Sir Edmund Gosse (1849-1928)
From Literary Anecdotes About 19th Century Authors Born After 1829

Gosse contributed to the English Men of Letters Series a Life of Gray which was published in 1882. The biography has many errors of fact and unwarrantable assumptions. Unhappily, it has been accepted as reliable.

Two years later there appeared: The Works of Thomas Gray in Prose and Verse, edited by Edmund Gosse, 4 vols., 8vo., London, 1884.

The second and third volumes contained the letters written by Gray . . . In printing the letters Gosse `followed Mitford's latest collations, except as regards the very numerous letters addressed to Wharton'. These, he stated, `I have scrupulously printed, as though they had never been published before, direct from the originals, which exist, in a thick volume, among the Egerton MSS., in the Manuscript department of the British Museum. The Wharton letters are so numerous and so important, and have hitherto been so carelessly transcribed, that I regard this portion of my labour, mechanical as it is, with great satisfaction.' The statement seems to indicate, without any loop-hole of ambiguity, that whereas the Wharton letters had been carelessly transcribed before (i.e. by Mitford, for no one else had transcribed them) Gosse was scrupulously printing them `direct from the originals', and had himself undertaken the mechanical labour of transcription. Gosse's statement was put to the proof by Tovey, who, in an Appendix to the first volume of his edition of Gray's Letters (published in 1900), pointed out, with a polite irony, the many coincidences of error in the texts of Mitford and Gosse. These could not be explained on any assumption except that Gosse was reproducing (with occasional corrections) Mitford's text and not that of the original letters. Gosse ignored the exposure, and when two years later he issued a `revised edition' of his book, he left the statement that the letters had been printed `direct from the originals' as he had written it eighteen years before.

The question remained open until in 1931 the Honourable Sir Evan Charteris, in The Life and Letters of Sir Edmund Gosse, offered the following explanation:

Unfortunately Gosse had employed someone else to copy the letters in the Egerton MSS., and the copyist, wearying of the script, and finding that the letters had been published by Mitford, soon began to copy from the printed word in preference to the MSS. Mitford's edition of the letters differed from the originals, and those differences reappeared in the work of the copyist.

Thus Gosse's reiterated assertion that the Wharton letters had been `scrupulously printed direct from the originals' and by his own labours of transcription is proved devoid of truth. In the words of his biographer he had `been deluded into putting forward a claim that turned out not to be justified'.

The Correspondence of Thomas Gray, ed. Paget Toynbee and Leonard Whibley (1935), i. xxxxii.

AMONG Gosse's friends and at one time most frequent guests at Delamere Terrace was John Churton Collins (1848-1908), who, like Gosse, was a friend of Browning and Swinburne. At certain points the two men were rivals, and if an element of jealousy was present it did not proceed from Gosse. Both were experts in the same field of literature, and while the writings of Collins were not comparable in charm or brilliance to those of Gosse, yet in accuracy of scholarship and width of knowledge Collins was at that time greatly his superior. Educated at Balliol, he had been in 1885 disappointed by his failure to secure the Merton Professorship of English at the University of Oxford. On the other hand Gosse, unconnected with the Universities, had . . . been appointed Clark Lecturer at Cambridge. There was nothing in the situation to suggest that the friendly feelings of Collins towards Gosse had changed. The criticisms of From Shakespeare to Pope had ceased, the volume itself had slipped into oblivion, when without warning in the October Quarterly there appeared an article by Churton Collins, written with the ferocity of a scholar's contempt for off-hand inaccuracies, intensified by jealousy of a successful man of letters. Never were `conscientious criticism' and `a painful duty' so obviously combined with enjoyment. It was Gosse's first reverse, and it was serious. He was struck in his pride and prestige, the foundations of his learning were challenged, his reputation derided, and his right to instruct the youth of Cambridge denied. And the blow had been delivered by a friend....

Collins began by assailing the condition of current literature, the practice of hurrying into the world books which owe their existence to

`the paltry vanity which thrives on the sort of homage of which society of a certain kind is not grudging and which knows no distinction between notoriety and fame' . . . `As the general public', he continued, `are the willing dupes of puffers, it is no more difficult to palm off on them the spurious wares of literary charlatans, than it is to beguile them into purchasing the wares of any other sort of charlatan.' — 'It is shocking, it is disgusting, to contemplate the devices to which many men of letters will stoop for the sake of exalting themselves into a factitious reputation: After more of the same sort he turns to the book itself, From Shakespeare to Pope, `not the least mischievous characteristic of which is the skill with which its worthlessness is disguised'....

Gosse was in no sense crushed, but he was humbled. His letters give only a faint impression of the extent to which he suffered. His self-confidence was undermined, his personality reduced. Firm ground had turned into quicksand. At the rival University it became a stock saying for anyone who had made a `howler', that `he had made a Gosse of himself'.

His own account of his sensation was that he went about feeling that he had been flayed alive. He had accepted beforehand an invitation to stay with Tennyson at Aldworth, and he felt a strong desire to get out of it; but he pulled himself together and went. He arrived in the afternoon and was sent out into the garden, where he found a large party; tea spread out at a trestle table, Tennyson at one end of it, and an empty chair near the other. To this he crept, hoping to escape notice, but in vain. Tennyson boomed out at him, `Well, Gosse, would you like to know what I think of Churton Collins?' This was worse than anything he had anticipated. He managed to mumble that he would. `I think', Tennyson went on, `he's a Louse on the Locks of Literature.' The phrase from such a source was infinitely restoring.

Charteris, Life of Gosse, p. 132.

I remember Ker's friend, W. P. James, telling me how, on a holiday, when he and Ker were walking across Exmoor towards Minehead, a fog suddenly descended. As they plodded on through it, they saw ahead of them another figure magnified into something inhuman. On catching up with it, it turned out to be Edmund Gosse.

`I couldn't think what you could be,' said Ker, `whether the Spectre of the Brocken or an Oxford don returning to nature.'

Later in the evening, when they were alone, Ker said to James:

`Did you notice how pleased Gosse was to be taken for an Oxford don—even in a fog?

E. V. Lucas, Reading, Writing and Remembering (1932), p. 103.

NOT long after the death of Swinburne, Gosse was engaged on the Bonchurch edition of the poet's works, in collaboration with that extraordinary character T. J. Wise (whose achievements as a `bibliophile' deceived many book collectors, apparently including Gosse. These achievements are impressively recorded in that rather startling volume Forging Ahead, by Wilfred Partington ) ... On one of the crowded Sunday afternoons at 17 Hanover Terrace, a telephone message was misunderstood by the parlour-maid who took it. Knowing nothing of the death of the great poet, she stood in the doorway, and to my amazement announced, `Mr. Swinburne to speak to you on the telephone, sir!' Greatly as he appreciated Swinburne, it was an opportunity not to be missed by Gosse. In the breathless hush which had naturally followed the rather appalling announcement, all eyes were fixed on his glittering spectacles as he exclaimed,

`Mr. Swinburne to speak to me on the telephone? I shall certainly not speak to Mr. Swinburne. I don't know where he may be speaking from.'

Possibly the message came from T. J. Wise. If so it was among the more successful demonstrations of his virtuosity.

Alfred Noyes, Two Worlds for Memory (1953), pp. 55-56.

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