In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Edmund Gosse

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Biographies of Gosse and of His Parents
  • Contemporary Criticisms and Reminiscences
  • Bibliographies and Catalogues
  • Emily Bowes-Gosse
  • Philip Henry Gosse as Popularizer of Natural Science
  • Gosse as a Man of Letters
  • Gosse as a Biographer
  • Gosse as a Writer of Fiction
  • Literary Friendships
  • Promotion of International Literature
  • Victorian Sculpture
  • Appropriations

Victorian Literature Edmund Gosse
Kathy Rees
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 July 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0138


Edmund William Gosse (b. 1849–d. 1928) was the preeminent man of letters during the late Victorian and Edwardian periods. Although he worked in several genres—as poet, playwright, biographer, essayist, critic, literary historian, and bibliophile—the modernist contempt for all things Victorian meant that Gosse’s wider oeuvre fell into obscurity, and his posthumous reputation was sustained by only one book: Father and Son (1907). This autobiographical novel describes his family life up to the age of twenty-one, with his father, Philip Henry Gosse (b. 1810–d. 1888), a prolific and popular author of books on natural history and religion, and his mother, Emily Bowes-Gosse (b. 1806–d. 1857), a writer of evangelical narrative tracts. Gosse’s parents belonged to the Plymouth Brethren, and much of Father and Son concerns Gosse’s growing resistance to their religious expectations of him. Rather than becoming a religious missionary as his parents had hoped, Gosse became a literary evangelist, preaching a love of poetry, fiction, and drama. The nature of Gosse’s working life, first as a clerk-cataloguer at the British Museum (1860–1875), then as a translator at the Board of Trade (1875–1904), and finally as librarian of the House of Lords (1904–1914) allowed him spare time to devote to literary pursuits, and he cultivated friendships with such figures as Stevenson, Swinburne, Hardy, and James. By the age of thirty-five, Gosse’s literary career seemed promising, with a successful lecture tour across America, and an appointment as Clark Lecturer at Cambridge University. However, when Gosse turned the series of lectures given in America into a book, From Shakespeare to Pope (1885), published by Cambridge University, it proved to be full of inaccuracies, and became the focus for an impassioned debate about dilettantism in the teaching of English literature. John Churton Collins exposed the vague generalizations, random assertions, and blatant errors in Gosse’s vaunted scholarship: the affair was dubbed by The Critic as “the Scandal of the Year” (20 November 1886). Though disconcerted for a while, Gosse quickly resumed writing, and in addition to numerous essays (subsequently published as collections), he became well known for his biographies: Gray (1882), Congreve (1888), Philip Gosse (1890), Donne (1899), Jeremy Taylor (1904), Patmore (1905), Sir Thomas Browne (1905), Ibsen (1907), and Swinburne (1917). Early in his career, Gosse promoted Scandinavian literature, championing particularly the plays of Ibsen, while later in life, his enthusiasm for French literature developed into strong support for the work of André Gide. From the age of seventy up to his death, Gosse’s causerie and “ten-minute sermons” entertained readers, first in The Daily Mail and, later, in The Sunday Times.

General Overviews

For insights into Gosse’s wider oeuvre and his role as a man of letters, Thwaite 1984 is the primary reference text. For brief overviews, Dodd 1987 and Lee 2005 are useful, both evaluating Gosse’s significance in relation to developments in life writing. Hempton 2008 contextualizes Gosse’s “deconversion” by grouping him with similarly disenchanted figures such as George Eliot and Vincent van Gogh. For prefatory essays that position Father and Son within Gosse’s life and career, there are three editions with accessible and discerning introductions: Ballantyne 1970 addresses the issues of religion, Abbs 1983 explores the question of genre, and Newton 2004 highlights thematic tensions in the text.

  • Abbs, Peter. “Introduction.” In Father and Son. Edited by Peter Abbs, 9–31. London: Penguin, 1983.

    Identifies the line of friction between two readings of Father and Son: the historical and the autobiographical. Shows how the stated methodology of objective description in Gosse’s “clinical” preface is underpinned by “a deep and dialectical flow of feelings, exposed, irrational, multi-layered and labile” (p. 28).

  • Ballantyne, Cecil. “Introduction.” In Father and Son. Edited by Cecil Ballantyne, v–xxiv. London: Heinemann Educational, 1970.

    Explains the origins and beliefs of the Plymouth Brethren and Gosse’s parents’ attraction to it. In its iconoclasm against paternalistic religion, Father and Son is compared to Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh (1903).

  • Dodd, Philip. “Edmund Gosse.” In Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 57, Victorian Prose Writers after 1867. Edited by William B. Thesing, 108–118. Detroit: Gale, 1987.

    Useful chronological listing of primary texts, including privately printed pamphlets. Outlines Gosse’s life events and literary activities, crediting his Father and Son with shifting the formal model for autobiography from the essay to the realist novel. Lists secondary reading up to 1987. Several family photographs included.

  • Hempton, David. “Edmund Gosse, Father and Son: Evangelicalism and Childhood.” In Evangelical Disenchantment: Nine Portraits of Faith and Doubt. By David Hempton, 139–162. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008.

    Gosse is one of nine case studies of public figures who repudiated the evangelical tradition. Investigates what Father and Son reveals about the ways in which Brethrenism shaped Gosse’s family life. Groups Gosse with such diverse figures as George Eliot, Vincent van Gogh, and James Baldwin.

  • Lee, Hermione. “Father and Son: Philip and Edmund Gosse.” In Body Parts: Essays on Life Writing. By Hermoine Lee, 100–111. London: Chatto and Windus, 2005.

    Readable discussion of the significance of both Philip Gosse and Edmund Gosse in relation to recent reassessments of Victorian literature and culture.

  • Machann, Clinton. “Edmund Gosse: Father and Son (1907).” In The Genre of Autobiography in Victorian Literature. By Clinton Machann, 135–143. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994.

    DOI: 10.3998/mpub.9690725

    Includes Gosse as one of eleven Victorian writers of autobiography. Machann gives a succinct and insightful outline of Father and Son, characterizing it as a narrative of two levels: the external world of the Gosse household and the internal world of the son’s mind. Very accessible.

  • Newton, Michael. “Introduction.” In Father and Son. Edited by Michael Newton, ix–xxviii. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

    Incisive analysis of this “self-divided book” that pitches the father’s certainty and Puritanism against the son’s indeterminacy and paganism. Shows how Gosse “fathers” his father, transforming the historical figure into a fiction, a character in a “literary fable of faith and doubt” (p. xxvii). Useful contextualization in terms of the Edwardian reader.

  • Thwaite, Ann. Edmund Gosse: A Literary Landscape, 1849–1928. London: Secker & Warburg, 1984.

    This is essential reading and a powerful and reliable evocation of the contradictory nature of Gosse’s life and personality. Thwaite corrects the exaggerations of Father and Son and investigates 20th-century reactions against Gosse. A subtle orchestration of the “literary landscape” of Gosse’s wide acquaintanceship, utilizing untold archive material. See same citation in Biographies of Gosse and of His Parents.

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