Blog #21: Virginia Woolf and Edmund Gosse

It was not that they minded, the children said. It was not his face; it was not his manners. It was him—his point of view. When they talked about something interesting, people, music, history, anything, even said it was a fine evening so why not sit out of doors, then what they complained of about Charles Tansley was that until he had turned the whole thing round and made it somehow reflect himself and disparage them, put them all on edge somehow with his acid way of peeling the flesh and blood off everything, he was not satisfied. And he would go to picture galleries they said, and he would ask one, did one like his tie? God knows, said Rose, one did not.

Charles Tansley, again. Poor Charles, later referred to as an “odious little man”, really is the whipping boy in To the Lighthouse. My theory is that a lot of Virginia’s dislike of Edmund Gosse went into his making. Certainly, Gosse was often on Virginia’s mind at the time she wrote the novel. In an April, 1926 letter to Vita Sackville-West, for instance, she writes. “But Lytton thinks me narrow minded about Gosse. I say I know a mean skunk when I see one, or rather smell one, for its his writing I abominate.” And in a letter to Edith Sitwell on March 27th, 1927, she writes, “Did that little grocer Gosse write about you? In a rage I cancelled his paper, but I wish I had seen what he said–”

With his unpleasant personality and his pedantic ambitions, insecurities and self-importance, Tansley represents Gosse as Virginia thought of him, and as she so successfully skewered him in her 1931 essay, “Edmund Gosse.” Admittedly, Charles Tansley is part of a large family of nine brothers and sisters, a family whose father is a chemist, a shopkeeper, and Edmund Gosse was the only child of a biologist father. No matter. If Virginia Woolf could move Cornwall to the Hebrides, and then move Cornish events ten years or more into the future, elements of Edmund Gosse could easily be used in the creation of Charles Tansley. Certainly, according to Vita Sackville-West, Gosse did serve Virginia as a model for Nicholas Greene in Orlando, the book which she published the year after To the Lighthouse.

To make Tansley’s father a chemist or druggist is already a step in linking him to Edmund Gosse. It is easy to imagine Virginia, with her pronounced class prejudices, taking a sly delight in transmuting “grocer Gosse” into the son of a scientific sort of shopkeeper. A stronger link between Gosse and Tansley is the fact that Gosse was a disciple of sorts to Leslie Stephen–Leslie Stephen, Virginia’s father and the main model for Mr. Ramsey. Edmund and his wife visited St Ives in 1889, stayed with the Stephens in 1890 (Virginia was eight at the time), and, in his essay on Leslie Stephen, Gosse talks of going on long, silent walks with the taciturn Leslie Stephen in Cornwall. The mention of Ibsen in connection with Tansley may also be significant, since Gosse prided himself on being Ibsen’s first English champion.

Another possible link between Edmund Gosse and Charles Tansley, though more tenuous, is Lily Briscoe. My next blog will consider Lily.

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