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Reading Gosse's reading: A study of allusion in the work of Edmund Gosse

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posted on 2023-08-30, 14:08 authored by Kathryn Rees
Gosse’s reputation, both during his lifetime and thereafter, was compromised by his propensity for error, a trait that Henry James famously described as ‘a genius for inaccuracy’. Though much of his biographical and critical writing justifies this criticism, my study of Gosse’s use of the device of allusion, mainly in his fictional writing, reveals a strategy of misprision that is creative and innovative. Since the concepts of Modernism and Postmodernism have changed the way in which texts are read, it is now time to re-read Gosse, and to explore the potential meaning of passages that would hitherto have been dismissed as error or exaggeration. Using Ziva Ben-Porat’s characterisation of allusion ‘as a device for the simultaneous activation of two texts’ as my methodology, I explore the complex and often subversive resonances of Gosse’s allusive practice. Allusion requires four participants: author, reader, the source text by the precursor, and the alluding text. Because a phrase does not ‘become’ an allusion until all four parties have been ‘activated’, many of Gosse’s allusions have for a long time lain dormant in the palimpsest of his writings. I argue that Gosse’s evangelical, tract-writing mother, rather than his father, exerted primary influence on him. I foreground the impact of her prohibition of fiction as the genesis for Gosse’s idiosyncratic vision, showing that its legacy was more bewildering, and ironically more creative, than has hitherto been recognised. Using the revisionary ratios of Bloom’s theory of the anxiety of influence, I establish a trajectory of charged interactions between the texts of Gosse as ephebe and those of his mother as precursor. Many hitherto puzzling and unresolved aspects of Gosse’s writing now make sense in the context of his ‘answering back’ the spectral Bowes. Although Gosse never fully extricates himself from his maternal precursor, he metaphorically orphans himself, and transfers his ephebe allegiance to a host of literary fosterfathers, constantly invoking them in his texts. He thus secures his ‘mental space’ through the covert mode of allusion, and the zenith of this practice is manifested in Father and Son. My thesis demonstrates the potential of allusion as a methodological tool in literary analysis. By his acts of re-reading, Gosse achieves the paradoxical act of simultaneously arresting and promoting a sense of cultural continuity. On the one hand, Gosse arrests tradition by fragmenting texts: by importing a phrase or a passage from a past work into his present text, he engenders textual instability in both. On the other hand, Gosse promotes cultural continuity by importing into his work fragments that serve as allusive bridges forging connections through space and time. I hope that this exploration of his practice will initiate a reassessment of Gosse’s role in relation to the allusive mode as employed by the early Modernists.



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