About Simon Lavery

Author, blogger.

Annie Perreault, The Woman in Valencia

Annie Perreault,The Woman in Valencia. QC Fiction, Québec, 2021. 212 pp. Translated from the French by Ann Marie Boulanger.

QC Fiction, the Canadian imprint that specialises in translating French fiction into English, continues to be innovative: every title in their catalogue is stimulating to read.

Annie Perreault Woman in Valencia cover The plot is uncomplicated: Claire Halde is on holiday in Valencia with her husband and two small girls. She’s basking in the summer sun on a hotel fourth-floor pool terrace, watching her family play in the water. A strange woman approaches her, fully dressed, and asks Claire to take her tote bag. There’s a bloodstained recent dressing on her wrist, which is bleeding copiously. Claire is alarmed by the woman’s agitated state, and tries to calm her down. Her offers to call for medical help are dismissed.

Then the woman climbs over the terrace rail and jumps.

For the rest of this taut narrative Claire is haunted by this event. Her life starts to fall apart as her emotional state fragments.

Time passes, and she visits Valencia again. Has a passionate affair. This seems to exorcise her demons.

Intercut with these developments we learn about her daughter, Laure, now an adult, who runs a marathon in Valencia in an attempt to honour her mother and emulate her running feats. We’re given insights to Laure’s thoughts as the kilometres pass. There are also flashbacks to Claire’s youthful backpacking adventures.

For a while I thought this would have been better as a long short story, but as the various strands of narrative assembled themselves I began to appreciate the author’s artistry. Her focus is on the feelings and impulses of her main characters: we get right inside their heads, and the intensity of their emotions is palpable. The central metaphor of the marathon is an apt vehicle for the ordeals of endurance these women undergo.

The translation, as always with QC titles, is excellent: idiomatic and smooth.

My thanks to the publishers for this ARC.

Kate Atkinson and signs of summer

Kate Atkinson, Transcription. Black Swan paperback, Transworld Publishers/Penguin (2019)

This is a typically entertaining Kate Atkinson novel: not too demanding, well put together, and pretty forgettable.

Kate Atkinson Transcription coverThe structure is a little confusing at first, with contrapuntal sections set in completely different decades of the life of the protagonist, Juliet. In the first, set in 1981, she’s an old woman who’s injured in an accident – after years living in Italy and back in London on a visit, she’d looked the wrong way when crossing the road.

Next it’s the fifties, and she’s working in a dull job with uninspiring colleagues at the BBC. Then we go back a decade to the most substantial – and interesting – section: the years she spent as a clerk with the secret service. Her job is what gives the novel its title: she’s given the mundane job (considered all a young woman is good for in those unenlightened days) of transcribing on her typewriter the dialogue that’s been covertly recorded of a group of Nazi sympathisers. The flat next door has been set up by a British agent, who poses as another Nazi, as a supposed safe place in which to hold their meetings and plot against the British war effort.

Juliet is much brighter than her job allows her to be, and is soon recruited by her enigmatic bosses to do some real spying. What follows is a le Carré type espionage thriller, with a bit of unrequited love that’s more like a Barbara Pym plot element.

As I said at the start, it’s all good fun, and ideal for these fraught times when I find it difficult to focus on anything that requires close attention.

Bluebells are still flowering in this hedge next to a farmer’s field of rape

Now for other matters. I went for one of our regular local walks in the country with Mrs TD yesterday. It was yet another glorious sunny day, and nature is thriving. Early-developing trees like sycamore have already grown large leaves, but like their slightly tardier fellows they’re still a lovely shade of pale green, almost transparent when the sun shines through them.

A chestnut nearby has been if full bloom for a couple of weeks now, a wonderful shade of magenta. Blossom on most other flowering trees is just about over, but there’s still enough to keep the bees happy – and me.

Ploughed field 1

I posted pictures of this field last summer when it was full of ripe barley. Swallows and martins hunted for insects overhead then – but not yet this spring

Big news: as we passed a farm where late last summer I saw a group of swallows lining up on a telegraph wire, clearly preparing to migrate, I paused to scan the sky. I still hadn’t seen any first hirundine (what a great word) arrivers this spring – and sure enough, there they were! Two swallows, swooping across the valley, tracing aerial arcs at high speed. This is a sight that always lifts my spirits. I’ve been looking out for them for weeks, but this fine weather is blowing down from the north, and is therefore cold – maybe this has deterred them until now.

Ploughed field 2

The view across to the next field, also freshly ploughed. Not a swallow in sight – but what a view

Spring sunshine and apricity

Hare

Perky hare: explanation below

I have the ability to note an interesting piece of information, forget it, come across the same point at a later date and remember it all over again. I don’t think this is an age thing; I’m sure I’ve done this most of my adult life.

An example earlier this week: I read an article in the Guardian newspaper (link HERE) by Hannah Jane Parkinson extolling the virtues of apricity: ‘It was cold, but the sun had lingered, and there existed that glorious mix of chilly air and clear, bright skies.’ I turned to the OED for a formal definition (slightly abridged below):

obsolete:

 ‘The warmeness of the Sunne in Winter.’ Cockeram 1623.

Etymology: < Latin aprīcāt- participial stem of aprīcāri to bask in the sun, <  aprīcus

rare.

 [Verb form apricate:] 1.  intransitive. To bask in the sun.

1691    J. Ray Let. to Aubrey 22 Oct. in J. Walker Lett. Eminent Persons (1813) II. 159   Cæsar, I think, said that verbum insolens tanquam scopulum fugiendum est. I’ll name you one or two, to apricate, suscepted, vesicate.

 2. transitive. To expose to sunlight. Also transferred.

1839    T. De Quincey Lake Reminiscences in  Tait’s Edinb. Mag. July 461/2   Not sunning, but mooning himself—apricating himself in the occasional moonbeams.

As I wallowed in the novel pleasure of this word, it occurred to me that I’d seen it before. I didn’t remember where or when, but it has the lustre of a half-memory. A search on the Guardian website revealed another article dated February 2019, explaining the same word. That would be when I first read it, inwardly noted it, then promptly forgot it.

Apricating this afternoon in my front garden reminded me that it’s a precarious activity; you could sit in a tee shirt, reading your book, then a blast of breeze hits the back of your neck and you reach for a padded jacket and put the hood up. Then feel too hot when the breeze drops and the sunshine beats back in.

It sounds like it’s related to the word April – the best month for apricity – but it isn’t. One popular theory is that ‘April’ derives from the Latin aperire, ‘to open’, as it’s said to be the month when the earth opens to produce new fruit (according to etymologist W.W. Skeat). But this is folk etymology, says Anatoly Liberman in his entertaining and erudite OUP language blog (link HERE). He’s also sceptical about the other explanation: that it’s from Etruscan Apru (Greek Aphro – “Aphrodite”). Though I rather like to think of April as the month of Venus.

Btw, Liberman has a fascinating trawl through the origins of another apr- word, ‘apricot’, in a follow-up blogpost HERE.

Anyway, apricity is an apt term at this time of year in southwest England: spring is well under way, as my recent posts have illustrated (blossom, buds, opening fruits).

St Austell bay bluebellsOn Friday we went for a walk on the south coast. Bluebells were coming into flower (not very clear in my picture, I’m afraid), and it was a fine day for apricating: the air was chilly, but when we sheltered from the breeze there was a delicious warmth from the spring sun. We regretted not taking a picnic.

Over the weekend we reverted to one of our regular local walks. I’ve posted pictures of these horses before.Horses On this occasion they looked less mournful than usual, but they still have an air of melancholy – like they know something bad is about to happen that we’re unaware of.

The little statue of the perky hare at the top of this post is the nearest I’ve got for years to seeing the real thing. Not as big or scary as that giant rabbit that’s apparently been kidnapped in England this week.

CelandinesI wanted to try and capture in my pictures the effect of that spring sunshine on the scenery; these celandines (I think that’s what they are) and the foliage around them were gleaming in the light as if varnished.

I’ve made several batches of wild garlic pesto this spring, gathered from riverside woodlands nearby.  I’ve also stir-fried it in spring greens – delicious. This patch grows beside the lane we walk along, just before the horses’ field.

Wild garlic

 

 

 

 

 

 

More spring signs #BlossomWatch

A digression from the usual literary stuff again today; a word of the month is forthcoming, along with some more posts on books.

Over the last couple of weeks Mrs TD and I have taken advantage of the relaxation of lockdown restrictions to go further afield for our daily walks. Last week the weather was Portscatho bayfine but cold (that’ll be the word of the month, coming up next) and we took a picnic breakfast (and new coffee flask) to the south coast.

The cloud was just beginning to burn off as we arrived at Portscatho bay. We’d got there early, anticipating a crowd, but we were only the second car there. No doubt the numbers will increase when people from upcountry start to staycation down here in Cornwall.

Blackthorn bushesWe took the coastal path east along the clifftop. The blackthorn was in full bloom. At times it formed a sort of tunnel that we passed through – like a bridal couple heading for the church!

The blackthorn seems to be exceptionally wonderful this spring. Maybe I’ve just not looked closely enough at it in the past. From a Blackthorn blossom closeupdistance it looks nothing special, but looked at close up it’s glorious.

More recently we’ve mostly walked in the country lanes around where we live. It’s strange and a little upsetting to see the same signs of new spring growth that we noticed so vividly this time last year, during the first pandemic lockdown in England.

It’s heartening to see these fresh shoots and buds of new life; but also a little disheartening to find ourselves still in this precarious position over a year on from its inception. I believe these attractive catkins are willow:Catkins

 

Beach breakfast

Breakfast on the beach

Sybille Bedford, Jigsaw

Sybille Bedford, Jigsaw: an unsentimental education. Eland Publishing Ltd, London, 2005. First published 1989.

This is another of those books that doesn’t sit neatly in the category ‘novel’ or ‘(auto)biography’, or even ‘(auto)fiction’. Sybille Bedford’s account (the title page has it as ‘a biographical novel) of her early family life – she was born in Germany in 1911 – until early adulthood in the 1930s is described in her Afterword:

Truth here was an artistic, not a moral requirement – truth to be presented in the terms of the novelist, not the biographer, terms that meant timing, selection, avoiding repetition.

Sybille Bedford Jigsaw coverShe goes on to account for the ‘sisters’ story’ –  of the two women originally from Berlin whose lives form ‘a counterweight, a link between the English and the French action of my jigsaw.’

This novel is then an artefact, assembled fragments to represent a likeness as the author saw it in ‘writing about myself, my feelings, my actions.’ Much as she was tempted to leave out the substantial part played in her early life by her mother (‘Did one have to have a parent?’ she enquires wistfully, playfully in this Afterword), her story inevitably lingers in most of its pages on the significant impact on those feelings and actions by her glamorous, impetuous, intelligent, exasperating mother.

The short first section is poignant and funny, mostly about her early childhood in Germany with her eccentric, solitary father, barely subsisting in the grand but desolate, threadbare castle he’d been left by his wife when she’d had enough of him and took off to pursue love affairs, exotic travels and a more stimulating life:

[My father] could not stand clever women. (My mother had been too beautiful for him to notice that she was one and when he did notice it was too late.)

This German part of his family is called Merz in Bedford’s excellent novel (published 1956) about them, A Legacy (my posts about it HERE). She’s sensitive and perceptive in portraying his character and how she portrayed it to suit her novelist’s purpose there:

Jules in the novel is a man by no means originally devoid of feeling, whose contact with reality is snapped by events at one or two points in his life. He protects himself by limiting his grasp. A man who has lost his nerve…in the context of a particular time and the changes in that time.

Subsequent sections of the novel follow the protagonist after the early death of her father. Her mother marries a handsome Italian much younger than herself, and has little time for the precocious, bookish little girl she hardly knows, so she is tolerated for a sequence of summer breaks in various rented villas in Europe, usually by the sea. Her mother is restless, romantic, feckless. The daughter is educated fitfully, mostly at home or with dubious tutors.

Much of the time she is farmed off with equally bohemian friends in England, living hand-to-mouth, but still spending summers in Italy. The most substantial part of the novel is set in the place where her mother finally settles: Sanary, on the coast of the (then unfashionable) south of France. It’s a quiet place, favoured by itinerant foreign artists and intellectuals, like Aldous Huxley and his wife, and the exotically glamorous couple called here the Desmirails (not their real name). Young Billi (as Sybil was called by those close to her) develops an adolescent crush on Oriane, the glacially beautiful, art deco wife.

The final section is very different in tone. Sybil’s mother develops a drug addiction, and her daughter and young husband struggle to cope with the demands this places on the household.

The novel is uneven in quality; at times I became frustrated with the ingenuous depiction of the sybaritic ways of people one wouldn’t really want to meet: they’re usually broke, but always seem to manage to employ a ‘femme de ménage’, and to eat out and drink in café-bars. I suppose the author is adopting the viewpoint of the inexperienced young woman who didn’t know that the behaviour of her mother and her circle was selfish and neglectful, as well as exciting and unpredictable. It’s a wonder Billi survived.

I have quibbles with the prose style, too. Mostly it’s well written – rather patrician and slightly dated (the novel was longlisted for the Booker the year it was published, when Bedford was 78). But there are defects, especially a feature that Orwell hated, and I found irritating: Bedford’s habit of using unnecessary and intrusive double negatives – there must be a dozen of them, like this one chosen at random: a friend of young Sybil is having an affair with a judge who is said to have ‘a not insubstantial private income.’ That would be a substantial one, then.

Another character spends a part – ‘a not unlively part’ – of his time at a particular artists’ haunt; maybe I’m just fastidious, but what’s wrong with calling it ‘a lively part’?

 

 

 

Rose Tremain, The Gustav Sonata

Rose Tremain, The Gustav Sonata. Vintage Books, 2017. First published 2016

Switzerland remained neutral through both world wars of the 20C. Precariously, given that it bordered the countries engaged in invasive, destructive warfare, and was sought as a haven by refugees fleeing the Nazis’ murderous persecution of the Jewish people in particular from the 1930s on.

Rose Tremain The Gustav Sonata coverRose Tremain excels in making the ‘historical’ part of her fiction come to life – the formidable research behind the narrative is never intrusive. Her protagonist in The Gustav Sonata is introduced in the first part of the novel, set in the years shortly after WWII, as a small, sensitive boy being brought up in a sleepy Swiss town by the mother he adores, but who treats him with cold and bitter disdain. Her husband, a policeman, had lost his job in disgrace after falsifying documents to allow a handful of Jewish refugees to find asylum in his country, soon after Switzerland had closed its borders to them. The official line was that it was full and couldn’t handle any more (an all too familiar claim in many places today); more pragmatically, the Swiss authorities were terrified of provoking the Nazis into punitive tactics, even invasion.

Soon after being sacked, a crisis occurs in his marriage and he becomes estranged from his wife and dies – before his son was old enough to remember his father.

The novel is set in a sort of prose form of a musical sonata in three sections. Part one shows how Gustav aged five befriends Anton at kindergarten – he’s instinctively drawn to another vulnerable child. Anton’s Jewish father had moved to the provinces from his city bank after a breakdown caused by another family crisis.

Anton is a gifted pianist – but suffers from terrible stage fright, and this stops his becoming a concert performer.

Tremain traces the development of these two young boys through to late middle age as they struggle to overcome the trauma they have experienced and the deficiencies in their ability to form lasting relationships.

It’s a beautifully told story, with central characters ill equipped to deal with the times they live through, but Tremain confidently shows, without lapsing into sentimentality, the power of love to prevail over all setbacks.

I enjoyed it a lot.

 

 

Spring awakening – #BlossomWatch

Holywell Bay beachYesterday I posted about the heart-warming sights and sounds of nature in spring. On Monday the most severe lockdown restrictions in England were lifted slightly: Mrs TD and I took advantage of the new rules and drove to Holywell Bay, near Newquay. Apart from longing to see the sea again for the first time in three months, I also wanted to find the holy well in its cave under the cliffs. Whenever I’ve been there in the past the tide has been high and the entrance unreachable.

View out of the cave

The only picture worth sharing: the view out of the cave on to the beach

It was a fine, brisk day, and there were surprisingly few people about. The tide was far out, and I entered the first sizeable cave and took a – not very good – picture. It didn’t look much like the images I’d seen online. On reflection I think this was not the right cave.

The right cave has a natural spring deep inside it, and multicoloured stains on the rocks, caused by the minerals in the rock over which the spring water drips. The holy well itself is named after St Cuthbert.

Legend has it that Aldhun, bishop of Lindisfarne and Durham, was instructed in a vision to transport the relics of St Cuthbert, the first bishop of Lindisfarne, to Ireland. He was blown off course, and ended up at what is now Holywell. He remained there long enough to build a church a mile inland at the village now called Cubert.

This story doesn’t tally with the well-known history of Cuthbert’s relics. The monks of Lindisfarne had to remove and hide the relics several times in the early middle ages to protect them from hostile forces, but the saint’s remains eventually found a permanent shrine in what became Durham cathedral. (I posted on several Cornish holy wells in the past; posts on Bede’s Life of St Cuthbert – link HERE.)

Folk legends have great potency, however; Aldhun is said to have had another vision in which he was told to take the relics back to Durham. While the saint’s bones were being removed from the cave where they’d been stored, they touched the rock-pool’s sides, thereby infusing them with their legendary miraculous healing powers.

Local people, and many from further afield, would bring sick children to the cave on certain auspicious dates to dip them into the healing waters, or to drink the mineral-rich water. Disabled people would leave their crutches in the cave as votive offerings after taking the waters. Stories of miraculous cures, like those at so many other folk shrines, circulated widely.

It’s a nice story, and the cave has a mystical feel to it – even if I was in the wrong one. I should have taken a torch.

Wednesday was Mrs TD’s birthday, and we were able to meet her sister and brother-in-law at a beach a short drive away and go for a walk – and a picnic on the beach in front of the Carbis Bay hotel. This is where the G7 conference will take place in June. Workmen were busy sprucing the place up in readiness. What an inspiring place to gather the world’s leaders to sort out the world’s mess. They could do with a bit of St Cuthbert’s healing influence.

St Ives gullWe moved on to St Ives, eerily deserted. After a short rest on a harbour-side bench, soaking up the warm sun, we passed a small group of strangely tame sandpipers, gossiping and preening on the pavement. My picture didn’t do them justice, so I won’t include it here. Instead here’s a rather truculent gull.

A sea-mist descended with the suddenness of a stage fog machine. Very Stephen King.

It was so good to feel the restorative power of the ocean and beaches again.

White blossomNext day I visited our local park to check on the progress of the blossom. This magnificent tree took my breath away.

So did the symmetrical perfection of this camellia flower.

PS added later: today is the feast day of a saint I’ve posted on several times in the past – the subject of my postgrad research – Mary of Egypt.

Camellia

 

 

 

 

A second year of lockdown walks

It’s the first of April, and spring is in the air: blackthorn, fruit-tree and other blossom and leaf-buds are bursting out everywhere, daffodils are thriving, and our first tulips opened in the warm sunshine yesterday. The national mood is still sombre and resigned to restrictions, but there’s hope with the successful vaccine delivery, and the heart-warming sight of nature reviving with the warmer weather.

I looked back at my April posts last year, when we were in the first weeks of the first UK lockdown, and I started to post pictures of the sights I encountered on local walks – especially the wild flowers, blossom, gateposts and holy wells – so there will be more of that as the anniversary of that time arrives.

Prunus blossomLast week we went to the local National Trust gardens, newly opened, and near enough to count as ‘local’. A lovely prunus was outdoing the beauty of the showy magnolias around it. ‘Oh,’ said a lady admiring it, and reading the label on the trunk: ‘It’s a prune tree.’

Magnolia bloomThe warm, late-March weather had encouraged the bees to explore what seemed to be every flower in the tree. I hope you can see the one in this next picture: it had stuck its head right inside the flower.

Prunus and bee

Late last week my walks were shorter; I’d injured tendons in my hip. So I revisited the path across the valley opposite our house.

This follows the river along the bottom of the valley. Two splendid horses graze in the third field. They are obviously used to the many people who pass by – they didn’t even pause to watch as I walked by.

Early this week, in the hedgerow of a lane I often walk along, I saw the first bluebell of the spring.

Bluebell

I think this is an English bluebell – the flowers seem to be clustered all round the stem

Next time, more blossom and a holy well. I’m also thinking about my next book post – on a Rose Tremain novel that I enjoyed very much, after a few depressing reads.

Horses

A royal bombinator

I was browsing my shelves a couple of weeks ago for something new to read, and picked up my OWC copy of The Eustace Diamonds – the next in the sequence of Palliser novels after Phineas Finn (which I posted about HERE last summer). After skimming through the foreword by the text editor, WJ McCormack, and the first few pages of the introduction, I decided I wasn’t ready in this enervating lockdown for an 800-page, small-print whopper. Maybe when the weather perks up later in the spring.

There was an expression in that foreword, however, that stopped me short. McCormack is writing about the book trade and the business of producing new, modern editions of Victorian novels like this one in OWC’s Centenary Edition of the Palliser novels. Here’s the whole sentence:

[This Edition] has not entered into the fabulously expensive business of establishing new texts which, with bombinating minutiae, often retards or replaces the reader’s engagement with literary history.

‘Bombinating’. The context makes the meaning fairly clear, but I still had to look it up. Here’s the entry in the OED online for ‘bombinate, verb, in current use’ (as always, I’m grateful to Cornwall’s library service for making this resource available free to members):

To buzz, make a buzzing noise.

[a1553    F. Rabelais ii. vii   Questio subtilissima, utrum chimera in vacuo bombinans possit comedere secundas intentiones. (In ridicule of the subtle discussions of the Schoolmen.)]

1880    A. C. Swinburne Study of Shakespeare (ed. 2) iii. 199   As easy and as profitable a problem to solve the Rabelaisian riddle of the bombinating chimæra.

1880    Daily News 21 June   The power of a chimæra bombinating in a vacuum to eat second intentions is scarcely less suggestive of a..solution.

Etymology: < reputed Latin *bombilāre, an erroneous reading (commonly accepted in medieval Latin) of bombitāre to hum, buzz, < bombus hum, buzz

The pejorative (and slightly pompous) sense in the McCormack sentence clearly chimes with that of the Rabelaisian citations here (I’ve resisted the temptation to explore that enigmatic quotation further; more detail is found at the Merriam-Webster site HERE: M-W links it to Greek ‘bombos’, from which derives the English ‘bomb’) – the (over-)subtle (or stringent?) textual forensics of academic literary scholars in editing texts by Trollope, giving too much information and thereby occluding the force of the text itself.

I was aware that the Latin bombus also signified ‘bumblebee’ – a word imitative of the buzzing or humming sound of winged insects in flight. Or so I used to think. Until I came across the Dec. 20 – Jan. 21 post on the OUP Etymologistblog by scarily erudite Anatoly Liberman (link HERE), which queried the sound-imitation notion (in a post that started off looking at the sounds and origins of the words kid, cub and bunny – it’s a brilliant blog for taking you down etymological rabbit (or bunny) holes), pointing out that the word possibly derives instead from ‘humble-bee’. OED states that another variant is the Harry Potteresque ‘dumbledore’.

Bufftailed beeCoincidentally the next morning ended a long spell of cold, wet weather and dawned sunny and warm. When I stepped outside my front door I nearly trod on a large bee. It was very somnolent – or sick. Anxious that it would be squashed by someone, I coaxed it onto a leaf and carefully placed it out of harm’s way in a flower bed. When I returned an hour later it had gone – so I hope it had revived its spirits in the early spring sunshine and taken off to do whatever it is queen bees do in the spring: start a new buff-tailed colony?

I contacted the excellent people at our local wildlife trust, who have helped with identification of various critters for me in the past (the last time I posted about it HERE: a magpie moth). A very helpful man called John emailed back the same day with the information that my picture was of a buff-tailed bumblebee queen (bombus terrestris), adding ‘one of our most familiar bumblebees and one of the first to emerge each spring. As you discovered, they can be very sluggish when it’s chilly and they are still warming up.’

John provided a link to his organisation’s website entry on this bee (link HERE), which included this lovely bit of information about it:

Buff-tailed Bumblebees are known as ‘nectar robbers’: if they come across a flower that is too deep for their tongue, they bite a hole at its base and suck out the nectar. Afterwards, other insects looking for nectar will also use this handy hole. [This entry also has a lovely picture of a worker bee in this family, which instead of a buff-coloured tail has a sort of grubby white one]

Although I decided against starting this Trollope novel in my present disengaged reading state, I’m gratified for this small but (to me) fascinating piece of information about the only true and original ‘bombinator’. And a queen, a royal bombinator.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Edmund Gosse, Father and Son

Edmund Gosse (1849-1928), Father and Son. Penguin Modern Classics, 1970; first published 1907

The subtitle of Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son is ‘A Study of Two Temperaments’. But it’s not really a study of anything, let alone the temperaments of these two characters. It’s a sort of spiritual autobiography, as it tells of the author’s experience to the age of seventeen of being brought up by parents who were members of the strict, extremely austere religious sect the Plymouth Brethren. Both his father and his mother were biblical literalists and evangelical puritans, who considered fictional books sinful.

Edmund Gosse Father and Son cover

The cover shows a detail from ‘Self Portrait as a Young Man’ by G.F. Watts

Edmund was subjected from his earliest childhood to the interminable sermons and services in which his father led the small group of brethren. Reading the bible and the more serious hymns were the main diversions of Edmund’s childhood – though he did manage to smuggle in a little Strumpelpeter. The book describes his struggle to liberate himself from this stultifying education, and the development of his imaginative sensibility against these fearsome odds.

F & S is also partly a biography of his father, Philip, but not really that, either. Edmund had published a more conventional biographical account of the father in 1890, in which it seems a less monstrous portrait was given than the one in this book.

It shares more of the characteristics of a novel; scholars have pointed out numerous details that are simply invented – like the back story of his much-loved mother. His claim in the Preface to be ‘scrupulously true’ is hedged by ‘as far as the punctilious attention of the writer has been able to keep it so’. This is an early indication of the leaden prose style that I’ll come back to later.

In this respect (ie deviations from ‘truth’) it’s a bit like James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, serialised in 1914-15 by Ezra Pound in the modernist literary magazine The Egoist; it began life as the autobiographical novel Stephen Hero in 1904, but this was abandoned and refashioned by Joyce. Both books relate the growth of the protagonist’s artistic character – but F and S could hardly be more different in style and tone.

Edmund’s upbringing was much harsher and narrower than Stephen’s in Joyce’s novel, although they both have to summon the strength to reject the dominant religious regime of their environments.

His mother died when he was young, and he was sent to a boarding school where he never settled in. Although his father, an eminent biological scientist, was clearly a loving father in some ways, his ruthless, bigoted insistence on his religious rectitude was chilling and traumatic for the sensitive boy.

It should have been a gripping read – and at times it is. His abandonment in Ch. 12 of biblical hermeneutics for another, literary interpretative system, is dramatically portrayed. His father’s crazed attempts to explain away the growing proof of Darwinist evolutionary theory are a source of embarrassment to his son – and the scientific community to which Philip belonged; these sections are fascinating and chilling at the same time.

But the prose style is the turgid Victorian type, and it makes for a mostly plodding narrative. There are some welcome lighter moments – as when young Edmund decides to forgo trying to proselytize his schoolmates, concluding he’ll ‘let sleeping dogmas lie’. He also tries some delightfully naïve strategies to test the power of his father’s jealous god, which lead him to deduce that this god isn’t all he’s cracked out to be. This is a classic account of a Victorian crisis of faith – although it seems Gosse never entirely abandoned his Christian faith; he simply rejected his parents’ extremist version of it.

The narrative ends when Edmund’s father, with the help of the Christian writer Charles Kingsley, gets his son (aged seventeen) a lowly post as a clerk at the British Museum reading room. There he was under the supervision of William Ralston, who was, as Edmund was to become, an advocate and translator of Scandinavian literature – especially of Ibsen.

Ralston, who was also a champion of Russian literature, introduced Turgenev to the London aesthetic scene. Gosse met the Russian novelist in 1871 at Ford Madox Brown’s salon, which was frequented by the likes of Pre-Raphaelite artists, and writers including Swinburne and William Morris. I wonder if Gosse would have read Turgenev’s novel about a young man’s rebellion against a father whose values he can’t share; even the title – Fathers and Sons (in most English translations) – is similar. Constance Garnett’s version, titled Fathers and Children, was published in England in 1895, and it’s difficult to imagine Gosse wouldn’t have read it. The basic stories are very different, but the father-son dynamic is equally problematic.

Constance Garnett was married in 1889 to the son of Richard, the keeper of printed materials at the British Museum where Gosse initially worked – another link in this literary chain.

Henry James was a friend of Edmund Gosse’s during his time in London in the 1880s. At first just casual, the relationship became more intimate over time – James thought Gosse amiable, ‘an endlessly amusing companion’, but ‘second-rate’, as Leon Edel has it in his Life of HJ. Edel sees Gosse as a flatterer, and describes it as ‘one of the most literary-gossipy friendships in Victorian annals.’ James is said to have quipped that Gosse had ‘a genius for inaccuracy’ – presumably referring to his literary biographies and criticism, but the point could also apply to F & S.

It’s a pity Gosse chose not to add a second volume to his account of his youth; it would have been interesting to hear his redacted, rosy-tinted story about how he became a middle-ranking man of letters who loved to hobnob with writers with genuine literary talent.

 See the excellent, informative post on F & S by Bookish Beck at her blog HERE