British and Irish Literature Edmund Gosse
Alexis Harley
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0126


Today Edmund Gosse (1849–1928) is best known for his novelistic memoir Father and Son: A Study of Two Temperaments. Gosse himself apparently felt that the work would slide rapidly into obscurity; he told George Moore in 1918 that it was “already almost forgotten” (Thwaite 1984, p. 2, cited under General Overviews). In fact, the book not only was celebrated until his death, but also has been read and studied well beyond, as attested by the many sources in this article. Father and Son depicts a delicate child, forbidden fiction, stranded seemingly for months in his father’s study copying illustrations of marine creatures, assiduous in professions of a severe faith (all the while moving toward apostasy). The memoir also represents Gosse’s parents: his mother, the evangelical writer Emily Bowes (1806–1857), and his father, Philip Henry Gosse (1810–1888), Fellow of the Royal Society (F. R. S.) and famous marine biologist, whose scientific standing suffered from his efforts to reconcile his biblical literalism with the discoveries of 19th-century geology. Crucially, Father and Son also introduces its reader to a narrative voice that is urbane, and—in contrast to the child, who supposedly knows virtually nothing of modern secular literature—immensely well read. This is the voice of Edmund Gosse, the littérateur. Despite his seemingly insulated childhood, Gosse became one of the most worldly of Victorian and, later, Edwardian literary figures. He was not only a memoirist, but also a poet, literary biographer and historian, translator, and librarian to the House of Lords. The entries in this article are arranged to illuminate the diverse facets of his literary work. He had an extraordinary talent for befriending the prominent authors of his era, including Algernon Charles Swinburne, John Addington Symonds, Robert Browning, Henry James, Thomas Hardy, André Gide, and Robert Louis Stevenson. He produced a dizzying number of literary biographies (including the lives of Thomas Gray, John Donne, and Swinburne); translated Norwegian, Danish, French, and German authors, bringing the work of Henrik Ibsen for the first time to an Anglophone readership; and published extensively on the history of English literature. It is little wonder, then, that the critical literature about Gosse should cover such wide terrain. Gosse was a vital, if sometimes controversial, figure in the institutionalization of literary studies. The lecture series Gosse published as From Shakespeare to Pope (1885) became the focal point for a scathing critique of his unscholarly belletrism by his sometime friend, John Churton Collins. Collins’s attack, published in the Quarterly Review of October 1886, charged Gosse with factual errors, misleading generalization, and a kind of literary charlatanism that he felt undermined the nascent discipline of literary studies.

General Overviews

A memoirist, biographer, and theorist of biography, Gosse has himself been the subject of several biographies, all of which offer a different version of his character. His own memoir offers a necessarily partial account of the author as a child (Gosse 1907). On the other hand, its unavoidable subjectivity means that it reveals Gosse not only through what is recorded, but also by how he represents himself. The most readily available editions of Father and Son are those by Abbs 1983 and Newton 2004, both of which include excellent introductions to that memoir and to its author. Thwaite 1984 is undoubtedly the most comprehensive overview of the life and work of Edmund Gosse, as of the early 21st century. Thwaite’s account of Gosse’s early life is clearly indebted to Gosse 1907, as any version of that storied childhood must be. However, Thwaite’s wider research, particularly into variant accounts of Edmund Gosse’s father, has enabled her to query and enlarge on Gosse’s own memoir. No Gosse scholar can or should avoid this biography, which is not to say that all of Thwaite’s interpretations of the Gosse archive are unarguable (see Lee 2003, cited under Queer Gosse). A very brief introduction to Gosse’s life is found in Thwaite 2004. Charteris 1931 and Woolf 1972 demonstrate shifts in biographical fashion over the course of the 20th century. The former—which was the Gosse biography until the publication of Thwaite 1984—lionizes its subject and gives the reader complete access to some of Gosse’s unabridged letters. The latter is a biography by way of critical survey, offering accounts of Gosse’s labors in various fields of literary endeavor, including his work on the theory of criticism, his practice of full-length critical biography, and his poetry, dramas, and the one novel he published in book form, The Secret of Narcisse (1892). Waugh 1956 is a jaunty, short biographical essay, in this case, entirely frank about the partiality of its sources. Virginia Woolf’s essay (Woolf 1952) offers a likewise frank, but considerably more critical, account from the perspective of another young contemporary (although a far more radical literary figure than Gosse). Orel 1984 is a descriptive survey of Gosse as literary critic, but it also serves to introduce key controversies in his biography.

  • Abbs, Peter. “Introduction.” In Father and Son. By Edmund Gosse, 9–31. Edited by Peter Abbs. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1983.

    This is not just an excellent introduction to Father and Son, which Abbs places in the historical context of autobiographical writing, but also to Gosse’s place in the historical context of literary and literary critical practice more generally.

  • Charteris, Evan. The Life and Letters of Sir Edmund Gosse. London: W. Heinemann, 1931.

    Published shortly after Gosse’s death, this somewhat hagiographic memoir relies heavily on a selection from Gosse’s letters, published in full, illustrating both his voice and his illustrious literary relationships.

  • Gosse, Edmund. Father and Son. London: W. Heinemann, 1907.

    This edition is no longer easily found, but it is worth noting some of its peculiarities, particularly because its author’s name was obscured (although a photograph of young Gosse and his father was used as the book’s frontispiece).

  • Newton, Michael Stuart. “Introduction.” In Father and Son. By Edmund Gosse, ix–xxviii. Edited by Michael Stuart Newton. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

    This essay produces a lively contrast between Edmund Gosse, establishment figure, and the protagonist of Gosse 1907. It reads Gosse 1907 less for what it can reveal about Edmund Gosse than for its relationship to its literary antecedents.

  • Orel, Harold. Victorian Literary Critics: George Henry Lewes, Walter Bagehot, Richard Holt Hutton, Leslie Stephen, Andrew Lang, George Saintsbury and Edmund Gosse. London and Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan, 1984.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-349-17458-4

    Chapter 7, “Edmund Gosse,” offers an extensive survey of Gosse’s literary critical and biographical writing. It reinforces his reputation for unreliability on factual matters, but repeatedly evidences his “discernment.”

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

    This remains the most useful, reliable, and extensive biography of Edmund Gosse. It draws on an immense body of documentary evidence to dramatize Gosse’s character and illuminate the entanglement of his life and his literary work.

  • Thwaite, Ann. “Gosse, Sir Edmund William (1849–1928), Writer.” In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Edited by H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

    A very short introductory biography by Gosse’s premier biographer. Available online since May 2011.

  • Waugh, Alec. “Edmund Gosse.” The Virginia Quarterly Review 32.1 (1956): 69–78.

    A brief and lively biographical sketch of Gosse, by the brother of Evelyn Waugh whose father was Gosse’s cousin. Waugh supplements biographical details already on the public record with anecdotes related to him by his father. Includes a lengthy consideration of the impact of John Churton Collins’s attack on Gosse.

  • Woolf, Virginia. “Edmund Gosse.” In The Moment, and Other Essays. By Virginia Woolf, 72–98. London: Hogarth, 1952.

    Woolf, who conjures Gosse as the bumbling poet, Sir Nicholas Greene, in her biographical fiction, Orlando (London: Hogarth, 1928), offers here an unsympathetic account of Gosse as a self-promoting hypocrite.

  • Woolf, James. Sir Edmund Gosse. New York: Twayne, 1972.

    Less a comprehensive biography than a series of interlinked studies of Gosse’s labors in specific fields of literary endeavor, written by the author of a number of scholarly essays on Gosse 1907.

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