Readers' Digest Australia (Jan 2007)

Saturday, 02 April 2011 01:49

READERS’ DIGEST GREAT BOOKS

Published in Australia January 2007

Edmund Gosse’s book about his relationship with his father, Philip Gosse changed the art of biography forever. Published in 1907, it caused a scandal. Until then all authors of an autobiography had to be mindful of the Fifth Commandment, ‘Honour thy father and mother so that thy days be long in the land.’ Criticise your parents and you’re dead. Consequently, parents were spoken of only in terms of the greatest respect. For a son to write about his parents in terms of their strengths and weaknesses, and not merely chronicle but carefully analyse how an unbridgeable gap developed between a father and son, was exceedingly shocking.

Philip Gosse was a geologist and naturalist and, as a devout Plymouth Brethren, tried to reconcile the Brethren’s literal reading of the Book of Genesis with the increasing evidence, to which he had contributed, of evolution. The publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species was to him a terrible blow. Although the Gosse family lived in great poverty and the parents demanded much of their son, Edmund Gosse did not write a ‘misery memoir’ of the kind much in vogue at present. Rather the book is the work of someone who looked with both an adult’s and a child’s eye at the events of his childhood. Edmund Gosse remembered how he had interpreted these events when he was a child and contrasted this with his interpretation of those events when he became an adult. By looking at our past in this way we can discover who we are, and why. All of this Edmund Gosse set down in clear, simple and beautiful prose.

When I began working on my book about sibling relationships I blessed Edmund Gosse for showing how we ought to write about our childhoods. Because sibling relationships are so complex and various psychologists have had little to say about them. So I had to turn to those biographies which were written with the same truth and clarity as Father and Son. Without that book to set the standard of biography I could not have written My Dearest Enemy, My Dangerous Friend.

Edmund Gosse Father and Son (my copy Nonsuch Books, Stroud, Gloucestershire, UK, 2005)

Dorothy Rowe My Dearest Enemy, My Dangerous Friend Routledge, London, 2007, distributed in Australia by Palgrave Macmillan.