Edmund Gosse’s books are lovely to read but eminently forgettable. A winsome writer, fine stylist, poets of sorts, essayist, and arbiter of taste in the early decades of the twentieth century, he flourished at the center of London literary circles, and was eventually knighted for his cultural contributions.
Years ago I bought an old used copy of Leaves and Fruit, his last book of literary essays and reviews, which I read with great pleasure in bed as I was falling asleep. Today I only recall the ease of my mind as I read Gosse’s smooth, effortless sentences. The actual content has long since slipped out of my mind, if indeed it ever entered.
Not so Gosse’s most famous and only lasting book, Father and Son, an arresting account of his faith-saturated childhood. An only child, Gosse grew up in a household utterly committed to the distinctive doctrines of the Plymouth Brethren, which involved not only a fierce biblical literalism, but also gave prominent place to the dispensationalist scheme of John Nelson Darby and Cyrus Scofield of reference Bible fame.
Gosse’s mother died when he was young. Philip Henry Gosse, a well-known zoologist whose rejection of Darwinian evolutionary theory became an embarrassment in Victorian England, raised his young son to do great work on behalf of the Lord.
The memoir captures Gosse’s youthful subservience to the theological vision of his father, to whom he was devoted. And rightfully so, for the elder Gosse was a man of great energy and integrity. As he grows older, however, the young Gosse begins to shudder with doubts. His accounts of daily family prayers—very extensive—and regular bible study—again and again returning to the Book of Revelation—convey a chilling, suffocating closeness.
Sent as a teenager to live with relatives so that he can attend a better school, these doubts grow. Gosse tells of the daily letters his father wrote, long missives of detailed exhortation, strenuous efforts to hold his son to the faith. But in vain.
His father, “the implacable fowler,” cannot reconcile himself to his son’s unbelief. Summer visits are marked by “discussions” that amount to long afternoons during which his father piles biblical argument upon biblical argument to reconvert his son. Just as the elder Gosse sacrificed his scientific vocation to his faith, he sacrifices his vocation as a father as well, turning his relationship to his son into a missionary enterprise.
In one of the sharply worded passages of the New Testament, Jesus teaches that he came to bring division, not peace: “father against son and son against father.” As Edmund Gosse draws his memoir of his life with his ardently believing father to a close, he rues this sad fact. “What a charming companion,” Gosse observes, “what a delightful parent, what a courteous and engaging friend my Father would have been, and would pre-eminently have been to me, if it had not been for this stringent piety which ruined it all.”
Love ruined. This, for Edmund Gosse, condemns his father’s faith, and in the final pages of Father and Son the anger is palpable as he lets loose a blast:
It sets up a vain, chimerical ideal, in the barren pursuit of which all tender, indulgent affections, all the genial play of life, all the exquisite pleasures and soft resignations of the body, all that enlarges and calms the soul are exchanged for what is harsh and void and negative. It encourages a stern and intolerant spirit of condemnation; it invents sin which are no sins at all, but which darken the heaven of innocent joy with futile clouds of remorse. There is something horrible, if we will bring ourselves to face it, in the fanaticism that can do nothing with the 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.
These words are familiar. They can be boiled down to the usual modern critiques of religious faith as a futile life-denying fantasy. Yet, coming at the end of his autobiography, Gosse’s outburst does not read like an atheist's sermon preached from the high pulpit of Freedom and Reason. He loved his father, and he was loyal to his memory.
I don’t mean to say that Edmund Gosse didn’t mean what he wrote about the “vain, chimerical ideal” of faith. Rather, my point is the faithless son’s love for his faithful father gives humanity to his criticisms of religious conviction.
I’ve read and reread the final pages of Father and Son a number of times in recent years. I don’t agree with Edmund Gosse about faith. It need not be “hard and void and negative.” But I’ve learned from him a valuable lesson. Love and loyalty can make criticism humane. He criticizes his father’s faith, which amounted to a criticism of his life, but he did so as he embraced his father in memory.
R.R. Reno is a senior editor of First Things and Professor of Theology at Creighton University. He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, to which he contributed the commentary on Genesis.