Looking out onto the world

If Father and Son (1907) is a “document,” a “record” of fact, and a “diagnosis” of a cultural moment—which is how the poet and critic Edmund Gosse (1849-1928) puts it at the outset of his auto/biography—that is not because of its pretensions to scientific objectivity, its implied invocation of a naturalist’s standard of normalcy, or its polite and proper pose of (mostly) distanced Victorian detachment.1 As polished as the prose is, the evaluative quality of Gosse’s judgments rest on the merits of its narrative analysis, on the insights offered by its retrospective explanations, and on its somewhat feeble dialectical attempt to understand personal and historical development.

And yet an historian isn’t in the first instance interested in the truth of Gosse’s account. Or at least I’m not. Nor is David Hempton. In his chapter on Father and Son in Evangelical Disenchantment: Nine Portraits of Faith and Doubt (2008), he echos what follows in several ways. Prior to determining the truth of Father and Son is a more basic set of questions concerning, for instance, the genre in which the story is told, the what and the where of the tale, the structure of the plot, the cadences and the tone, and so on and so forth. Setting tentative answers to these queries in the context of the time, an historian might then ask after the relevant factors which might explain why Gosse chose to shape his story so, including why he deviated from factual accuracy (see Hempton), and what he sought to accomplish. For the explanatory and emotional power of Father and Son isn’t due solely or even primarily to the details of Gosse’s narrative. The ways in which he invokes powerful Victorian themes is arguably much more important.2 Why was the Edwardian reading public ready for and appreciative of just such a work?

Father and Son belongs to the same spiritual world as Jude the Obscure (1895). Hempton suggests a comparison with Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh (published posthumously in 1903, but written in the early 1870s), which strikes me as quite apt as well. Although Gosse reacted unfavourably to Thomas Hardy’s novel, the two men both present their protagonists as suffering and struggling to find their way in the world. The significance of their conflict and the ambience in which it occurs is fundamentally shaped by the two authors’ (partial) awareness of a new relationship to providence and cosmic order. The aesthetics of Gosse’s narrative, and thus the quality of his self-diagnosis, in spite of his purported neutrality, is a part of a specific cultural moment: the Victorian world of doubt. It was often (think George Eliot or Thomas Carlyle) a moment of biblical doubt. “I do not believe,” says the Gospel of Mark (9:24), “help me overcome my unbelief!” In this world, where agnosticism holds sway among significant, though frequently reluctant, members of the cultural and social elite, the loss of faith was not just a rational matter, but an emotionally palpable one. Leslie Stephen is a well-known example. In the same way that coming to terms with Stephen’s religious journey demands familiarity with the Victorian period, so to does an assessment of Father and Son. Like a skilled photographer, the historian’s aim is to set the subject in an evocative, enlightening frame.

Yet things are more complicated than this. Even though there are important historical differences we should always strive to keep actively in mind when relating the past to the present, appreciating Father and Son is especially complex because it belongs to our world. The plea Gosse makes for himself, unravelling the tightly-woven parental sutures of his religious upbringing so that he can find a space of his own, a space in which he might develop as he sees fit, is one that large segments of European, American, and Canadian society will recognize and applaud. I assume that is part of the reason it was published by Penguin as a “twentieth century classic.” Father and Son is emblematic of changes which connect the Victorian world to the era that followed, many of which, including the sanctity of personal autonomy, remain firmly in place. This contemporary relevance can become a temptation, however, stemming from present-day moral and political concerns, either to vindicate or to vanquish Gosse’s picture. The choice between approbation or disapproval is likely to be related to how one conceives of human dignity. At its worst, such an approach is historically shallow and philosophically superficial. It turns the past into a mirror and then wields a partial fragment of it like a shiv, a weapon with which to attack or defend one’s rivals.

Consider my own interest in Gosse’s book, which is indeed very much present-centred. Ever since my father died a few years ago I have been intermittently reflecting on my relationship with him. Religion and reading play an important part in this meditation because I was raised as an evangelical Protestant and taught to hold the Bible and Bible-reading in very high esteem. In that respect my upbringing was not so different from Gosse’s. My parents instilled in me a sense of self which was formed in light of the grand biblical narrative as they understood it. All stories were to be related to and judged by those contained in the book of books (selectively chosen).

As a part of the process of reflection on my dad’s death I’ve been considering various depictions of the father-son relationship that seem in some way relevant, from Sophocles’ Antigone to Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons (1862) to Preti Taneja’s We That Are Young (2017). I have been actively looking for literary works such as Gosse’s. However, if my interests stem from a death whose impact continues to shape my present in the form of an absence, I have also been trained in the methods of professional historical scholarship. I am curious about the literary representation of the father-son dynamic for personal reasons, to be sure, but I’m also aware of the need to set possible continuities in that representation against the background of historical change. Haemon’s tense relationship to Creon in Antigone is both similar to and different from Arkady’s in Fathers and Sons in a multitude of manifest ways—classical Greece is not nineteenth-century Russia, We That Are Young transports King Lear to the rather different world of contemporary India. If I am to get the most from the imaginative possibilities contained in literature, I believe this places a rather strong philosophical and an historical demand on me. Ideally, I should strive to develop the skill of good judgment so as to reckon with the fundamental categories discussed in Plato’s Sophist: the same, the other, and the analogous. To put it more straightforwardly, in what ways is my relationship with my father un/like those of the past, be they historical or fictional?

I am unconvinced that professional historical methods can ever succeed in completely setting contemporary concerns to one side, attaining total objectivity, perfect neutrality, or absolute impartiality. Nor am I persuaded that this is as laudable as has often been assumed, or as productive of the most interesting interpretations. Documentary photography, to turn to that medium again, is neither value neutral nor automatically the most exceptionally illuminating art, at least with respect to rendering its subjects in such a way as to elicit greater understanding. Why should it be any different with historical works?

At each step of the historical process, when I (a) submit Father and Son to a series of stringent critical questions, taking it up as a form of documentary evidence from the past, when I then (b) pose answers to these questions in the form of an historical explanation, which is itself something I imaginatively construct based on my familiarity with and assessment of what I judge to be relevant primary and secondary sources, i.e. evidence from that time and place such as Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species (1859) or John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty (1859) or Ernst Renan’s Vie de Jésus (1864), and scholarship about that time and place such as Owen Chadwick’s The Secularization of the European Mind in the Nineteenth Century (1975) or David Cannadine’s Victorious Century: The United Kingdom, 1800-1906 (2017), when I (c) subsequently inscribe my interpretive analysis in a narrative form, I perform this work not in spite of my own historically-realized orientation, but through it.

Hermeneutics is at play in all the abc’s of the historian’s work: documentary, explanatory, literary. In practice they are always actively intermixed. There are certainly better and worse ways of executing the performance. Attention to methodology and bias will undoubtedly be part of the equation. But, as with my own interest in Father and Son, at the end of the day no one can leave their historically conditioned orientation behind when they take up the task of understanding. Every historian, indeed every person alive, relates their present lived historical existence to the past, either consciously or unconsciously, actively or passively. Human existence is historical. When the historian goes to the archive and poses questions to manuscripts from seventeenth-century Bengal, say, their lived historical orientation cannot be checked at the door with their coat. The historical dimension is anthropologically basic.

Just as my own evaluation of my relationship to my father is conditioned by history—which is not at all the same thing as saying that it is completely determined by historyso too is my assessment of Father and Son. Likewise, Gosse’s understanding of his own life is woven into the very fabric of his attempt to relay the “facts,” to create a quasi-scientific “document,” to offer a “diagnostic” assessment. In briefly outlining the three phases all historians pass through when they create original works, I have drawn attention to the presence and conditions of the activities at each stage. Both historical scholarship and personal historical self-awareness are realized dialectically. As I look back on my dad’s life and my relationship to him, which has passed from a living presence to a historical one, I’m trying to be as actively cognizant of this “historicality” as I can be. Just as I relate the ancient world of the New Testament to my living faith today, I’m striving to realize the past in my present dynamically.


In spite of his fastidious attempt to efface himself as author from his own narrative, speaking of his recollections as factual because they are informed by documentary evidence in the form of his mother’s diary or his father’s letters, young Edmund is clearly the hero of Gosse’s coming-of-age story. The last lines of the book make this plain. Pushing back against the incessantly pious inquiries of his father, who was not only a well-known Victorian naturalist but an adamant adherent of Pylmouth Brethrenism, the son finally throws off the constraining “yoke” and takes up “a human being’s privilege to fashion his inner life”.3

In telling his tale Gosse does not present a series of abstract arguments aiming to undermine the intellectual basis of his father’s religious convictions. He tells a story. We follow along as the hero develops: he suffers, he sympathizes, he acclimatizes, he resists, and, after a time of trial in which his inner self struggles to break free, he emerges triumphant though not unscathed. Part of the reason I invoked Jude the Obscure above is due to the fact that Hardy doesn’t exactly celebrate the loss of religion. He narrates it with nostalgic melancholy. Gosse does something similar. He is the hero of his own story, true, but intermixed with his personal triumph is a sense of loss—the termination of his relationship with his father and his respectful but unavoidable break with the spirit of the age his father represented.

Here I am reminded of an observation made by Chadwick: “The Victorian father goes to church. The Edwardian son stays at home. Is ‘reason’ the cause?” 4 No, Chadwick insists, not all by itself it isn’t. The secularization of European society in the latter half of the nineteenth-century cannot be attributed to ideas or arguments or reason alone. Europe didn’t become more secular because the evident falsity of religion became more and more apparent, as if the clarifying light of science and therefore reason became more and more diffuse. True, many eminent Victorians viewed matters this way. It might even be said of Gosse or Butler or Herbert Spencer that they needed to do so. But such a perspective treats religion first and foremost as a system of beliefs and not, as the sociologists Emile Durkheim and Max Weber held, as something inextricably integrated into the very structure and substance of society.

Separated from their social, cultural, and political setting, the history of ideas alone cannot account for the ways in which new notions catch on and become popularized. Chadwick suggests that the appearance of the word secularization, and the spread of what it represented, nebulous as that remained, can be linked to such developments as the rise of popular political newspapers in the latter half of the nineteenth century. New media galvanized an anticlericalism which dated back centuries into something much more potent. The appreciation of what was in those newspapers depended upon such things as increased literacy, more widespread interest and participation in politics, faster means of transport and communication, not to mention urbanization, industrialization, etc. Secularization was not an exclusively intellectual phenomenon, in other words. It linked up to all kinds of historical change.

Father and Son conforms to Chadwick’s thesis, broadly speaking. When Gosse points out that his father’s literalist reading of Genesis was, to an outsider, incredibly brittle, the force of this observation is not analytical. It is painted upon an emotional, ethical canvass. Sometimes explicitly, but for the most part implicitly, the development of the hero resonates with the social and cultural changes in Victorian Britain. Ideas obviously matter to Gosse’s account. Even though the Preface prepares the reader for an observational work of natural history, it’s clear that, to take one of many possible examples, Gosse’s contact with a wide range of modern literature, to say nothing of modern artistic movements such as the pre-Raphaelites, made a lasting, ineradicable impression on the way he thought, wrote, and ultimately lived. It changed the way he responded to his father’s picture of the world. Gosse recognized this. What’s telling is that he wanted to put that recognition in a particular register. His auto/biography could be fruitfully described as a mixture of Victorian cultural themes that struck a nerve with Edwardian readers: one part natural history, one part progressivist-Protestant testimony, one part Bildungsroman.

It is not an insignificant coincidence, then, that Gosse recounts his own baptism into the Plymouth Brethren community. Such baptisms were and often are accompanied by a spiritual “testimony” or “witness.” Before being sanctified by the Holy Spirit, the newly saved sinner recounts their pilgrimage to the congregation they are about to join in full. Father and Son is a secular testimony to the educated Victorian/Edwardian reading public. Gosse’s plea for the right to develop his “inner life” as he sees fit runs all the way back (at least) to Martin Luther, augmented both by the Romantic and utilitarian emphasis on individual expression. Luther was willing to stick to his conscience, which he elevated, along with the Bible, to the highest place of authority, over and against the sacred community of the church and its traditions. “Here I stand.”5 Mill does something similar, though the authority of the individual is paramount—there is no reference to the Bible—and is contrasted not with the church, but with the possible “tyranny” of the democratic majority. “The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”6 Gosse rejects the sources of legitimacy in which his father placed total trust, the Bible, sectarian-based spiritual introspection, and, very importantly, apocalyptic expectation, championing instead the alternative devotion of naturally based personal autonomy. How exactly does he accomplish this?


Several times in Father and SonGosse suggests that a deep cultural gap has opened up between the Britain at the time of his writing (1900s) and the Britain of his childhood, boyhood, and youth (1850s, 1860s). From the outsethe describes the trajectory of his life as one fated (predestined?) to move forward, catching the latest waves of change, while his father beckoned him to look backwards, against the current, to the rigid Puritanism of the seventeenth-century. Indeed, Gosse confidently but mistakenly suggests that Puritanism will soon be dead and that his father may be the last Puritan. His relationship with his father is delineated as a story of “two temperaments, two consciences and almost two epochs”.7

To be fair to Gosse, his father’s reaction to Darwin’s Origins and the debates it engendered was conditioned by the casuistical logic of his religious convictions. Unlike John Henry Newman, to take one of many possible, though contentious, examples, who had the intellectual resources to adapt and respond to scientific developments like evolution by natural selection without necessarily undermining the basis of his faith, since it was not theologically dependent on a common-sense literalism with respect to the account of creation in Genesis, Gosse’s father was stuck between a kind of all-or-nothing dualism. Either the Bible is literally true and divinely inspired in each and every word, or it isn’t; if it isn’t, then, by his light, the saving knowledge of God is naught. Without the biblical guarantee, without the authority of divine revelation made plain, humankind is left to founder on the fables of its flawed imagination. A very lengthy passage of a letter from the father to this effect is cited in the book’s closing paragraphs. That Gosse thought he was stepping into a future that would be progressively free of such cramped religiosity is clear. That he could not foresee the staying power of what would become fundamentalism isn’t necessarily an egregious error, but it does suggest that his historical vision was very much shaped by his need to believe in a rival providential story. Both stories, both the father’s and the son’s, belong to the Protestant history of British identity: Victorian sectarian evangelicalism just as much as Victorian liberal progressivism.

Father and son were supposedly moving in opposite historical directions. Intermixed with the evidence of diary entries and letters, Gosse deftly alerts the reader to this implicit contrast by puncturing the narrative with the seemingly inevitable development of his “inner self.” The facts of this internal process are not facts objectively considered but literary reminiscences of his psychological state. They are adjacent to, but not always derived from, the documentary evidence that is interspersed throughout. “What came to me was the consciousness of self, as a force and as a companion”.8 This new awareness arrives as a result of various “shocks” to young Edmund’s picture of the world. These inevitably alter his relationship with his father and his father’s beliefs. We learn, for example, that Gosse confused his father with the Almighty, since the two seemed to be on such intimate speaking terms. One day, his mother corrects a mistake his father made. Another day soon after, Edmund realizes his father does not know why the fountain isn’t working—our young hero was accidentally at fault. As a result of these omissions in his father’s omniscience, the scales fall from young Edmund’s eyes. “My father, as a deity, as a natural force of immense prestige, fell in my eyes to a human level.”9 The corollary has enormous consequences: “I had found a companion and a confidant in myself.”10 Father falls from heaven to earth, son feels the first stirrings of a budding self-awareness.

Similar moments of self-discovery are scattered across the pages of Father and Son. When Gosse goes to stay with some cousins because his father is away, their different way of living is immediately apparent and cause for reflection. “The Clifton family was God-fearing, in a quiet, sensible way, but there was a total absence of all the intensity and compulsion of our religious life at Islington.”11 Here are some “sensible” Christians, moderate and free.The corollary is once again consequential: “My experiences with my cousins at Clifton had given me the habit of looking out into the world”.12 The image is repeated shortly thereafter, underlining is importance. “Before I went to Clifton, my mental life was all interior, a rack of baseless dream upon dream. But now, I was eager to look out of the window, to go out into the streets; I was taken with a curiosity about human life.”13 Narrow is the one road, wide the other.

This “looking out,” this curiosity about and engagement with the wider world, beyond the small frame of Plymouth Brethrenism, was satisfied in a few different ways, but most lastingly in literature. Once his mother died and his father remarried, not only would young Edmund go to different schools, encountering Shakespeare and much else, but his new stepmother became a catalyst for further literary exploration, not least because of her large library. His father allowed him to read Virgil and was even himself willing to read the poetry of Walter Scott aloud. In time Gossefilswould read romantics like Percy Shelley and John Keats and acceptable novelists such as Charles Dickens. He devoured The Pickwick Papers. The enticement of poetry and prose, which is advertised on numerous occasions along our hero’s journey, sparked the fire of his aesthetic instincts, which had hitherto lain dormant. His true self, of which he was becoming slowly but increasingly aware, and which as readers we are meant to witness, now responded in earnest sympathy to its natural interests. After all, “certain leading features in each human soul are inherent to it”.14

Literature revealed to Gosse a kind of enjoyment with no attendant “idea of exhortation or profit.”15 This was foreign to his father’s Brethrenism, whose intense introspection placed every human action in the light of spiritual sanctification. Eventually literary pleasure led young Edmund down “innumerable paths which meandered in directions at right angles to that direct strait way which leadeth to salvation.”16Although Father and Son is supposed to be, according to its subtitle, a scientific “study of two temperaments,” it retrospectively gathers up the events and evidence of Gosse’s life in a notably unscientific way:

“Through thick and think I clung to a hard nut of individuality, deep down in my childish nature. To the pressure from without I resigned everything else, my thoughts, my words, my anticipations, my assurances, but there was something which I never resigned, my innate and persistent self. Meek as I seemed, and gently respondent, I was always conscious of that innermost quality which I had learned to recognize in my earlier days in Islington, that existence of two in the depths who could speak to one another in involuntary secrecy.”17

As he matures, as he finally has the chance to let his “two selves” speak more openly to one another, the inner expressing itself more publicly to the outer, Edmund has another conversion experience. This is the culmination of Gosse’s second-order testimony. This is the place to which the reader-as-witness has been led. Adolescent Edmund, aged 16, is now at school in London, away from the inquisitive intrusions of his father. “Looking out” onto the wider world, which by this point makes his father’s picture of it seem increasingly small, confined, and one-eyed, he is overcome by a vision of beauty. Edmund looks out of his bedroom window and is seized by a transformative aesthetic pleasure. Instinctively, he responds with a prayer of petition. It sincerely echoes his father’s apocalyptic expectations, but wholly in vain. There is little doubt for the reader that it will lead to disappointment. “Come now, Lord Jesus!” Nothing happens. In the past such silence hadn’t deterred Edmund’s faith. But this time it does. Or so at least the narrative would have it. “From that moment forth my Father and I, though the fact was long successfully concealed from him and even from myself, walked in opposite hemispheres of the soul”.18


The Victorian father goes to church; the Edwardian stays home. Is reason the cause? Chadwick says no. In this case, the Victorian naturalist Philip Gosse was a lifelong and fervent member of the Plymouth Brethren community. His son, whose life bridged the Victorian and Edwardian periods, depicts his coming-of-age story as a quasi-scientific study, portraying his exit from anachronistic sectarianism to modern Protestant-progressive social normalcy. Was reason the cause? No, not entirely; not even primarily. Edmund Gosse undoubtedly deliberated about his decision to follow his own path. As Hempton points out, though, rather than the sudden de-conversion experience depicted so movingly in Father and Son, that process was in actual fact much slower and gradual than Gosse leads the reader to believe, taking several more years. This only underlines the importance of how Gosse wishes to portray his life’s story and his relationship to his father. Although the language he uses in Father and Son relies on the authoritative aura of scientific, objective, and documentary legitimacy, there is hardly a page in his book in which that neutral light is not infused by the warmth of a post-Victorian ethical power. The father is trapped in the Puritan past; the son embraces his inner self and in so doing the untrammelled freedom of the progressive future.

“The old opinions in religion, morals, and politics, are so much discredited in the more intellectual minds as to have lost the greater part of their efficacy for good, while they have still life enough in them to be a powerful obstacle to the growing up of any better opinions on those subjects. When the philosophic minds of the world can no longer believe its religion, or can only believe it with modifications amounting to an essential change of its character, a transitional period commences, of weak convictions, paralysed intellects, and growing laxity of principle, which cannot terminate until a renovation has been effected in the basis of their belief, leading to the evolution of some faith, whether religious or merely human, which they can really believe and when things are in this state, all thinking or writing which does not tend to promote such a renovation, is of very little value beyond the moment.”19

What Mill in his Autobiography calls a transitional period of modification, evolution, and renovation, Gosse presents as an inevitable natural outcome. Though that’s not quite right. In order for the plant of personality to truly flourish, he implies, in order for it to have the space to develop freely, it needs to be cultivated. In effect Gosse enjoins his readers to see those aspects of the past which encroach upon and stifle inner individual development as life-killing weeds. He would have us uproot them. Given their personal and intellectual trajectories, neither Mill nor Gosse were able to take a different historical view of the garden in which they found themselves. Although Gosse rightly criticized his father for viewing the Bible ahistorically, he did not himself recognize the extent, the strength, or the depth of his own Victorian roots.


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  1. Edmund Gosse, Father and Son, Penguin, 1989, p. 33. []
  2. For some of the relevant themes, in a book dedicated to Victorian unbelief, see A. N. Wilson, God’s Funeral, W. W. Norton, 1999. []
  3. Father and Son, p. 251. []
  4. Owen Chadwick, The Secularization of the European Mind in the Nineteenth Century, Cambridge University Press, 1990 [1975], p. 6. []
  5. Apocryphal or not, many historians, including Dairmaid McCulloch in Reformation: Europe’s House Divided 1490-1700, Penguin, 2003,and Peter Marshall, The Reformation, Oxford University Press, 2009,think the phrase captures the spirit of Luther’s defence at the Diet of Worms. []
  6. J. S. Mill, On Liberty, 1859, p. 22. []
  7. Father and Son, p. 35. []
  8. Father and Son, p. 55. []
  9. Father and Son, p. 57. []
  10. Father and Son, p. 58. []
  11. Father and Son, p. 84. []
  12. Father and Son, p. 87. []
  13. Father and Son, p. 90. []
  14. Father and Son, p. 55. []
  15. Father and Son, p. 144. []
  16. Father and Son, p. 223. []
  17. Father and Son, p. 168. []
  18. Father and Son, p. 235. []
  19. J. S. Mill, Autobiography, 1873, p. 239. []