight his mother died of cancer. It was devastating. His father decided that he and his son should move from London to the seaside town of Devon. Philip continued his naturalist work and became a lay minister to his neighbors in the surrounding villages. At first Edmund was the model son, believing his father in all things, but a big change occurred when Edmund was eleven and Philip decided to relax the ban on novels, for whatever reason, and handed his son a copy of Tom Cringle's Log by Michael Scott:
"It was like giving a glass of brandy neat to someone who had never been weaned from a milk diet. .. the long adventures fighting and escapes sudden storms without, and mutinies within, drawn forth as they were, surely with great skill, upon the fiery blue of the boundless tropical ocean, produced on my inner mind a sort of glimmering hope, very vaguely felt at first, slowly developing ... but always tending toward a belief that I should escape at last from the narrowness of the life we led at home".
An even bigger change in Edmund's life came when his father remarried. His new stepmother was a kind and pious woman but not overly puritanical. She introduced Edmund to Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, encouraged his friendships with other children in the neighborhood and took Edmund to museums to admire painting and sculpture. Edmund's father worried that his son would become too worldly and as Edmund grew up, began to read further, and think for himself about God and religion, that's exactly what happened.
Now having read Father and Son I can understand why it remains a classic in the memoir genre. It's a rather sad book though in that Edmund Gosse's childhood was a lonely and difficult one. His father Philip wanted the best for Edmund and felt that following the religious path of the Plymouth Brethren was the way to true happiness. But his son could not follow in his father's footsteps and had to chart his own course, a timeless coming of age story.