A genius for inaccuracy

Glimpses of the Wonderful: the life of Philip Henry Gosse (1810-1888)

Ann Thwaite <em>Faber and Fa

Today, Philip Henry Gosse is remembered, if at all, as the formidable patriarch and tyrannical religious maniac in his son Edmund's classic memoir Father and Son. One of the main aims of Ann Thwaite's fascinating biography is to rescue Gosse from the enormous condescension of his son: as Thwaite has already written the biography of Gosse fils,we are talking of father and son in a double sense. Her exact scholarship, and especially the extracts she quotes from the father-son correspondence, lead her to conclude that, in echo of Henry James, Edmund Gosse had a "genius for inaccuracy".

But it is the legendary Philip Gosse who has attracted the wider interest, as evinced in the work of Dennis Potter and Peter Carey. What we have here is clearly the phenomenon so brilliantly portrayed in John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

Glimpses of the Wonderful reads at first like one of those wish-fulfilment novels. Born into poverty in Poole, the young Philip Gosse had to ship out, at 17, to Newfoundland, as there was no work for him in Dorset. It was during his eight years as a humble clerk there that he discovered his vocation. He made a profound study of the insect and bird life of the area before leaving in 1835 for a co-operative farming venture in Canada (another of those 19th-century utopian Brook Farm experiments). It was in mainland Canada that he became an accomplished field naturalist as well as expert entomologist. Worn down by frosts in winter and mosquitoes in summer, he abandoned farming and migrated to Alabama. It is here that my only substantial criticism of Thwaite occurs. In Alabama, in 1838, we essentially lose sight of Gosse. It is particularly difficult to follow his financial life and the author offers us no guidance. He seems to have made no money either in Canada or the Deep South, yet had enough resources for prolonged travel through North America.

The picture becomes clearer on his return to England in 1839. His big break came through his first cousin Thomas Bell, who shared his veneration for the famous naturalist Gilbert White of Selborne. It was through Bell's influence that Gosse's first book, The Canadian Naturalist, was published. From 1844 he was in Jamaica for two years as a professional entomologist and married Emily Bowes, who, at 41, was nearly four years his senior. As Emily had been left the equivalent today of £150,000 by her mother, and Gosse's books were soon selling well, he was, by 1850, rich enough to give money away to charity. In 1856, he was elected FRS but then had to watch his wife die painfully of breast cancer. He remarried in 1860, kept his miscreant brother Tom, a petty criminal, at a distance, and died wealthy and laden with honours.

A footnote in Victorian history, then, but for one thing: Gosse became notorious for his book Omphalos, a counterblast to Darwinian evolution. Deeply influenced by Matthew Habershon's Dissertation on the Prophetic Scriptures, which he read in 1842, Gosse became a fundamentalist Christian, part of the Plymouth-based sect known as "Brethrenism". Without question he was, in 21st-century terms, a religious fanatic. Faced with Darwin's compelling arguments for evolution, he came up with the idea that when God created Adam, he also created the entire range of fossils and extinct forms of life, perhaps to make it look as though evolution was true and thus test the faith of all true Christians. As John Fowles has rightly said, this was "the most incomprehensible cover-up operation ever attributed to divinity by man". Or, as Thwaite puts it: "Christians, agnostics and atheists alike all found it impossible to do anything but laugh at Gosse's theory."

In short, Gosse allowed his creed as a believer to subvert his work as a scientist. The facts led him to accept evolution, but dogma then made him reject the theory, in favour of the far-fetched notion of the fixed nature of every single species and its divine creature.

But perhaps we should not rush to judgement. In our own era, there are dozens of scientists who remain silent on discovering how science torpedoes most of the favourite doctrines of political correctness, and the fashionable ideologies of the 1960s and 1970s. Rather than his much-pilloried Omphalos theory, what convinces me that Gosse was mad was his conviction that he would never die: that God would swoop down and carry him off to heaven in the Second Coming. In 1883, he announced: "For more than 40 years I have known surely that I have Eternal Life."

There is something deeply poignant about Thwaite's final pages when she shows Gosse finally realising, on his deathbed, that his most cherished belief is an illusion, and succumbing to despair. We all know that the young think they are immortal, but for an ailing 77-year-old to cherish such a notion . . . And yet, and yet, the history of Marxism demonstrates that belief in the Parousia dies hard, even among dialectical materialists.

Frank McLynn's most recent book is Wagons West (Jonathan Cape)