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A brilliant autobiography, but not "nothing but the truth"
on 15 February 2009
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.