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.


No comments:

Post a Comment