Edmund Gosse's FATHER AND SON is legitimately considered one of the highpoints of Victorian autobiography. As has been noted by others, the book recounts the relationship between Edmund Gosse and his father, a member of the Christian sect generally known as Plymouth Brethren, but who was also a member of the Royal Society and one of the foremost marine biologists of his time. The narrative tends to break down into a number of definite segments: the author's birth until the death of his mother; life with his father until the time of the publishing of Darwin's THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES; the move of the Gosses to the coast of England; and young Gosse's schooling and gradual growth away from the religious teachings and expectations he had received from his parents.
A number of powerful impressions evolve over the course of the telling. First and foremost, one is left with an impression of how overwhelmingly Gosse's childhood was stripped of nearly all fun by his parents' puritanical and stern religion. Gosse's father is presented not as a cruel, vicious, and hypocritical. Instead, he is shown as a caring parent, a completely earnest practitioner of his religion, but fanatically concerned to eliminate all activities that do not lead to increased religious devotion and moral seriousness. Unfortunately, this resulted for Gosse in a childhood from which all possibility of play and fun and delight had been eliminated. Near the end of the book, I was left wondering if Gosse would have been inclined to leave Christianity if he had just had more fun as a kid.
The section of the book dealing with his father's reaction to Darwin's ORIGIN OF SPECIES was for me the most interesting part of the book. His father's scientific standing was such that Darwin actually contacted him before the publication of his theories, and asked his response. Gosse notes that his father instantly understood that the scientific evidence clearly supported Darwin's theory. His reading of Genesis, however, indicated to him that the world was created in six days, which precluded the scenario articulated by Darwin. He therefore concluded that god created the earth in six days, but in so doing implanted fossils and geologic strata into the earth. In this way, his father was able to explain both the apparent evidence for eons long development of the earth and homo sapiens and yet retain his belief in the belief that Genesis taught a six day literal creation.
There are any of a number of reasons to read this work. It is a classic autobiography, an important source for one response to the reception of Darwin, and a magnificent evocation of puritanical religious life during the Victorian age. Most of all, it is a disturbing account of the distortive effect that intolerant and narrow-minded religious upbringing can have on an individual.