To hear a sea anemone sigh

From the website of the Open University:

“Edmund Gosse was raised by his father, the popular zoologist Philip Gosse, after his mother’s death in 1857. Gosse’s early life is vividly recalled in his famous work, Father and Son, which presents his movement away from his father’s fundamentalist Christian beliefs; both parents were members of the Plymouth Brethren. At the age of 18, Edmund Gosse moved from Devon to London to work as a clerk in the library of the British Museum. In 1875 he married Ellen (‘Nellie’) Epps, and they remained married for the rest of his life, having two daughters and one son. Gosse’s primary ambition was to become a poet, although his verse was on the whole not well received. As a literary critic and biographer he achieved greater renown. From September 1875, Gosse worked as a translator at the Board of Trade, on account of his knowledge of French, German, Italian and, above all, the less well-known Scandinavian languages. Gosse is often credited with bringing Ibsen to the public’s attention in Britain.

In 1904 Gosse was appointed Librarian of the House of Lords, a position which he held until forced to retire at 65 in September 1914. His presence in Parliament and familiarity with many of the leading figures of the day gave him an extraordinary informal influence. It was during Asquith’s reign as Prime Minister that Gosse was at the height of his influence, being both one of Asquith’s most trusted advisors, and a member of the Anglo-French Society, the Royal Literary Fund and the Royal Society of Literature. From 1922 Gosse was also President of the English Association. Gosse and his wife socialized with Leslie Stephen, the Rider Haggards, Balfour before he became Prime Minister, Lloyd George, and, in later years, Sir Harold Nicolson.

 As a reviewer for the Examiner in 1876, Gosse was introduced to the work of the Indian poet Toru Dutt, who was born in 1856 and died aged just 21 in Calcutta. He wrote an admiring ‘Introductory Memoir’ of Dutt for the 1882 posthumous publication of her final works. He praised her intelligence in picking up French, English and Sanskrit in short order, and admired her poetry, although he was prone to some of the generalizations of his day about ‘Orientals’.

 Gosse was well acquainted with Sarojini Naidu, the Indian poet and politician (1879-1949), whose work he brought to the attention of Arthur Symons. The 1905 edition of The Golden Threshold is ‘Dedicated to Edmund Gosse who first showed me the way to the golden threshold’ (in 1896). Gosse had advised Naidu to place her poems more firmly in Indian settings than she had initially, as he recalls in his introduction to The Bird of Time (1912).”

Ann Thwaite wrote in The Guardian of Sat 2 Nov 2002:

“…When my biography of Edmund Gosse appeared, Geoffrey Grigson wrote of Father and Son and its writer: “That classic book was in its way its own author. Circumstances could be said to have written it for him.” This was far from the case. The story comes as much from art as from life. Edmund himself realised that in writing a powerful and moving book, he had overestimated the dark side, suggesting the comedy was superficial, the tragedy essential. Vivid images stayed in readers’ minds of the lonely boy reading aloud theology to his dying mother, of him pressing his pale cheek against the window-pane for interminable hours, of “the hush” around father and son “in which you could hear a sea anemone sigh”.

Rudyard Kipling wrote to Edmund: “It’s extraordinarily interesting – more interesting than David Copperfield because it’s true.” Edmund himself had stressed that at a time when fiction takes forms “so ingenious and so specious”, it was necessary to state that his narrative was “scrupulously true”. The introduction by Peter Abbs to the current Penguin Twentieth Century Classics edition continues to say that “as a documentary record we know, from other sources, that most of the facts are accurate”.

I knew already before 1984 that this was not so, and more recently I have come across substantial further evidence in the father’s parish notes, that shows how little Edmund cared for accuracy. (His friend Henry James once said he had “a genius for inaccuracy”.) Edmund must have read his source materials years before, when writing his Life of Philip Henry Gosse (1890), then forgotten the facts and used a version of them to enrich Father and Son. There is a great deal of fiction in the book. I was amused, when searching out a copy of the current edition, to find it on the fiction shelves at Foyles. TH Huxley once wrote: “Autobiographies are essentially works of fiction, whatever biographies may be.” It is the biographer’s task to try to get at the truth.

· Glimpses of the Wonderful: The Life of Philip Henry Gosse by Ann Thwaite is published by Faber.”

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