Edmund Gosse – the author of Father and Son – was, in his time, a major figure in the British literary scene. Born in London in 1849, by the time he died in 1928 he had been knighted and made a Commander of the Bath: very much a man of the establishment, he was literary editor of the famous 1911 edition of the Encylopedia Britannica and his lecture on Thomas Hardy was recorded for the British Library.
During his career as a literary critic, author and poet, he befriended a huge number of famous litererary figures, though he was treated as something of a figure of fun behind his back: Virginia Woolf noted rather waspishly that he was a little too fond of people with titles and that he behaved like someone who had “not always been accustomed to getting his suits made in Saville Row.” When he died, T.S.Eliot observed that no-one could replace him because no-one quite knew what it was that he did.
Despite this, Gosse deserves credit for, among other things, introducing Ibsen’s work to British theatre – his translations (with William Archer) of Hedda Gabler and The Master Builder were mainstays of English-language productions for many years; he also arranged financial support for both W.B.Yeats and James Joyce when they were struggling at crucial points in their careers. Of the many books published in his lifetime – which included quite a lot of not-very-good poetry and hastily-written criticism – only Father and Son survives, but it casts a long shadow. Peter Carey’s
1988 Booker Prize-winning novel Oscar and Lucinda was strongly influenced by Gosse’s memoir: the relationship between Oscar and his father mirrors that of Edmund and his father, Philip. A number of passages are reproduced almost exactly, including the famous scene in which Philip Gosse throws a Christmas pudding the cook has secretly made into the fire, denouncing it as ‘popish’. Dennis Potter’s 1976 BBC television play Where Adam Stood, is based on the section of Father and Son that recounts Philip’s crisis of faith following the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. In the book, Edmund touchingly notes that “every instinct in his intelligence went out at first to greet the new light. It had hardly done so, when a recollection of the opening chapter of 'Genesis' checked it at the outset.” The film is a beautifully touching distillation of the book, but is sadly unavailable commercially. It occasionally pops up on YouTube for a while before being taken down again. Rob and I were able to watch it during a brief window of availability and, although we have taken a different route with the material, we admired it greatly. It captures both the tragedy of Philip’s steadfast belief in creationism and the charm of the father and son relationship.
On tour October-November 2017.