Victorian critic and poet Edmund Gosse was the child of respected zoologist Philip Gosse, a minister within the Plymouth Brethren, a fundamentalist evangelical sect. This memoir of Gosse’s childhood and young adulthood details his upbringing by parents whose faith and literal approach to Scripture directed all their domestic practices.

It details the older Gosse’s agony as he struggles to reconcile his scientific vocation with his religious faith in the face of the hefty challenges posed by Chambers, Lyell and Darwin’s mid-century hypotheses about the age of the earth and the diversity of its species.

Edmund’s own agony as he realizes his inability to fulfill his parents’ expectations for him in terms of religious vocation is another significant thread. While "father and son" is the primary relationship explored, the early parts of the memoir describe Emily Gosse’s influence on her son, particularly during her illness and death from breast cancer.


A beautifully written and highly readable account of an unusual family’s everyday life and crises, Father and Son records a culture-wide Victorian conflict between science and faith. It also offers a brief but compelling, historically particular account of a mid-Victorian family’s experience with breast cancer, from diagnosis through treatment, palliative care, dying, and death. Because the father cannot leave his work, seven-year-old Edmund stays with his mother in lodgings near her doctor and is her primary caregiver:

"I was now my Mother’s sole and ceaseless companion; the silent witness of her suffering, of her patience, of her vain and delusive attempts to obtain alleviation of her anguish. For nearly three months I breathed the atmosphere of pain, saw no other light, heard no other sounds, thought no other thoughts than those which accompany physical suffering and weariness." (p. 72)

Gosse derides the doctor’s use of a "savage" experimental protocol and champions the advances in treatment that took place in cancer treatment after his mother’s death. This unique life story narrates universal experiences: a child struggling to individuate within the constraints of his or her parents’ beliefs; parents’ well-meaning but egregious errors in raising a sensitive child; a child’s first encounter with death; and a single parent’s difficulties after the loss of a spouse. Because a memoir this frank, especially written by a son about his father, exploded the conventions of Victorian life writing, Gosse first published it anonymously, even 20 years after his father’s death.


First published: 1907


Penguin Books

Place Published





Peter Abbs

Page Count