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Father and Son: A Study of Two Temperaments (Classic, 20th-Century, Penguin) Paperback – October 26, 1989

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Editorial Reviews Review

The era in which faith and reason conflicted in a profound manner seems far away, and perhaps even a bit incomprehensible, to citizens of the modern world. Most of us take for granted our right to choose the life of the mind over that of the spirit without feeling remorse. At the very least, we've learned that the two need not be mutually exclusive. But this is hard-won ease, born of a conflict that began with the Victorians. Edmund Gosse's Father and Son (1907) traces his own reckoning--as well as that of his father, the eminent British zoologist Philip Gosse--with the clash. His story is, as he declares, "The diagnosis of a dying Puritanism."

The only Puritanism that dies here, however, is the author's. His parents were Christian fundamentalists and as a result, young Edmund was denied interaction with other children as well as all variety of fictional tales. "Here was perfect purity," Gosse writes, "perfect intrepidity, perfect abnegation; yet there was also narrowness, isolation, and absence of perspective, let it boldly be admitted, an absence of humanity." Despite all of this, the child maintained his sense of humor, which adds much levity to a tale of such potentially grim proportions.

When Edmund was 8, his mother died of cancer, leaving him the care of a man in whom "sympathetic imagination ... was singularly absent." Philip Gosse held on to his faith in God above all else--so much so, in fact, that when evolutionary theory was announced to the world, he dismissed it entirely because it discounted the book of Genesis. Little by little, Edmund began to chafe against the traditions he had inherited. By the age of 11, he already saw himself "imprisoned for ever in the religious system which had caught me and would whurl my helpless spirit." At this point he believed his fate was sealed and went through the motions of piety. It is not until he goes off to boarding school, and discovers the Greeks and Romantic poetry, that he slowly chooses his own path. Eventually he comes to realize that he and his father "walked in opposite hemispheres of the soul." Their split encapsulates a particular moment in history but also embodies their destiny: "one was born to fly backward, the other could not help being carried forward." --Melanie Rehak


Autobiography by Edmund Gosse, published anonymously in 1907. Considered a minor masterpiece, Father and Son is a sensitive study of the clash between religious fundamentalism and intellectual curiosity. The book recounts Gosse's austere childhood, particularly his relationship to his father, the eminent zoologist Philip Henry Gosse. In the conflict between his rigid fundamentalism and mounting scientific knowledge, the elder Gosse rejected science for his faith. The younger Gosse, with his vast thirst for knowledge of the broader world, was finally unable to accept his father's beliefs. -- The Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature

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Product Details

  • Series: Classic, 20th-Century, Penguin
  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Classics; Reprint edition (October 26, 1989)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140182764
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140182767
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.6 x 7.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,430,119 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

23 of 24 people found the following review helpful By Robert Moore HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on December 14, 2001
Format: Paperback
Edmund Gosse's FATHER AND SON is legitimately considered one of the highpoints of Victorian autobiography. As has been noted by others, the book recounts the relationship between Edmund Gosse and his father, a member of the Christian sect generally known as Plymouth Brethren, but who was also a member of the Royal Society and one of the foremost marine biologists of his time. The narrative tends to break down into a number of definite segments: the author's birth until the death of his mother; life with his father until the time of the publishing of Darwin's THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES; the move of the Gosses to the coast of England; and young Gosse's schooling and gradual growth away from the religious teachings and expectations he had received from his parents.
A number of powerful impressions evolve over the course of the telling. First and foremost, one is left with an impression of how overwhelmingly Gosse's childhood was stripped of nearly all fun by his parents' puritanical and stern religion. Gosse's father is presented not as a cruel, vicious, and hypocritical. Instead, he is shown as a caring parent, a completely earnest practitioner of his religion, but fanatically concerned to eliminate all activities that do not lead to increased religious devotion and moral seriousness. Unfortunately, this resulted for Gosse in a childhood from which all possibility of play and fun and delight had been eliminated. Near the end of the book, I was left wondering if Gosse would have been inclined to leave Christianity if he had just had more fun as a kid.
The section of the book dealing with his father's reaction to Darwin's ORIGIN OF SPECIES was for me the most interesting part of the book.
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Format: Paperback
A century ago Edmund Gosse was a noted man of British letters, who went on to be knighted in 1925. Today, the only work of his that is still noted or read, even marginally, is FATHER AND SON. George Bernard Shaw called it "one of the immortal pages in English literature." It is best described as a memoir of Gosse's youth, up until he was 21. His mother died when he was seven, so his father took on added importance in his upbringing -- and hence, the title of the book.

The book is not an easy read, mostly because Gosse's Victorian language is now so unfamiliar and almost baroque; it strikes me as more ornate and indirect than the norm for his time, although I certainly have not read widely among the Victorians. But I found the book worth the time and effort to make my way through it, both as a singular memoir but even more so for the light it shines from more than a century ago on contemporary issues posed by fundamentalistic and evangelical religions, especially whether they have any place for reflective individualism.

Edmund Gosse's father Philip was a distinguished British naturalist of the mid-19th Century, a colleague of Darwin, Lyell, and Hooker, and a Fellow of the Royal Society, but he also was a very strict and devout Puritan or "extreme Calvinist" (actually, a member of the Plymouth Brethren). Edmund's mother was also a devout Puritan, perhaps even stricter than his father. Edmund was an only child, born in 1849. Because of his parents' antediluvian approach to life, he had a very unusual childhood. A faint breath of normality was introduced into his life only after his father married his Quaker stepmother when he was twelve.
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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Richard K. Wyman on March 12, 2000
Format: Paperback
Father and Son is the story of two men, Edmund Gosse (the writer) and his father, Philip Gosse. Philip was a biologist, a contemporary of Charles Darwin. The story covers a period of about twenty years, from 1849 to about 1870, during which Edmund grew from infancy to university student. Edmund Gosse became a well-known English man of letters. Among his works is a biography of his father.
Speaking of his parents' faith, he writes ...
They called themselves 'the Brethren', simply; a title enlarged by the world outside into 'Plymouth Brethren'.
Given that there is no mention of John Darby in the book, and that the book follows the 1848-49 schism that resulted in open and exclusive brethren, and that the assemblies described in the book seem essentially autonomous, I assume Gosse is referring to the 'open brethren' when he speaks of Plymouth Brethren.
Readers raised among any of the groups that have evolved from the Brethren groups that began in Dublin in the 1820's will find much familiar material.
The book is worth reading at least twice. I've just read it again after owning it for a year and am struck again at how well he describes life among the brethren and the incredible stress parents can put upon their children in the name of faith.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Anglo Jackson on August 20, 2001
Format: Paperback
There are few works of autobiography that lay bare the author's soul as convincingly and seeringly as this. In an astonishing tour de force Edmund Gosse, by then a substantial Edwardian homme des lettres, remembers his childhood and adolescence in his father's house and his indoctrination into a Victorian, evangelical, creationist, scientific, wilfully unliterary way of life and his growth out of this via Shakespeare, Marlowe and some decidedly morbid poems. What is so astounding about this book is the kindness with which Gosse remembers his past which is always present and never tempered with dishonesty. There are moments when we cannot but find fault with Gosse senior (when he writes to his son in London invoking his mother's memory to try and force him back to the brethren) but with the Edmund Gosse painting so loving a picture of him we could never see him as, for example, the father of Samuel Butler's "The Way of All Flesh" (a great and loosely autobiographical novel which is often metioned alongside "Father and Son" as expressing the same painful differences between the evagelical Victorians and their children) - that is desicated, corrupted, and malicious. There is one killingly funny moment where Edmund Gosse reads from Marlowe's "Hero and Leander" to his stepmother and the idea of the straight laced little saint reading aloud about Leander "His bodie was as straight as Circes wand,/ Jove might have sipt out Nectar from his hand./ Even as delicious meat is to the tast,/ So was his necke in touching, and surpast/ The white of Pelops shoulder." to the god fearing wife of his god fearing father, minister to the brethren, and not expecting a strange reaction, is as bizarre as it is amusing. A most endearingly human work most warmly recommended.
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