Speaking Volumes: Father and Son

April 10, 1998

Valentine Cunningham on Edmund Gosse's Father and Son .

Like almost all the voices from the past that have really influenced my thinking and changed my life, Edmund Gosse's Father and Son arrived by glorious chance, a lovely bit of utterly uncovenanted grace, one unsuspecting day in the long vacation of 1965.

It was a summer I was spending reading Dickens and such in preparation for an Oxford finals paper on the Victorians. I had reached the place in Kathleen Tillotson's wonderfully informative book Novels of the Eighteen-Forties where she illustrates the problems young novel readers faced in pious Victorian homes and a footnote refers you to Gosse's autobiography (it came out anonymously in 1907) as a classic instance of prohibition in a Plymouth Brethren home.

This was the first I had heard of it. I knew quite a lot about Plymouth Brethren sectarianism - my girl-friend's parents were Brethren. I knew even more and at first hand about the pietistic view of all fiction as worldly distraction from faith and morals. My evangelical and fundamentalist pentecostalist parents did not have a television, did not let their children go the pictures, frowned on theatre and read only the Bible and evangelical books. Studying English literature at school had been a nightmare of painful negotiations and recurrent tussles. To want to read English at university was simply to have opted for playing the devil's music all day long. Father and Son sounded right up my street.

Within minutes I was at the public library. Father and Son was magical. I read it straight through, at one go, with all the flushed pleasure and hot horror of recognition. Edmund Gosse, the chosen child, the Lord's little dedicated one, precociously expert in the jargons of the faith (Oh! Papa, Papa, I have eaten of flesh offered to idols - after some illicit Christmas pud in the servants quarters; when I have been admitted to fellowship, Papa, shall I be allowed to call you beloved Brother? - after his ten-year-old public testimony of faith; Papa, don't tell me that she's a paedobaptist - of his widowed father's interest in an Anglican lady), a kid cut off puritanically from fiction because it is lying stuff as opposed to the truths of God's word, the reluctant rebel slowly wriggling from under the fundamentalist literalism out into the world where he can read Marlowe's Hero and Leander without worrying what the Believers will think of him: I knew this boy so well; I saw him in the mirror every day. Reading this saddened narrative of resistance to Philip Henry Gosse - Brethren Elder and devoted Creationist, a very distinguished naturalist who had retreated into private life because of the unacceptable evolutionism of Huxley and Darwin - resistance above all to a restrictive and institutionalised fatherly religious will, helped me with my own timid breakings away from sectarianism.

When I came to choose a doctoral topic it seemed not only important but natural to work on Victorian religious Nonconformists and the novel. That study, with Father and Son at its spiritual heart, became my first book, Everywhere Spoken Against: Dissent in the Victorian Novel. And Father and Son - which I now know is simply one of the greatest stories of modernist resistance to the power of Judaeo-Christian patriarchy our culture possesses - still nourishes my thinking with a sense of how a fine devotion to the word, an admirable subservience to textuality and to logos, can, in the form of the paternal Gosse's kind of devotion to the Big Book of God, go horribly wrong, narrowing human scope, wrenching domestic life and in the end perverting and twisting history. I owe Tillotson's mighty footnote a lot.

Valentine Cunningham is professor of English, University of Oxford.

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