Thursday, September 13, 2007

A pert wanton

{Edmund Gosse and his father, Philip}

Midway through Edmund Gosse's thoughtful, moving autobiography, Father and Son (1907), there's a moment that will amuse any lover of dictionaries. Young Edmund, who after the death of his mother is being raised under the stern, even stifling, hand of his deeply religious father, is describing the unexpected appearance in their relatively cloistered life of Miss Wilkes, an attractive young fellow member of their religious sect, the Plymouth Brethren. Edmund's father is by nature a solitary, unsociable sort--Edmund describes him as "a fortress that required to be stormed"--but Miss Wilkes manages to worm her way into his good graces and becomes a regular visitor to the house. Years later, Edmund is still uncertain whether she was aiming for anything more than friendship, though the circumstances and her determination would seem to indicate that she was, but he does recall overhearing the housekeeper telling the cook that, "quite as between you and me," Miss Wilkes was a "minx." Gosse, displaying the curiosity that makes his young self endearing despite his priggishness, writes:
I had the greatest curiosity about word, and as this was a new one, I looked it up in our large English Dictionary. But there the definition of the term was this:--"Minx: the female of a minnock; a pert wanton." I was as much in the dark as ever.
But it gets even better: as Michael Newton, editor of the Oxford World's Classics edition (to which he contributes a remarkably interesting Introduction), notes:
EG may be making this up. The edition of Nathan Bailey's An Universal Etymological English Dictionary (1721), that we know the Gosses owned, defines "minx" as "a proud Girl."
Once in a while, the uheralded grunt work done by patient literary scholars really pays off for us ordinary readers.

Gosse really is a fascinating figure--and not a bad one with which to follow a post about Ring Lardner, actually. In her Thomas Hardy, Claire Tomalin explains that he "had appointed himself as the fixer of the London literary world," the man who knew everyone--including Hardy, with whom he became close friends--and who "dedicated himself to living the literary life more seriously than anyone else has ever done," but without producing much himself beyond some unexceptional poetry. Evelyn Waugh, to whom Gosse was related, says of him in A Little Learning:
I held Gosse in disdain. His polished art of pleasing was not effectively exercised on children. I remember him once, when I was, I suppose, eight or nine, greeting me with: "And where do you carry those bare knees?"

I answered pertly, "They carry me wherever I want to go."

"Ah the confidence of youth! To be able to envisage an attainable destination!"

Newton describes him, in old age, as exactly the sort of figure the youthful Waugh would rail against:
That pitiful thing, the unsmiling public man. He was the official representative of letters; a tame author. . . . He had crucified poetry on the cross of respectability. No one believes a laureate will write a good poem, and Gosse was the laureate of belle lettres.
Yet with Father and Son, initially published anonymously, he surprised everyone. It is a remarkable, emotionally open picture of, as Gosse describes it, a conflict of temperaments, relating the growing estrangement between Edmund and his father--an estrangement propelled by Edmund's experience of a process that will be familiar to all readers of late-Victorian biography, the loss of faith. While Edmund writes the book, in a sense, against his father, it is, as Newton describes it, "a loving attack"--the very depths of emotion and analysis that he brings to the writing render his father at least as compelling a figure as Edmund himself.

And if that's not enough to tempt you into reading it, Gosse's vocabulary might--I learned a handful of great new words along the way. There's jobation, defined as "a lengthy and tedious rebuke." There's a French word, detraquee, defined as "someone unhinged, who's gone 'off the rails,' though without the usual suggestion of a drift into dissipation." Fuliginous, meaning "smoky or sooty," and a Latin term, quidnuncs, defined as "gossips or busybodies."

Add a pert wanton, and what more could a reader want?

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