Monday 5 August 2013

Two wives in Heaven

It is difficult to imagine a more devout Christian than Philip Henry Gosse, the great Victorian Natural Historian, writer, illustrator and lecturer. His faith seems to have been absolute and it was kept so by his belief that the Second Coming was imminent and that this required a constant state of preparedness.

Gosse needed his faith at the time of the illness, and subsequent death from breast cancer, of his wife Emily in 1857 when he was 46 years old. He was certain in the knowledge that they would be re-united in Heaven and he promised Emily that their only son Edmund (later Sir Edmund) would also be with them. Gosse’s need to ensure this led to a break down in the relationship with Edmund, who did not share his father’s beliefs and wilted under the constant pressure put on him to “walk closely with God”. It wasn’t like that when Edmund was young, as they were very close and supported each other through their bereavement, rejoicing when Edmund was baptised as a boy to be a full member of the Brethren. The closeness, and subsequent conflict, between the two are recorded in Father and Son.1

After Emily died, Gosse moved to Torquay and immersed himself in collecting marine organisms, building aquaria to observe them and continuing with his writing and painting.2 After a few years, he met Eliza Brightwen and they married in 1860, being devoted to each other for the rest of Gosse’s life. Edmund liked Eliza and they, too, enjoyed a harmonious relationship, even after Edmund and his father had fallen out.

You will notice that I have only mentioned Gosse’s first names once in this blog post. 

To Emily he was Henry, as we see in the opening of A Naturalist’s Rambles on the Devonshire Coast: 3

 “You are seriously ill, Henry” said my wife; “you have been in the study a great deal too much lately; you must throw it all up, and take a trip into the country.”

Yet to Eliza, he was Philip. In an Appendix to Edmund’s The Naturalist of the Sea-Shore: the Life of Philip Henry Gosse 4 (in which he always refers to his father by the first of his two Christian names), Eliza writes:

“All these recreations [describing collecting marine creatures] were a great rest to Philip Gosse’s active brain, as the exercises and air were healthful to his body, and to me they were a source of very great enjoyment”

It seems probable that Edmund used Philip rather than Henry to please his step-mother, who was clearly involved in the production of the biography. However, he also refers to his father as Philip Gosse in Father and Son. 1 Why the change? Was Philip just for formal usage, or could it be that Henry (for consistency and a sense of closeness, I always refer to him as Henry 2) had to reconcile that there would be the souls of two wives with him in Heaven and that this differing use of first names was a means of overcoming a possible conflict? No-one knows and it is a difficulty that must be faced by many Christians who have a second marriage, a step that seems very sensible after the trauma and loneliness of bereavement has passed a little. Is it possible for there to be jealousies in Heaven, or are souls above such things? This is a genuine question based on my lack of theological knowledge and I have no intention of being flippant here. Rather, I am intrigued by the usage of the two first names. Was it to indentify his second marriage as a new start, or was there another reason? Was it Eliza’s choice, also adopted by Edmund? Did Henry still refer to himself by his second name, the familar one used only by members of the family? He usually signed Philp Henry Gosse or P.H.Gosse, so there are no clues there.

1 Edmund Gosse (1907) Father and Son: A Study of Two Temperaments. London, Heinemann.

2 Roger S. Wotton (2020) Walking with Gosse: Natural History, Creation and Religious Conflicts. e-book available from all good e-booksellers.

3 Philip Henry Gosse (1853) A Naturalist’s Rambles on the Devonshire Coast. London, John van Voorst.

4 Edmund Gosse (1896) The Naturalist of the Sea-Shore: The Life of Philip Henry Gosse. London, Heinemann.

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