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This is one of the outstanding works of early twentieth century English literature, and probably one of the best British autobiographies ever written. Edmund Gosse describes his life up to the time when he left home to move back to London to start his career.

His upbringing was unusual, even by mid-Victorian standards. In his infancy, his intensely pious parents shunned all except the equally devout of their own kind, the Plymouth Brethren. His mother died when Edmund was seven, and her dying wish was that Edmund become a minister of their religion. His father then devoted himself, ultimately without success, to realising this wish. Gosse's career in literature brought him into friendship with such as Swinburne, than whom Gosse's father could hardly have imagined a more unsuitable acquaintance.

Gosse does clear justice to the affection within his immediate family. He also presents a balanced view of how far his parents realised their talents. He expresses his respect for their achievements - his mother as an evangelistic writer, and his father as one of the greatest marine biologists of the period. On the other hand, he suggests that their piety may have hampered even greater achievement. He suspects that his mother may have stifled a real talent for writing fiction on purely moral grounds ("because it was not true"), and explains - not without sympathy - how his father opposed Darwin's theory of evolution on purely religious grounds, and lost.

The doubts attaching to Father and Son are not of literary quality, but of accuracy. In the preface, Gosse says that he is writing while his memory is "still perfectly vivid", and that "at only one point has there been any tampering with precise facts". However, Ann Thwaite puts forward a very different view in Glimpses of the Wonderful, her excellent biography of Gosse's father. She quotes Edmund as describing his memory as "like a colander", and she relates several minor and some major events in Father and Son in respect of which Edmund is either remembering inaccurately or is being creative with the truth. The answer probably is - one with which Edmund would probably wryly agree - that there is no absolute truth, only greater or lesser.

The book is not unremitting gloom. There are several anecdotes where Gosse displays his subtle, wicked sense of humour, as seen throughout his career.
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on 7 September 2009
I enjoyed this book. I had feared that it would be a dense difficult book but I was pleasantly surprised by the facility and beauty of the prose. It is the story of the author's upbringing by his father , after his mother's death. Both parents were what we would now call fundamental Christians. The father was a distinguished naturalist who believed that God created the world with fossils in their place. He was dumbfounded that his demonstration, by reference to the Bible, that Darwin was wrong was met by derision.This is a side issue as the main story here is of an only child who loses his mother and finds his way despite his father's religous stiffness.

There are other interesting aspects to the book. We think of the Victorian age as being one long period but here the author demonstrates the difference between the generation who were born in the regency era and the more modern thinking later Victorians. There are many other useful insights including the observations public health in the 1850s and that the coast had been ruined by 1900 by all the tourists looking for samples etc. A fascinating book that is well worth reading.
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on 1 August 2009
A thought-provoking, beautifully written account of an unusually sheltered childhood. In the most controlled terms, the author describes his passage from child to man with a degree of fairness and frankness that lets us judge for ourselves the validity of his father's controlling ways. Although the atmosphere of the Gosses' home is strict and repressive, the book itself never becomes oppressive. It has too much gentle humour and lightness. What is remarkable is how much tenderness and sympathy we feel for both of these people. The father is not a bad man, and he acts only out of misdirected love. Nevertheless, the story unfolds with an inevitability that is deeply sad. Nowadays, straight-forward horror stories of appalling physical and mental abuse sell by the million, but this was Victorian England, and this account of subtler damage done was initially published anonymously, so shocking for its time were the revelations. In a brilliant Epilogue, the author unleashes an indictment of religious fundementalism that remains as relevant as ever.
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on 23 October 2005
Edmund Gosse's Father and Son is a haunting and strangely lyrical account of an unhappy childhood that is redeemed by moments of dramatic encounter with the world of nature and the world of books. The description of the newly-widowed Gosse senior's grief-stricken immersion into the secret realms of rock-pools is one of the highlights of all English literature. Michael Newton's sympathetic introduction offers valuable insights into the book's historic and literary contexts, as well as into the emotional density that is achieved by Gosse's prose. The cover, too - featuring William Dyce's Pegwell Bay - is an inspired choice for what remains one of the must-reads of early 20th-century writing.
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This is one of the outstanding works of early twentieth century English literature, and probably one of the best British autobiographies ever written. Edmund Gosse describes his life up to the time when he left home to move back to London to start his career.

His upbringing was unusual, even by mid-Victorian standards. In his infancy, his intensely pious parents shunned all except the equally devout of their own kind, the Plymouth Brethren. His mother died when Edmund was seven, and her dying wish was that Edmund become a minister of their religion. His father then devoted himself, ultimately without success, to realising this wish. Gosse's career in literature brought him into friendship with such as Swinburne, than whom Gosse's father could hardly have imagined a more unsuitable acquaintance.

Gosse does clear justice to the affection within his immediate family. He also presents a balanced view of how far his parents realised their talents. He expresses his respect for their achievements - his mother as an evangelistic writer, and his father as one of the greatest marine biologists of the period. On the other hand, he suggests that their piety may have hampered even greater achievement. He suspects that his mother may have stifled a real talent for writing fiction on purely moral grounds ("because it was not true"), and explains - not without sympathy - how his father opposed Darwin's theory of evolution on purely religious grounds, and lost.

The doubts attaching to Father and Son are not of literary quality, but of accuracy. In the preface, Gosse says that he is writing while his memory is "still perfectly vivid", and that "at only one point has there been any tampering with precise facts". However, Ann Thwaite puts forward a very different view in Glimpses of the Wonderful, her excellent biography of Gosse's father. She quotes Edmund as describing his memory as "like a colander", and she relates several minor and some major events in Father and Son in respect of which Edmund is either remembering inaccurately or is being creative with the truth. The answer probably is - one with which Edmund would probably wryly agree - that there is no absolute truth, only greater or lesser.

The book is not unremitting gloom. There are several anecdotes where Gosse displays his subtle, wicked sense of humour, as seen throughout his career.
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on 2 November 2011
The first of all father memoirs, this is still one of the best. Interestingly, Edmund Gosse's first attempt to write about his father took the form of an official biography. Written shortly after his father's death on August 23rd 1888, the Life of Philip Henry Gosse was admired by Henry James as "a singularly clever, skilful, vivid, well-done biography of his father, the fanatic and naturalist--very happy in proportion, tact and talent." Luckily, at least two other readers--John Addington Symons and George Moore--suggested Gosse should be more autobiographical and explore the father son relationship. Almost twenty years later, Gosse unburdened himself of Father and Son. Though the book was an immediate success and the reviews were largely enthusiastic, the reviewer of the Academy had reservations about the "close anatomisation by a son of a father," and the Times Literary Supplement 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." Perhaps not always fortunately, subsequent writers, far more frank and confessional, showed far fewer qualms in writing about their fathers.

Andre Gerard,
Editor of Fathers: A Literary Anthology
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This is a review of the Oxford World Classics edition.

A really great book this, especially powerfully charged with significance to such readers as have themselves grown up with religious fundamentalism.

I came to this very interesting book via S. J. Gould's essay on P. H. Gosse's 'Omphalos', a book that sought to reconcile the longstanding and traditional revelations of Christianity with the emerging revelations of contemporary science (in the form of Lyell's 'gradualist' geology and the 'theory of mutability', then - just prior to Darwin's Origin being published - very much in the air). Philip Henry Gosse, the titular Father, was both a successful published scientist, an amateur whose work earned him a place as a Fellow of the Royal Society, and a fundamentalist Christian, a devout member of the rather severe Plymouth Brethren, a sect Edmund Gosse (who I'll henceforth refer to as EG, for the sake of clarity and brevity), the Son, characterises as seventeenth-century style puritans.

At pains not to caricature his father, EG nonetheless doesn't flinch from portraying scenes that he felt, at the time of writing, must be the 'last gasp' of a dying strand of old-fashioned religion. Indeed, he frequently refers to his book as a kind of witness to a bygone phenomenon. I wonder how he would feel if he could've known that even now, all over the world, millions are enduring similar (and very probably in many instances far worse) experiences? It's ironic that there's the saying 'the road to hell is paved with good intentions'. Given that believers see demonic forces at work in any views not conforming to their own, those very same earnest believers, in their misguided quest for what EG calls "a vain, chimerical ideal", can turn the supposed path to heaven into just such a road. EG does a good job of showing the tortured and distorted manifestations of love that can lead religious parents to allow their no doubt genuine love to cause definite 'actual spiritual harm' (I use the term spiritual in a loose non-religious sense, and because it seems apt in this context; psychological would perhaps be more accurate, in secular terms).

At one point the Father - in the words of his second wife one "whose trumpet gave no uncertain sound" - momentarily faces up to the precarious foundations of his own belief ("If the written Word is not absolutely authoritative, what do we know of God?"), before swiftly moving on to denigrate his son's uncertainties. When EG says "It was the prerogative of his faith to know, and of his character to overpower objection; between these two millstones I was rapidly ground to powder." I feel kinship and sympathy. Ultimately "as respectfully as he could, without parade or remonstrance, he [EG] took a human being's privilege to fashion his inner life for himself." And long may his example inspire us all. I myself went through a similar process, albeit I wont lay claim to such a noble passage through the vale of tears.

Having related his story, with great efforts to not wallow in self-pity, and near-Herculean attempts to do justice to the best aspects of his parents (if admittedly not all of his fellow 'saints', as the Plymouth Brethren rather sanctimoniously referred to each other), he saves the death-blow of his final and irrevocable 'apostasy' for the epilogue, where he says "There is something horrible, if we will bring ourselves to face it, in the fanaticism that can do nothing with this pathetic and fugitive existence of ours but treat it as if it were the uncomfortable ante-chamber to a palace which no one has explored and of the plan of which we know absolutely nothing." Of course believers will take exception to the final part of his summation, as did his father, who "believed that he was intimately acquainted with the form and furniture of this habitation", wishing EG "to think of nothing else but the advantages of an eternal residence in it."

Whilst the Father never came to an accommodation with reality, believing till very near to his own end that he would see the second coming - "when we rise to meet the Lord in the air" (an imminent eventuality the young EG felt rendered returning to school redundant; there is much such gentle humour in this tale) - the Son did. And it is his lament at the disjuncture this situation caused in his own life, and how his father's "stringent piety" came between them and the best of what was natural, making 'sins' of normal healthy aspects of life, and how this might affect others, which make this a wonderfully compelling and, I feel, still very pertinent book.
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on 23 July 2012
This brilliant autobiography is touching, tender and tragic, retailing the childhood of a future agnostic professor at Oxford. He was the son of a brilliant geologist who just happened to be a member of the Plymouth Brethren. He could not square his faith with Darwin or dinosaurs,and in effect committed intellectual suicide as a result. He also lost his son. The younger Goss exorcises the past in this depiction of a loving father from whom his son must escape to survive. It is the best thing Goss ever wrote, and a classic in its own right.It will not date,even though it is hard for us (though not alas for Americans) to understand the crisis of faith and science it depicts.
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on 12 April 2016
Gosse, Edmund. Father and Son.

Puiblished anonymously in 1907, this account of the stifling effect of religious intolerance on a growing boy is not condemned, but accepted and even approved of by the child. Only as Edmund grows into manhood does he do what today’s reader expects - insist on a total demolition of doctrinaire repression. For the most part Edmund tolerates the constraints imposed by his on the whole benign parents. God’s will and God’s purpose dominates the boy’s mind, the crucial question being how does a human know them?

Edmund is almost to adulthood in thrall to the mind of God, particularly as exposed by his loving father and the last wishes of his mother that the boy will take up holy orders and spread the Word of God. Much earnest prayer is involved in the attempt to unlock the will of God, and ‘behind my Father stood the ethereal memory of my Mother’s will.’ But looking back fifty years upon his childhood, the son regrets his parents’ ‘narrowness, isolation, an absence of perspective … an absence of humanity.’

The first family crisis occurs when Edmund defies his father’s wish to exclude him from a party. Both agree to ‘lay the matter before the Lord,’ but each receives a contrary verdict. The boy is allowed to go ‘although in sore disgrace,’ and although as it were sanctioned by the Lord, this is his first sign of defiance. Further inroads into the father’s influence is made when Edmund’s stepmother introduces Scott, Dickens and Shakespeare into his life. Rather as John Stuart Mill discovered poetry in late adolescence, the youth becomes intoxicated with a pagan love story, Jonson’s‘Hero and Leander.’ On which his father denounces the boy for bringing into the house this ‘abominable’ book, which he then burns.

The latter pages of the book are largely given over to the father’s letters to his son. Absent from his father’s influence, in the sinful city of London, the boy is roundly reproved for his unspecified ‘dreadful conduct’ in having ignored the Holy Scriptures. But the young man, seeing that his esteemed parent offers no truce or compromise, takes ‘a human being’s privilege to fashion his inner life for himself
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on 9 November 2014
This is a biography of the relationship between Edmund Gosse and his father, Philip Henry Gosse. Gosse senior was an eminent naturalist and an ardent member of a small fundamentalist Christian sect. The father's Christian belief was passionate, but literal and narrow, and he spent 20 years trying to impress it on Edmund. He wrote a book in 1857, Omphalos, still in print, attempting to reconcile the text of the Old Testament with Darwin's ideas on evolution. It was greeted with derision. Despite the enormous, and growing, tension between the two, Edmund retained considerable respect for his father, and it is a sense of regret which propels the narrative: "What a charming companion, what a delightful parent, what a courteous and engaging friend my Father would have been if it had not been for this stringent piety which ruined it all." There is insight into a fundamentalist understanding of religious doctrine which has a broader validity even today, but more importantly this is a story of a relationship lost through an intelligent man's lack of understanding of human nature, a man more interested in understanding sea anemones than his own son. Some doubt has been cast on the accuracy of Edmund Gosse's account, but it is the emotional tenor which is important and that rings true. Moreover, it is a story told with considerable and engaging humour, mostly at the author's expense. It is a compelling read.
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