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Australian Patriography: How Sons Write Fathers in Contemporary Life Writing

Australian Patriography: How Sons Write Fathers in Contemporary Life Writing

by Stephen Mansfield

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The Son’s Book of the Father, as Richard Freadman termed it, is a rich field of relational autobiography, offering a unique set of tensions and insights into modes of masculinity, notions of identity and the ethics of representing another’s life in writing one’s own.

This study of modern Australian life writing by sons who focus on fathers


The Son’s Book of the Father, as Richard Freadman termed it, is a rich field of relational autobiography, offering a unique set of tensions and insights into modes of masculinity, notions of identity and the ethics of representing another’s life in writing one’s own.

This study of modern Australian life writing by sons who focus on fathers places an emerging sub-genre within its literary ancestry and its contemporary milieu. Providing compelling readings of Raimond Gaita’s ‘Romulus, My Father’, Peter Rose’s ‘Rose Boys’ and many others, this is the first study of its kind within Australian literature.

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Anthem Press
Publication date:
Anthem Australian Humanities Research Series
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6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)

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Australian Patriography

How Sons Write Fathers in Contemporary Life Writing

By Stephen Mansfield

Wimbledon Publishing Company

Copyright © 2013 Stephen Mansfield
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-85728-340-5



A son cannot speak adequately about his father. There is a certain impiety in formulating sentences about the author of our being and the moulder of our character.

— John Addington Symonds, Memoirs

FATHER! — to God himself we cannot give
a holier name! then lightly do not bear
Both names conjoined.

— William Wordsworth, 'ecclesiastical Sketches'

The author of this book has no doubt settled it with his conscience how far in the interests of popular edification or amusement it is legitimate to expose the weaknesses and inconsistencies of a good man who was also one's father.

Times Literary Supplement review of Father and Son

A little over one hundred years ago the British author Edmund Gosse published Father and Son: A Study of Two Temperaments. It detailed the author's memories of his austere upbringing in London and the Devonshire coast, his mother's tragic death while he was still a young boy, his religious education under his father's strict yet loving hand, and his eventual break with his father at the age of 18. Lauded both by critics and prominent fellow writers upon its release in 1907, it also caused somewhat of a stir for its candid and at times unflattering depiction of the author's father, the eminent naturalist Philip Henry Gosse. Rudyard Kipling called it 'extraordinarily interesting — more interesting than David Copperfield because it's true', while one review remarked that 'this is an excellent book, though we hardly like the anatomisation of one's father' (cited in Thwaite, Literary Landscape 435–6). Andre Maurois declared that it 'contains a proof, and a very rare proof, that an unfettered examination of one's self is possible' (cited in Marcus 110).

Yet, one hundred years after its first appearance, Father and Son stands as somewhat of an anomaly within the canon: a book published six years after the end of what is commonly termed the Victorian period and written by a once-eminent man of letters who came to represent the worst of high Victorianism, which self-importantly valued 'graciousness of style' at the expense of good scholarship (Orel 179). David Callahan has noted the irony of how Gosse 's only enduring work is that which explores 'his production of the space and authority necessary for him to be able to challenge his father. The clearing of the space has become Gosse's one insertion into the authority structure of remembered literature; the work he was able to do in the space cleared has been cleared away itself as shallow and false' (25). As Alexis Harley argues, if Edmund Gosse had not penned Father and Son he would now be long forgotten, 'interred in a field of [...] lapsed literary notables' (180).

Exactly what kind of book is Gosse's one contribution to remembered literature? Despite the author's claim that 'this is not an autobiography' (151), Father and Son is now entrenched in critical literature as one of the masterpieces of the genre. Yet early studies of Victorian biography fail to agree upon what kind of book Father and Son is: Edgar Johnson called it a 'mingling of biography and autobiography' (212), while Harold Nicholson saw it as neither (146). Some later critics have attempted to read the work as fiction, dismissing its historical claims in favour of its sharply conceived scenes and fictive elements. The central argument of the following chapter is that Father and Son is in fact the first relational auto/biography of a father by a son; in its conception of patrimony it is the paradigmatic text of the subgenre the Son's Book of the Father.

What I would like to propose from the outset is that the shadow of this important work falls heavily upon the contemporary Son's Book of the Father in Australia. As a model of 'the struggle for self-identity' through a challenge to paternal and divine authority, and as a son's depiction of a complex father–son relationship, Gosse's classic of European autobiography is an instructive text for much contemporary life writing. Although it is by no means the case that all the subsequent writers in this study are familiar with Gosse, there is a convincing argument that Father and Son, and before that, Augustine's Confessions, are paradigmatic and grasp the emotional and psychological dynamics of this relation in ways that are indicative and formative. By reading a series of Australian works back to Father and Son one begins to see the still pertinent need for an autobiographer to face the question of divine-paternal authority in establishing an authorial identity. In its conflation of biological father and Heavenly Father, Father and Son usefully reminds us that the term patrimony originally denoted the estate or endowment of the Church, bestowed by ancient right.

In this chapter I will first engage in some detail with recent critical scholarship on Father and Son and outline a series of key tropes in Gosse's autobiography that recur in my Australian examples. The latter portion of Chapter One will investigate the more explicit re-occurrences of Father and Son in Australian literature, particularly Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda. While not autobiography, Carey's novel is the most overt example of Gosse's presence in Australian literature and is important as an illustration of how father–son dynamics pattern Australia's relationship to our literary ancestry. The Australian autobiographies to be covered in Chapter Two, most notably The Boy Adeodatus and The Watcher on the Cast-Iron Balcony, are not strictly patriographies, but both resonate with Father and Son in important ways. Smith's narrative of deconversion engages with the tradition of spiritual autobiography and, like Gosse, he struggles against 'the Fathers' of the genre, while Porter's renunciation of both God and a father's model of masculinity highlights the importance of the Gossian model in an Australian context.

Re-framing Edmund Gosse

James Hepburn, in his introduction to the 1974 Oxford University Press edition of Father and Son, remarked:

It is in fact astonishing how little criticism of any sort has ever been levelled against the book. The revolt against certain Victorian beliefs and practices has been so thorough that from 1907 to the present day the viewpoint of the author has seemed to be merely the truth. (xiii)

This paucity of criticism has since been redressed. Victorian scholarship has seen a re-emerging interest in Father and Son over the past 30 years, producing a number of divergent re-readings and re-imaginings of the author's intentions and achievements in the text. It is worth remarking however that most modern critics continue to approach Father and Son with a marked respectfulness, at least for the aesthetic and affective qualities of the work. the opening lines of Avrom Fleishman's examination are typical. He states that the author might be 'open to the charge of exploitativeness and artificiality were it not for the palpable emotion with which he writes' (300). That Father and Son is a unique and enduring literary achievement does not seem to be in doubt. What the text actually achieves is very much open to debate.

According to Michael Newton, the text has not been out of print since its publication, largely due to the relevance of its subject matter. Centrally, this revolves around the narrative of 'a conflict that makes Gosse's story one of the most significant of the nineteenth century. And not just of the nineteenth century: Gosse's struggle resonates in our culture too, in ways that may yet surprise us' (ix). In his introduction to the 2004 Oxford University Press edition of the text, Newton identifies a central paradox in the internal logic of the book:

In his consideration of vocation, the question Gosse poses for himself and for us is whether identity derives from our parents, our past, or is it made by the individual in refutation of that past. Gosse claims the latter, while the autobiographical mode in which he writes, with its commitment to memory and to the very idea of 'formative experiences' and parental influence, argue for the other. This is a very self-divided book. It chooses freedom while placing the origins of the self within the circumscription that the self rejects. The very title of the book shows that the self is a self in so far as it is in relatedness, as one of a pair, father and son [...] Young Edmund exists in this contradiction. To declare independence is an act of rejection that still yearns towards that which one claims independence from. (xxv–vi)

This articulates well the tension inherent in the Gossian mode of patriography: a conflict between claiming and disclaiming his past; between celebrating and denouncing his father; between recognising 'formative experiences' and parental influence and writing as a 'self-made-man' — a modern apostate and aesthete, a child of literature and nature in the best Romantic tradition. It also cuts to the heart of the problematic question of genre.

Clinton Machann has addressed the problematic question of genre, arguing against critics who would posit the work as a novel, despite its utilisation of 'some of the common attributes of fiction' and its 'novelistic neatness' (135–6). He likewise resists other interpretations (including Gosse's own assessment) that the work is biography or memoir, contending that despite the author's attempt in his epilogue to place the father 'in the foreground of the piece' (Gosse 162), it is the son, and particularly his self- development, internal life and identity, who is the focus of the narrative: 'In spite of Gosse's limiting thesis and his focus on the father–son relationship, it is clear that the son's very essence of selfhood, not just some part of it, is in question here' (137).

Using Lejeune's model of autobiographer as author, narrator and main character, Machann goes on to analyse the devices used to create distance between past and present, and between the narrator and protagonist — a distance necessary for the pronouncements the adult Gosse makes about his childhood self 'fluttering in the net-work of my father's will, and incapable of the smallest independent action' (Gosse 163). The result of this distance is to create for both writer and reader an 'historical perspective' that allows us to look back from our 'relatively enlightened' age that has been 'released from the grip of a benighted religious tradition' (Machann 143). In this way, Machann reads Gosse's narrative as an exemplary tale of the Edwardian age, a self-history that is 'a particularly extreme individual example of a general development within English history', a development into 'consciousness and enlightenment' (143).

Machann identifies an important feature of the Child's Book of the Parent, the relational frame of which must by necessity make an account of changes or continuity across generations. A major trope of the Child's Book of the Parent is the narrative of progress or enlightenment — the writing self 's conception of how she has moved away from the values and worldview of her parents to become her own person, and in so doing has moved with the progress of history. Rarely is the portrayal of the struggle as violent or the declaration of liberty as absolute as the one represented by Gosse, though Robert Gray's narrative of progress discussed in Chapter Seven shares some uncanny similarities with the Gossian model. A more common pattern, as we will discover, is for the child to continue the progression towards enlightenment begun by the parent.

However, Machann's reading of Father and Son feels ultimately too simplistic, attributing more weight of certainty to Gosse's vision than the text can sustain. Is Gosse's break from his father and religion as conclusive as he claims? Is his progress from religious darkness to secular light as unequivocal as Mahann suggests? My reading of Father and Son seeks to resist the temptation towards absolute binaries — between past/present, unenlightened/enlightened and so forth — and argues for a more nuanced reading that foregrounds the ambiguities of the text. This is turn will be reflected in the ambiguities identified in the works discussed as 'descendants' of Father and Son.

Other critics posit Gosse's text at the forefront of a new form of literary autobiography which emerged at the turn of the twentieth century; wilfully self-conscious, and bearing a novelistic sophistication that re-writes traditional autobiography by turning the standard elements of the genre back on itself in the form of literary parody. Fleishman identifies spiritual autobiography as the main object of this parody, not only due to the particular circumstances of an oppressive religion from which Gosse struggles to emerge but also because of the author's participation in the late Victorian project of de-authorising the Bible in favour of the secular text (301). His specific targets are the pre-eminent spiritual autobiographers such as John Bunyan, and ultimately 'the central text of autobiographical tradition, Augustine's Confessions' (308). In this way one may figure the capitalised Father of Father and Son not only as Edmund's biological father Philip Henry Gosse (hereafter Henry Gosse), but also as the Father(s) of the genre.

This de-authorising, according to Fleishman, 'is conducted by a precise inversion of the figures employed in that tradition', such as the tropes of Eden, the Fall, Dedication and especially Conversion (301). Linda Peterson concurs, asserting that Gosse's 'sophisticated' parody works by imitating the language and formal generic patterns of spiritual autobiography but 'with a displacement of meaning' (173). Thus the Edenesque beauty of the Devon seacoast chronologically follows the Fall — in this case the father's fall in the son's eyes from the status of Deity — leading the son to test God and commit idolatry by bowing down to a wooden chair (Gosse 30). But while Peterson's Gosse is a clever parodist interested in wordplay and generic disruption, Heather Henderson contends that there is far more at stake here for this autobiographer: 'it is only by working through the terms of biblical typology that Gosse can define his own identity' (120, emphasis in the original). This identity is that of an idolater who turns to secular narrative for meaning, casting himself against his father's intended biblical models.

For it is where Edmund looks for salvation from this bondage of biblical typology that the conversion narrative of spiritual autobiography is most profoundly subverted. Gosse turns to literature to save him from religion; as Henderson puts it, 'his miracles are secular, aesthetic and literary' (137). Henderson focuses on the language used to describe Edmund's early discoveries of Virgil, Greek sculpture and Shakespeare in religious terms, as revelatory and metaphysical. It is here, rather than in scripture, that the son finds a model for selfhood: characters to empathise with, beauty to be inspired by, and most importantly a language to express himself. 'The terms of the conflict have now been clearly set out', claims Henderson, 'Religion represents bondage from which only literature can provide salvation' (139). This prototype of a narrative of deconversion through literature, which Henderson traces through Ruskin's Praeterita to Father and Son, will be important when we turn our attention to works by Smith, Porter and Gray, where the world of aesthetics offers salvation from a paternal bind, but with important divergences from the Gossian model. For it is not primarily a question of religion but of authority, and a father's model of masculinity, that is 'thrown off' in our contemporary texts.

Other critics concur with Henderson, identifying Father and Son as a kind of allegory of enlightenment, of salvation through art. 'The values espoused by Father and Son are entirely those of the literary system', writes Laura Marcus, 'and it is central to the autobiographical canon in part because it so emphatically endorses the claims of the literary life' (111). According to Marcus, it is this aspect of Gosse's only enduring work that accounts for its longevity:

The success of the text results from its control over the discourses and dichotomies it incorporates or ironises: autobiography/biography, literature/science, Calvinism/Enlightenment, tragedy/comedy, past/ present. In ironic contrast, Henry Gosse, at least in his son's account, 'dies' to history in large part as a result of his absurd attempt to reconcile his religion and his science. (111)


Excerpted from Australian Patriography by Stephen Mansfield. Copyright © 2013 Stephen Mansfield. Excerpted by permission of Wimbledon Publishing Company.
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What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

‘This book is about autobiographical writing in Australia, but Stephen Mansfield’s work has profound implications for patrimonial life narratives and father–son relationships everywhere. Employing scholarship from psychology, sociology and humanistic literary study, he exposes both the fault lines of Australian father–son relationships, with their emphasis on silence, privacy and repression, but also honours the way the life writers strive to understand and repair the damage arising from those affiliations. Mansfield renders the voices in those memoirs with a powerful, reverberative voice of his own.’ —Roger Porter, author of ‘Bureau of Missing Persons: Writing the Secret Lives of Fathers’

‘This thoroughly insightful study of patriography fills an important gap in life writing scholarship. Mansfield makes a crucial contribution to Australian literary studies in his analysis of autobiography, masculinity and the paternal inheritance. “Australian Patriography” offers an original and significant review of contemporary literatures which will resonate broadly.’ —Kate Douglas, author of ‘Contesting Childhood: Autobiography, Trauma and Memory’

‘“Australian Patriography” illustrates the major virtues of scholarly writing: depth, incisiveness and clarity. It ambitiously brings together literary and sociological interests in the service of superb textual analysis. Stephen Mansfield’s study is not only a major addition to the scholarship of Australian life writing, but to that of life writing generally.’ —David McCooey, author of ‘Artful Histories: Modern Australian Autobiography’

Meet the Author

Stephen Mansfield is an independent scholar as well as a casual research assistant and tutor in the Department of English at Sydney University, Australia. 

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