Blog #77: Beyond Memoir and Biography–Edmund Gosse and the Patremoir (3 of 4)

The encouragements of Symonds and Moore suggest at least a couple of reasons why Gosse came to write a book like Father and Son. As well as reacting against his father, Gosse was reacting against the strong sense of psychological pressure engendered by the formality and the conventions of the Victorian age. Although himself very much a Victorian gatekeeper and fearsome arbiter of taste, Gosse had achieved his position by, as he wrote to Symonds, “ a repression which amounts to death.” He saw himself, for part of his life at least, as a corpse “obliged to bustle around every time the feast of life is spread.” Writing Father and Son was—as he describes his act of filial rebellion in the concluding sentence of that book—an opportunity to throw off “one for all the yoke of his ‘dedication,’ and to take “a human being’s privilege to fashion his inner life for himself.”

Masculinity and fatherhood were not straightforward concepts in the Victorian era. The work of scholars such as David Amigoni, Joseph Bristow, Trev Broughton, Claudia Nelson, and John Tosh helps to understand some of the pressures working on Gosse and his fellow Victorians. In Invisible Men: Fatherhood in Victorian Periodicals, 1850-1910 (1995), Nelson, for instance, examines “shifting attitudes towards paternity” and the way in which the position of the father “vis-à-vis the Victorian family was increasingly ambivalent and even antagonistic. Similarly, John Tosh, in his seminal A Man’s Place: Masculinity and the Middle-Class Home in Victorian England (1999) analyzes the complexity of the evolving negotiation between masculinity and domesticity, and he highlights the decline of deference towards the father.

This decline in deference found its way into the literature of the age, and Gosse would have been very familiar with many of the edgy father-son portraits to be found in Browning, Dickens, Meredith, Trollope and others. Think, for instance, of Trollope’s The Small House at Allington (1864) in which Lord Porlock and his father [De Courcy] hate “each other as only such fathers and such sons can hate.” Think, too, of Samuel Butler’s The Way of All of Flesh. Published post-humously in 1903, just two years before Gosse started work on Father and Son, this autobiographical novel presents a passionate, highly critical portrait of the father as a cruel, insensitive tyrant. “To Butler,” as Gosse was later to write, “fathers in general, as a class, were “capable de tout.”

In conventional biography, too, there was a decline in deference. As Gosse, Nicholson, Woolf, and, more recently, Richard Altick and Juliette Atkinson have argued, late Victorians were tired of “wordy hagiographical tomes,” with all their “attendant hypocrisy and evasiveness.” Though James Antony Froude’s warts and all biography of Carlisle (1882) created a scandal, biography became more critical, more open and more honest, and this honesty extended to descriptions of fathers. For instance, both J. S. Mill (1873) and Anthony Trollope’s (1883) autobiographies contain implied criticism of the father, even if the father descriptions in both books are outwardly respectful. Almost certainly, Mill’s carefully nuanced portrait of his father had a strong influence on Gosse when he sat down to write Father and Son.

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