Friday, 19 October 2012

Writing “Walking with Gosse” [continued]

The third part of the subtitle of “Walking with Gosse” is “Religious Conflicts” and we saw in yesterday’s blog that Henry’s beliefs caused clashes. It was because he had an immovable faith and determinedly cut himself off from those who did not share his views. Even in worship he was the leader of his own congregation of Brethren who, quite rightly, looked up to him as an important figure.

Much the most significant religious conflict in Henry’s life was that which grew between himself and his son, Edmund. After the tragic death of his mother, Emily Gosse, in 1857, Edmund was very close to Henry and they were able to share their grief. Moving to Torquay brought a change in surroundings and a gradual recovery, as both worked on the seashore and at home, where Edmund’s sharp eyes were valued by Henry when sorting through the material they collected.

With the imminence of the Second Coming, Henry was concerned that Edmund must be saved and he proposed to the congregation that Edmund should be baptised as an adult. After discussion, it was agreed and Edmund was baptised as a professed believer just three weeks after his tenth birthday. Knowing that Edmund was a saint, and spurred by his work on the shore, Henry now entered a productive phase and one where he lightened up, although always with the religious straitjacket. He published “The Romance of Natural History”, an interesting book that shows his all-round enthusiasm and he met Eliza, who was to become his second wife.

Edmund liked Eliza and it was a warm household. However, Edmund was beginning to have doubts about his religious beliefs and these grew during his teenage years. After Henry somewhat uncharacteristically pulled strings with his contacts, Edmund succeeded in getting a job in London and he followed Henry's guidance less and less. While there were some sections of The Bible that he admired for their writing, there were so many other books to read (his choice of reading was very restricted at home in Torquay) and many new people to meet. Letters from Henry were now full of requests that Edmund must stick with the rigid practices which the father insisted should be followed by the son.

There were inevitable religious conflicts and the once-close relationship was strained. It’s all written up in Edmund’s “Father and Son” which he wrote long after his father’s death and which also contained some of Edmund’s well-known inaccuracies. Despite this, it became a best-seller and Edmund continued his upward march in the Establishment, culminating in his receiving both a knighthood and the Légion d’Honneur.

Most people’s impression of Henry Gosse is the one presented by Edmund in “Father and Son”. There is no doubt that he was oppressive in trying to force his son to follow his narrow Christian beliefs, although there were also other differences of view between them. Would these conflicts have been reduced if it was not for Henry trying to wrap Edmund in the same religious straightjacket?  Very probably it would, as they had been so close and shared so much.

The religious faith that meant everything to Henry, and which caused him to be cut off from the world, was clearly the most important aspect of his life, but the conflicts also brought pain. Why is it that religion does that to people? Why must they say “I am right, you are wrong”?

I thought the best way of telling the story of Henry and Edmund Gosse was to link biography with autobiography. As a Natural Historian, I share Henry’s enthusiasms but, as someone who was raised a Christian and is now an atheist, I have some affinities with Edmund.

Overall I feel most empathy with Henry, despite our clear differences. Although we could not be more different on our explanations of the unknown, he struck me as being a lovely man and would not compromise his beliefs, whereas Edmund seemed intent on promoting himself and loved his status. Being accurate was not as important as being respected. Having been brought up by the meticulous Henry, who was candid in everything, makes me think he was prepared to bend stories; it wasn’t just poor research.

“Walking with Gosse” is also a very contemporary story and it looks at current approaches in Biology, on the origins of life, on the use of media and many other fields. Henry Gosse would have had something to say on all of them. 

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