Such is the irony of fame, that very few people nowadays have heard of Sir Edmund Gosse, except for his autobiographical Father and Son. But, in his heyday, he was one of the most celebrated Victorian literary figures. Other writers could have been the first British champion of Ibsen and Gide, but none could have wheedled themselves into the establishment as well as Gosse. Reading his biography is like going through the guest list for the ultimate Victorian dinner party – Rossetti, Tennyson, Browning, Henry James – all were close friends. At the same time, he wrote the first biographies of Donne and Swinburne and was consulted by Asquith on which poets should be buried in Westminster Abbey. It was a remarkable, slightly grotesque achievement, the nineteenth-century equivalent of Sir Angus Wilson popping down to Chequers to see Mrs Thatcher.
Ann Thwaite’s new biography is a magnificent portrait of Gosse and his times. Occasionally the hand shakes. She assumes, for example, a knowledge of Swinburne’s life that most of us don’t have, and her ‘flashback’ technique can be perturbing – but in the main she is lucid, drily humorous, bouncing