Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Elgar's Enigma

I've been re-reading Patrick Turner's scholarly book on Elgar's Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma) Op. 36 [1]. He explains how the piece acquired its title and also puts forward an explanation of the enigma – that the variations originated with the French folk melody to which we sing the nursery rhyme Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. As Elgar never explained the origin of the Variations we will never know whether Turner is correct, but we do know that Elgar played a tune to his wife, Alice, in the manner of several of his friends and that this led to the dedication of the Variations by Elgar "to my friends pictured within".

The link below is to the acclaimed interpretation of the work by Toscanini.

Even if one knows little of the origins of the piece, the Enigma Variations are certainly popular and "Nimrod", the variation based on Elgar's friend August Jaeger of the music publisher Novello, is the best known. I knew it before I knew the rest of the piece, largely from hearing "Nimrod" many times on radio programmes of music requests. We didn't have a record player (this must sound so odd to readers brought up in the modern era) and it wasn't until I was a student that I was able to buy an LP of the Enigma Variations and that began my exploration of Elgar's beautiful and inspiring music.

I have already written about Elgar and soul, complete with a tease that neuroscientists will never understand how music affects the emotions [2], but I wanted to write more after reading quotes in Turner's book [1]. The first came from the conductor Leopold Stokowski after he conducted the Variations in Philadelphia and New York in 1929:

We had not played them for four seasons, and the impression I received from them was of such depth of feeling and beauty that I was stirred by this music far more profoundly than I can express in words. Often when we play a work after not having heard it for several seasons, we have the impression of its being the expression of another period and of being alien to the life of today. But your Variations gave me the most powerful impression of eternal vitality and architectural design – and also something very difficult to express, a floating upward into a mystical level where time and space seem to cease.

The other quote is from Turner himself:

..I never cease to wonder what it was about Elgar that enabled him to produce music which succeeds in moving me in a way in which no other music does. What is the strange alchemy that draws people to his music and, once drawn, traps them?

Both quotes imply that Elgar had a special quality that enabled him to communicate something deep and intimate. I alluded to this in the earlier post [2], yet I have no idea whether the moving feelings that I have when listening to the piece are the same as those that Stokowski, Turner and many others describe. The imagery that I have must be personal, yet the result is the same for all of us – almost being in contact with a higher sense. What is the rational explanation of that and why is Elgar so good at creating that feeling? It's another enigma.

[1] Patrick Turner (1999) Elgar's 'Enigma' Variations – a centenary celebration. London, Thames Publishing.

Monday, 21 August 2017

Families are fascinating – the Gosses especially so.

 The best-known book about members of the Gosse family is Edmund's Father and Son [1 and see above], published in 1907. Edmund wrote it anonymously because he knew its subject matter would cause a stir, describing as it does the conflict between profound, and unyielding, religious belief and a less inhibited view of life. Readers get the impression that Philip Henry Gosse was a repressive and hectoring father in trying to maintain Edmund within his version of the Christian fold and Edmund uses the book to express resentments about his upbringing. To be fair, there is also much in the book that is positive about the relationship between father and son and there is no question that Henry was a loving father, despite the religious straitjacket he also expected his son to wear.

Edmund always felt warmly towards his stepmother Eliza (Henry's first wife Emily having died of breast cancer when Edmund was a small boy) and relations between Henry and Edmund were enhanced when Edmund married Ellen (Nellie) Epps [2] who was a wonderful mediator. In contrast to his upbringing as an only child in a loving, but restricting, home, Edmund's children had a different experience. We know something of their life from the recollections of Kathleen Fisher (see below) and they went on to follow both the interests of their parents and their grandfather, whom they loved and who loved them. They were also strong defenders of Edmund's reputation; something that was attacked for the lack of accuracy to which Edmund was prone.

The three children of Edmund and Nellie Gosse were Emily Teresa (Tessa) (1877-1951), Philip Henry George (1879-1959) and Laura Sylvia (1881-1968). I presume that Tessa's first name came from Edmund's mother; Philip's first two names were those of Edmund's father; and Sylvia's first name was in honour of Nellie's sister.

Like her father, Tessa had a gift for languages. She was proud of having studied Classics at Newnham College Cambridge and retained an affinity with other graduates of the College. This "club membership" was important to her and it is possible that, like Edmund, she had a tendency to snobbishness. In part, this may have been because she was over-sensitive and "suffered greatly from rebuffs" [3]. She was an animal lover and a woman of principle, being a supporter of the Suffragettes, with whom she intended to march of 10 Downing Street, and she was a frequent letter writer to The Times. Tessa sounds to have been a difficult character.

Philip was more easygoing, with a reputation for being lazy [3]. From boyhood, he was fascinated by Natural History and his visits to his grandfather must have enhanced his passion for the subject. Henry Gosse was quite the opposite of lazy and would have leapt at the opportunities that Philip enjoyed as a child, including an education at Haileybury and the chance of going on to Cambridge. Under pressure from his father, he ended up studying medicine at St Bartholomew's Medical School and, after a short spell as a houseman, became a General Practitioner in Hampshire [4]. Like both his father and his grandfather, Philip was also a writer and became an expert on pirates. Readers of Father and Son will be familiar with the fascination that Edmund developed with nautical adventures after reading Tom Cringle's Log, a book that was passed to him by his father, much to Edmund's surprise, as Henry, and especially Emily, had been very restrictive in what they felt was suitable reading for the boy. Tom Cringle's Log was written by Michael Scott, a planter on Jamaica [5], and it is likely that Henry kept the book as a reminder of his time there, when he collected specimens and studied the Natural History of the island. It came as a revelation to Edmund and the stories of adventure stimulated his imagination. This is what he wrote in Father and Son [1]:

It was like giving a glass of brandy neat to some one who had never been weaned from a milk diet. I have not read Tom Cringle's Log from that day to this, and I think that I should be unwilling now to break the charm of memory, which may be largely illusion.. ..There were certain scenes and images in Tom Cringle's Log which made not merely a lasting impression upon my mind, but tinged my outlook upon life. The long adventures, fightings and escapes, sudden storms without, and mutinies within, drawn forth as they were, surely with great skill, upon the fiery blue of the boundless tropical ocean, produced on my inner mind a sort of glimmering hope, very vaguely felt at first, slowly developing, long stationary and faint, but always tending towards a belief that I should escape at last from the narrowness of the life we led at home, from this bondage to the Law and the Prophets.

He likely passed on the stories to Philip and maybe this is how the latter's interest in piracy developed, resulting in several books, including his History of Piracy.

From reading Natural History books, Philip became interested in Charles Waterton and his travels in South America [6]. Waterton, a "larger than life" character, wrote of these adventures in several books and Philip became one of his biographers, publishing The Squire of Walton Hall, the book being named after Waterton's title and the large house in which he lived in Yorkshire. Although Henry Gosse and Charles Waterton were both observers of animals and plants, they were very different in their beliefs and their approaches. Waterton was born 18 years before Henry and was educated at Stonyhurst; the Jesuit college cementing his strong adherence to Catholicism. This alone would have made Henry, a member of the Brethren, fill with disdain, but so would Waterton's casual descriptions of animals using common names. However, he was a populariser of Natural History and it is interesting to speculate on why Philip chose him as a subject. Was it because Waterton was something of a hero figure to him and was he following his father's lead in making a veiled attack on Henry's position?

Sylvia followed her mother and aunt in being passionate about painting and she dedicated her life to it. Interestingly, there were painters on both sides of the family. In addition to the Epps sisters [2], Henry Gosse was recognised for his beautiful illustrations [7] and he, in turn, received training from his father, Thomas Gosse, who was primarily a painter of miniatures. Sylvia, however, painted on a larger scale and she became a close friend of Walter Sickert, from whom she also developed an interest in etching. Apart from her work as a painter and etcher, Sylvia made a lifelong study of birds (echoes of her grandfather?) and she loved good food and wine, something that quite possibly developed during time spent in France when she was young [3].

In her reflections, Kathleen Fisher has this to say about Henry's grandchildren's religious upbringing and, more specifically, Sylvia's beliefs [3]:

I do not know what religious upbringing Edmund Gosse's children had, if any. They did, however, say morning and evening prayers in the nursery because their governess told them to do so. When I became friendly with Sylvia she would often take me to visit churches and she would always make sure that I was in time for Mass and would have breakfast awaiting me on my return. But we never discussed religion. Once she declared herself to be a heathen, which of course she was not, and another time she joked, 'You think you are the only one who goes to church but you might be surprised to know that I attend regularly – once a year, at Christmas!'

How different to the all-encompassing seriousness of Henry Gosse's approach to religion that so influenced Sylvia's father and it was a blessing that Henry could not be present when Sylvia died, as a Requiem Mass was said for her. Whatever his love for his grandchildren, that would have been one step too far.

It is not surprising that Henry's rigid Christian beliefs were not passed down through the family, yet his love of Natural History, of writing and of painting do find expression in his grandchildren. Certainly, Edmund and Nellie encouraged these interests and their circle of friends included many artists and writers who also provided influence. This is yet another contrast to the solitary world in which Edmund grew up and the relationship of Gosse the father and Gosse the son must have encouraged Edmund and Nellie to a much freer approach to parenting; something that was aided by Edmund's immersion in the "wide world" of the Arts and of human society.

Most would agree that all families are fascinating, but the three generations of Gosses seem especially so.

[1] Edmund Gosse (1907) Father and Son: A Study Of Two Temperaments. London, William Heinemann.

[3] Kathleen Fisher (1975) Conversations with Sylvia: Sylvia Gosse. Painter 1881-1968. London, Charles Skilton Ltd.

[4] Raymond Lister (2004-2016) Gosse, Philip Henry George (1879-1959), general practitioner and writer on natural history. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

[5] J. R. MacDonald rev. Lucy Kelly Hayden (2004-2016) Scott, Michael (1789-1835), planter in Jamaica and writer. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford, Oxford University Press.


Friday, 4 August 2017

Nellie Epps – Nineteenth Century Wonder Woman

In a blog post of 16th August 2016 [1], Ellen Moody describes her admiration for a small picture of Torcross in Devon painted by Ellen (Nellie) Gosse in 1879 (see above). In this black and white reproduction we see a tranquil scene at the southern end of Slapton Ley, with Widdicombe Hill rising steeply in the background; giving a very Devonian feeling of intimacy and peace. The cottages and outhouses are no longer there, but the wall adjoining the Ley remains and the profusion of wild flowers is familiar to all those who visit Torcross in spring and early summer. An image of the painting created such an impression on Ellen Moody that she "fell in love with it" as "an idyllic dream vision of the holiday place" [1].

Ellen Epps married Edmund Gosse in 1875 and the story of the Gosse family is a fascinating one [2]. Nellie's father was George Napoleon Epps, the half brother of Dr John Epps, well known for practising homeopathic medicine and a kindly man who did all he could to reduce pain during illness, George, also a doctor, assisted his half brother. Introducing us to Ellen Epps, Ann Thwaite writes [3]:

Nellie was certainly a 'new woman'.. .. She was a feminist of the most attractive sort, totally aware of her own equality with men, but not strident in making them aware of it. She had serious ambitions as a painter..

.. and was a pupil of Ford Madox Brown, her sister Laura being married to Lawrence Alma-Tadema. It was in these artistic circles that Nellie first met Edmund, who had come to London from Torquay. Edmund was the only son of Philip Henry Gosse the great Natural Historian and they were very close after father and son moved to Torquay shortly after Edmund's mother, Emily, died from breast cancer. The pain of her final months was treated by Dr John Epps, so there was a link between the two families from a much earlier time. Certainly Henry Gosse would have thought highly of members of the Epps family.

As is well known from Edmund's book Father and Son, the relationship between Henry and Edmund became difficult after the latter had moved to London. Henry had remarried and this brought nothing but happiness to the Torquay household: it was Edmund's growing disenchantment with the brand of Christianity followed avidly by Henry that was the basis of the split. That, and the discovery of a wide circle of intellectual friends, the realisation of his bisexuality, and his tendency to be snobbish. How much Henry knew of Edmund's activities is not known, but he knew enough. In Glimpses of the Wonderful [4] Ann Thwaite writes:

Edmund was now walking in 'slippery places'. 'The literary, the scientific, the artistic, the polite, the fashionable circles of London are utterly alien from Christ.' Henry Gosse was certain that Edmund knew this as well as he did.

Unfortunately, Edmund had a reputation for errors in his writing and that may apply to some of his account of life with Henry in Father and Son. That book did nothing to promote sympathy for Henry's position and it is worth noting that Edmund published it anonymously, nineteen years after his father died. Of course, Edmund had many positive sides: he was a gifted translator of works in several languages and he also promoted the work of many artists and writers; his influence being recognised by a knighthood. 

Edmund was dependent on Nellie; not just for practical matters, but also as a strong support, for she knew of his liaisons with Hamo Thornycroft the sculptor. When the two men were together, Edmund wrote to Nellie to say how much he missed her, showing the rare sense of tolerance that bound Edmund and Nellie even more closely together. Let's go back to the start of their time together and of the role Nellie played in the life of Henry Gosse.

Nellie married Edmund on 13th August 1875 in Marylebone Register Office and neither Henry nor Eliza were present at the ceremony, or at the reception held at Alma-Tadema's house. However, Henry sent melons and grapes and a generous cheque and his feelings towards Nellie were positive from the start, partly because of the Epps connection. Ann Thwaite writes [4]:

Nellie had sent Henry Gosse for his birthday 'the sweetest kindest letter possible' and a photograph of one of her own paintings. Her response to the orchids that Henry sent [he had become an "orchid fancier" and grew them] had been perfect in its detailed enthusiasm.. ..'We long to embrace her as a beloved Daughter,' the father wrote to the son. Embrace her they did that September when the newly married couple included a ten-day visit to Sandhurst [Henry's home in Torquay and where Edmund grew up] as part of their honeymoon tour..

..Both Philip Henry Gosse and Eliza became devoted to Nellie. She was all tact and sweetness, with a strong base of common-sense. There were no storms or arguments.

The warmth towards Nellie continued through all the visits with Edmund and, later, with the children. There were also trips to the shore, even when Henry was in his late seventies, and it was Nellie that nursed him through his final illness. Henry's belief in the imminence of the second coming of Christ was so strong that he was convinced that this could happen before he died and, in this way, he was not prepared for death. At the end, there was both mental anguish and all the symptoms of terminal congestive heart disease and Nellie handled this in a way that few could manage. For two days the strain became too much even for her and she needed to rest, but she returned and continued giving the love that she felt. She was a remarkable and very talented woman.

At this point, it is worth pointing out quotes made by others about Nellie's make-up and personality. Here are some given by Ann Thwaite [3]:

Mrs Gosse, a most kind, charming and courteous woman, understood perfectly her husband's character, comprehended his fiery nature, his nervous irritability, no doubt aggravated by half a century's hard work and also by the many vexations and jealousies inseparable from a literary career.. .. She tried to pad the corners for him, so that neither he nor others should be hurt. (Osbert Sitwell)

' of the least fussy people I had ever known. Her voice was richly subdued and reassuring, and there was a sense of security in all she did. (Siegfried Sassoon)

And this from Conversations with Sylvia (Edmund and Nellie's daughter) [5]:

Sylvia always had a close relationship with her mother Nellie: she felt she could always approach her when she wanted to know something or when she was troubled by any sort of problem. When Sylvia grew older they were to share a common interest in painting and her mother then quite understood her wish to be independent, for that was how she herself had felt when young. Again like Sylvia, her mother was extremely generous without people knowing. She would willingly give money or her services surreptitiously, but she would never serve on a committee.

Of course, Nellie lived in very different times to those of today and contemporary feminists my take a dim view of some of her traits. However, I think she was amazing and it is interesting that she kept up her painting – we know that she painted extensively on the honeymoon excursions. The little picture of Torcross dates from a later visit to Devon, and to Henry and Eliza in Torquay. Like Ellen Moody, I admire its atmosphere and yet, within two hundred meters of this scene is the English Channel, sometimes whipped up into very destructive storms [6]. The painting is very personal to Nellie and almost represents a visual metaphor of her embracing solidity, tranquillity and beauty of nature; Edmund is joined to the East and can be both stormy and destructive.

I would love to have met her and feel that she should be much better known. People like Nellie are precious.

[2] Roger S Wotton (2012) Walking with Gosse: Natural History, Creation and Religious Conflicts. Southampton, Clio Publishing [out of print!]

[3] Ann Thwaite (1984) Edmund Gosse: A Literary Landscape. London, Secker and Warburg

[4] Ann Thwaite (2002) Glimpses of the Wonderful: The Life of Philip Henry Gosse. London, Faber and Faber.

[5] Kathleen Fisher (1975) Conversations with Sylvia: Sylvia Gosse. Painter 1881-1968. London and Edinburgh, Charles Skilton Ltd.