Blog #76: Beyond Memoir and Biography–Edmund Gosse and the Patremoir (2 of 4)

In considering Gosse’s role in making a new kind of writing possible, it is important to distinguish between critical father writing and conventional father writing. What made Father and Son different, what makes it the first of a new genre is, as Virginia Woolf acknowledged in “The Art of Biography,” that Gosse “dared to say that his own father was a fallible human being.” Significantly, early reviewers, though largely enthusiastic, had reservations about the “close anatomisation by a son of a father,” and the Times Literary Supplement even raised the question of “how far in the interests of popular edification or amusement it is legitimate to expose the weaknesses and inconsistencies of a good man who is also one’s father?”

While close anatomization made Victorians uneasy, conventional father writing was common in Victorian times. The great Victorian life writing boom saw many writers publish conventional biographies of their fathers. Prior to 1907, dutiful sons such as A. C. Benson, Winston Churchill, Wilkie Collins and Hallam Tennyson all produced father biographies, as did equally dutiful daughter such as Hypatia Bradlaugh Bonner, Josephine Butler, Teophilia Carlile Campbell, and F. M. Redgrave.

As with much of Victorian biography, such books made plaster saints of their subjects. Motives of love, grief, and respect aside, reflected social status was often a strong motive for writing these biographies. In an essay titled “In the Name of the Father: Political Biographies by Radical Daughters,” Helen Rogers suggests such biographies could also be written to honour and guard the father’s status and his political views. Similarly, Julie Codell, in “Victorian Artists’ Family Biographies,” argues, that in the case of an artistic father, father biographies were written not just to enhance and maintain the reputation of the father, but also the market values of his artwork.

In 1890 Gosse himself had published one of these conventional father biographies, The Life of Philip Henry Gosse, FRS, and it was the reception given to this book which eventually led him to produce Father and Son. Gosse’s friend, Henry James, praised The Life of Philip Henry as a “singularly clever, skilful, vivid, well-done biography,” and John Addington Symonds wrote Gosse, saying “I wish there were more of you in your Father’s Life. You could write a fascinating autobiography if you chose; and I hope you will do this. Only how can we do veracious psychological self-portraiture?” According to Anne Thwaite, author of excellent biographies about Edmund Gosse and Philip Henry Gosse, George Moore went further, telling Gosse, “I admire your book for itself, and still more for the book it has revealed to me, but I missed the child, I missed your father’s life and your life as you lived it together—a great psychological work waits to be written—your father’s influence on you and your influence on him.”

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