In chapter 1, Edmund Gosse depicts himself as a small child in a staunchly Puritan, middle-class household where stringent worship takes place daily. As he grew, Gosse enjoyed great freedom during the day, and in the evenings he was lovingly included as an equal third party in his parents’ eager, mutually enjoyable discussions of Puritan doctrine.
In chapter 2, Gosse records his life from earliest memory through age six. He emphasizes the dichotomous experience of having loving parents who had no sense of the despairing oppressiveness their religious zeal had on their small son. Some escape from the oppressive worship came when, at age six, Gosse discovered a private duality that brought a “consciousness of self, as a force and as a companion,” one with whom he secretly conversed during worship.
In chapters 3 and 4, Gosse presents events of his seventh year, chief among them his mother’s death. On her deathbed, she extracted from Gosse’s father, Philip, a promise to see that their son Edmund would dedicate himself to their Puritanism. That dedication was to remain an intolerable burden. Adjusting to his mother’s death, Gosse realized that the pain it brought finally allowed his emotions, not merely his intellect, to be stimulated; he felt, for the first time, in touch with his own humanity. His father continued indoctrinating him into Puritan beliefs, leaving no gaps “for nature to fill.”
In chapters 5 and 6, Gosse reviews his eighth and ninth years. On his eighth birthday, he and his father, with a new governess, moved to Devonshire. There, his father became a preacher in a Wesleyan church of Cornish people who retained, intact, the traditions of the eighteenth century. His father saw the new scientific works of Charles Lyell, Charles Darwin, Thomas Huxley, and others as attacks on those traditions. A renowned naturalist himself, Philip determined to write a book that would reconcile the account in Genesis of a six-day creation with the new scientific accounts of a slower evolution, thus making compatible his religion and natural science. The book failed. Philip assumed an even stricter faith, an even narrower mind. Pondering this, Gosse believed that his father habitually “mistook fear for love.”
In chapters 7 through 9, Gosse relates experiences from his ninth, tenth, and eleventh years, which bring even greater distance between his and his father’s spiritual beliefs. Paradoxically, during this period, his father introduced Gosse to Vergil’s classical works. At ten, Gosse suddenly wanted to be all his father expected, and, for diametrically opposed reasons, the father and son successfully instigated the unprecedented inclusion of a child in the adult affairs of a church. Philip wanted his son “saved” before puberty could assail him; Gosse wanted the power and prestige of being a child prodigy.
“Conversion” brought increased religious accountability to Gosse: He was expected to witness daily and to reject all boyish behavior. Despairingly, Gosse was forced to realize that his father expected him to enter the ministry. He saw himself, inevitably, imprisoned for life in the Puritan system. Nevertheless, he clung to a “hard nut of individuality,” to the duality that allowed him to speak in himself to himself in “inviolable secrecy.” Reading more widely, he realized that, unlike his father’s “saving” faith, his own had intellectual roots.
At eleven, because of his son’s interest in geography, Gosse’s father gave him a novel about the sea that he had enjoyed as a boy. This gift marked a turning point in Gosse’s life, as it opened his imagination and taught him the power of words and books. He attributed the continuing “fortitude” of his individuality to his reading of that book.
In chapters 10 and 11, Gosse covers the events of his eleventh through thirteenth years, including his father’s marriage to Eliza Brightwen and her positive influence upon his life.
In chapter 12, Gosse presents an account of boarding-school years during his fourteenth through seventeenth years. The very bleakness of his school experience allowed the pursuit of his own “moral and mental development,” which taught him to dream, to speculate, and to think for himself. During these years, his father took him to London to an evangelism conference, where a speaker said that William Shakespeare was suffering in hell. Gosse was devastated, for he loved Shakespeare’s works but now would not read them if the writer were “lost.” After the meeting, his father said he thought the man wrong to so judge Shakespeare, who may well have made a profession of faith before he died. This...
(The entire section is 1921 words.)