Sunday, August 25, 2013

Edmund Gosse's "Father and Son": Book Review

In 1907, this "study of two temperaments" dramatized religious convention opposed to rational modernism. Edmund's father, Philip Henry Gosse, ran a Plymouth Brethren household. His wife died of cancer, and the son movingly documents her own demise, drawing from her diary, and enriched by his own recollections. After she dies, at twilight, he seeks his father's embrace: "I used to turn my face up to his, patiently and wonderingly, while the large, unwilling tears gathered in the corners of his eyelids." While the severity of his parents' attitudes has been challenged by scholars of Edmund's dramatic and eloquent narrative, the power of the clash of tradition and innovation at intimate levels during the mid-nineteenth century's encounter with Darwin's revolutionary theory can be felt.

As a naturalist, Philip tried to reconcile the new doctrine, arguing in the book "Omphalos" that as Adam added a navel thanks to God's intervention, so His plan allowed for fossils embedded to look as if a more antiquated cosmos had been intended from the beginning. Philip thought his argument would reconcile atheists and believers, but he was shattered when his book met with dismissal and was ignored. He popularized the Devon tide pools, and Edmund recalls with bittersweet detail the wonders that the shores once held undisturbed in his youth--until his father's studies and illustrations convinced many others to visit the beaches, and to ruin the fragile ecosystem irreparably.

Therefore, in its environmental as well as creationist themes, you can see the relevance a century later of this account. He describes the Victorian conventional mindset well. "People would, for instance, go on living over a cess-pool. working themselves up in an agony to discover how they had incurred the displeasure of the Lord, but never moving away." He also engagingly portrays the shift to an "extreme" Puritan and fundamentalist sensibility as he and his father--soon with a stepmother--live in a hamlet in Devonshire. There, away from the city, the foibles of trust in those deemed upright and righteous turns sad, or subtly satirical. A spinning top or a plum pudding, the word "Carmine" all loom large in the young child's mind, and can terrorize as deviations from the approved mentality.

While he's precociously allowed to be baptized before adulthood after being grilled by the elders, he finds the "mechanical address" and empty language of his prayers a telling revelation. Like a pot that surrounds an already growing plant, he feels as if he's trapped, and tries to grow up around the suppressing weight of the pattern imposed. He grows apart from the faith of his father, and in the final section breaks away as a maturing man from Philip. "The incidents of human life upon the road to glory were less than nothing to him," a man of belief.

Seeking a truer criterion of "moral justice" than that of the Christian Judge, Edmund refuses to sanction an Almighty who would condemn millions for "a purely intellectual error of comprehension." So, individualism, the ability to think for himself, takes control. He refuses to compromise, and no truce, he concludes, could have been acceptable between son and father. (Read  via Project Gutenberg for the Kindle. Amazon US 11-9-12.)

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