Just whom is Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son written for? Is it for the Father, or for the
Son, or, as Edmund Gosse tells us, for the public, so they can have a record of life in a
rigidly religious family? Edmund begins his book by telling you that it is a historical
record, an important chronicle that is to be used, basically as a reference for a period of
time. Yet, in the first sentence of the first chapter, we can see that this is truly not his
purpose. The first words on the page does not reference a historical event; they are,
instead, cathartic. Edmund tries very hard to convince his reader that “this is not an
autobiography” (217). Try as he might, he did not persuade me.
I will grant that for Edmund Gosse to profess to have written this book as if it
were a biography of his father, or even as a historical chronicle, was beneficial. First off,
by writing something which is to document a period of time Edmund would be writing in
the methodical and scientific style of his father, which then would mirror the lifestyle in
which he is forced to live. Secondly, Edmund wants the reader to see his father as he did,
with honor, awe, resentment and even shame. Edmund does this quietly, he does not
shout his shame, he merely reiterates it as a anecdote of a story “…his very absence of
imagination aided him in his work. (113)” .
Finally, Edmund, being able to portray this book as a portrait of someone other than
himself, is a chance to humble himself, no matter what he says about the father, to the
reader. All of these methods that Edmund uses to sway our thinking actually serve only
to benefit Edmund Gosse himself. This actually makes it more of an autobiographical
account than not.
If you count the number of “I’s” in this book, you will find yourself into triple
digits (I actually tried this). This is not the only narcissistic angle of the book. Even when
reiterating episodes in the life of the Gosse’s he does it in reference to himself. If this
were to chronicle “two temperaments, two consciences….two epochs (35)” there would
be more than one perspective. Do we once hear of Philip Gosse’s reactions or feelings
about his wife dying? We do not, we merely get the reactions of what he does from his
son. Do we know what he thought those nights alone without his wife? No, we do not.
Edmund did not take the time to find out. He even apologizes when he said, “Had I been
older and more intelligent, of course, it might have been him, and not of myself that I
should have been thinking (80).” Yet, still thinking of himself, he states, “This is not to be
dwelt on here (80).” Of course it isn’t Edmund, it is an autobiography, it is about you.
Edmund, we know would argue that. He tries to take the spotlight off of himself.
Being the type of person that he is, the always goes back to talking about himself. In the
chapter of the book, Edmund tells of an apocalyptic event, a noteworthy action worthy of
ending a book on…his transcendence into heaven. His epiphany is quickly grounded by
reality. Nothing happens. His ego is shattered. HIS ego, Edmund’s ego. This catalytic
event puts an emotional and spiritual division between father and son that puts “the thick
o’ the world” (235) between them. Although in the Epilogue Edmund is apologetic for
having the son (himself) in the foreground of the book, he continues to end the book in
exactly the same fashion. Edmund gives you an almost check-off list of his father’s life,
“extreme solicitude, disappointment and disenchantment….etc.” all of this in one
paragraph. Edmund then, once again, changes from “He’s” to “I’s” and tells of his
reactions to his father’s incessant “postal inquisitions (236)” and suddenly the focus back
That this is an autobiographical book, I have no doubt. For even in the final few
pages of the book, Edmund askes the reader if he may “speak plainly (248).” Funny how
he asks permission now for what he has been doing throughout the book. Edmund feels
that he surely “has a right to protest (248)” the final action that he shows us of his father.
His father’s letter is represented at the end for selfish reasons. Only when the reader sees
the inflexibility and the “defiance” of the father’s letter can Edmund end with the sympathy
of the reader. Edmund’s final act of narcissistic manipulation has us cheering when he
ends his autobiography by him “throwing off the yoke of dedication …and fashioning an
inner life for himself (251).”