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Vol. II • 1979

Father and Son: The Tragedy of Edmund Gosse

Lorella Rouster

"The comedy was superficial and the tragedy essential," Edmund Gosse says of his life in the classic, Father and Son. The tragedy he speaks of seems to be the fact that his parents were firm fundamentalist Christians who rejected Darwin's theory of evolution. But I see a different, more pervasive tragedy in his life, a tragedy that has far reaching implications for Christians today.

Gosse's father (Philip) was a biologist, a contemporary of Charles Darwin, one of the early illuminati to whom Darwin revealed his theory before he unveiled it to the public. Father Gosse conversed personally with Hooker and Darwin in the summer of 1857 concerning the theory of natural selection which Darwin was planning to make public.

After consulting with Carpenter, another scientist, both men decided to reject the new theory. But the model of origins they decided to hold included not only the Scriptural account of the creation of reproductively fixed "kinds", but also the notion of the fixity of the species. Carpenter, Gosse, and other nineteenth century Christians did not realize that species is a human classification, and not necessarily always the same as kind, the divine classification. The notion of fixity of species later fell, under investigational observation.

Father Gosse, shortly after his encounter with Darwin, published a book, Omphalos, to counter proposals then being set forth by Charles Lyell. Lyell's theories became the basis for uniformitarianism and the doctrine of slow, gradual evolution. Edmund saw the main argument of his father's Omphalos as the proposition that there was "no gradual modification of the surface of the earth, or slow development of organic form," but that the "catastrophic" act of creation produced instantly an earth with all the appearances of age.

The press instantly ridiculed Gosse's book, saying Gosse believed God hid the fossils in the rock to tempt geologists into infidelity.

According to Edmund Gosse, his father earnestly believed Omphalos wouid reconcile geology and Genesis. But, he says, " Alas! atheists and Christians alike looked at it, and laughed, and threw it away." Father Gosse was injured deeply by the scornful reviews, chilly letters, and rejection of his idea even by friends. Under the pressure of this disapproval, Gosse left London, severed connections with the British Museum and Royal Society, and went to live in isolation by the seashore, where he continued to collect and dissect marine specimens apart from the mainstream of the scientific-philosophic thought of his day.

Edmund Gosse makes it clear that his parents loved and respected the Word of God. One can hardly criticize them for neglecting the Word. Gosse says, "Pleasure was found nowhere but in the Word of God, and to the endiess" discussion of the Scriptures each (parent) hurried when the day's work was over." He says that to the end of his father's life he "continued to take an eager pleasure in the text of the Bible."

But his parent's faith had other characteristics as well, and one contributed strongly to the tragedy of Edmund Gosse. One might call the family credo anti-intellectual and ascetic, for it appears entirely wrapped up in itself, with insufficient concern for understanding and addressing the philosophy and spirit of the age. Gosse informs us that his parents "neither knew nor cared about any manifestation of current literature. To them, literature and science alike were useful only to keep the student "out of the worid," and provide employment. They felt it was wrong to find pleasure in literature, science, or any pursuit other than reading and discussing the Word of God.

Very little literature could squeeze the narrow strictures which formed the standards for the household. "The range of these (books) was limited," explains Edmund, ''for storybooks of every description were sternly excluded. No fiction of any kind, religious or secular, was admitted into the house.'' Gosse's mother believed that "to tell a story," that is, to compose fictitious narrative of any kind, or to read such "lies" was sin. She would not read any kind of poetry either, except Iyrical and subjective poetry. Thus, the household was clearly outside the popular current of thought. The Gosses had always been isolated and insulated from the outside world, and leaving London, the Royal Society, and the British Museum was only the severing of ties that were already worn thread thin.

Perhaps it was partly this anti-intellectual element, this separationist - isolationist complex in his childhood faith that tainted Edmund's life from the beginning. In addition, his father's early and complete withdrawal from the mainstream of culture rendered his influence ineffectual in scientific society as well, and just at a key time when a firm and outspoken biologist could possibly have plugged the holes and avoided the breaking of the dam.

Secondly, Father Gosse made the mistake of thinking that his ideas, or the tenets of accepted thought before Darwin, were as sure as the Word of God itself. He could not conceive that Genesis allowed for further specification. He was unable to deal adequately with the fossil evidence that was being discovered. His clinging to ideas of human origin, and his inability to separate the teaching of Genesis from his ideas about the teaching of Genesis, led him to scorn from scholars and saints alike, not to mention the loving but scorching scorn of his son Edmund, as related in Father and Son.

We can learn a lot from the tragedy of Edmund Gosse. Do we at times exhibit the same general tendencies.?

It is easy, in the light of all we know today, when Darwin's ideas are being challenged even by evolutionists themselves, when we've had 180 years or more to examine the fossil evidence, when we understand much more about speciation, and when creationists are supported by societies of like-minded scientists, to criticize Gosse. But we must remember the time in which he lived, and that though he wasn't correct in many of his speculations, he at least was one of the first to try to correlate Genesis and the fossil evidence. He at least recognized that all truth must fit together harmoniously; he was more intelligent than moderns who try to place Genesis and science in two separate boats "and never the twain shall meet."

The tragedy is that because his son's early life was so deprived of wonder, imagination, and what he calls "humanity," Edmund Gosse turned from his father's firm adherence to the Scriptures and the creationist explanation. What Philip Gosse held so tightly himself, he lost completely in his son. The humanistic, naturalistic explanation of life from which the father fled in horror, his son accepted and spread. That, it seems to me, is the real tragedy of Edmund Gosse.


1 Edmund Gosse, Father and Son, (New York: W.W. Norton, 1907, 1963), Preface.
2 Gosse, pp. 86-87
3 Gosse, p. 87.
4 Gosse, pp. 87-88.
5 Gosse, p. 12.
6 Gosse, p. 239.
7 Gosse, p. 12.
8 Gosse, p. 12
9 Gosse, p. 24.
10 Gosse, p. 24.

"Father and Son: The Tragedy of Edmund Gosse"
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