In the latest in his series on eminent Camden Victorians, Neil Titley turns his attention to man of letters Sir Edmund Gosse
18 March, 2021 — By Neil Titley
Sir Edmund Gosse as painted by John Singer Sargent
THESE days the splendid wedding-cake Nash terraces of Regent’s Park harbour such luminaries as the luxury fashionista Stephano Gabbana (of Dolce and…) and the severed sheep and diamond skull creator Damian Hirst. Averaging around the £17m mark, the house prices match the stellar income of their current inhabitants.
This latter day glitter provides a sharp contrast to a previous occupier who, although a resident first at 27 Chester Terrace and then at 17 Hanover Terrace, led a somewhat more mundane existence as the librarian of the House of Lords.
Sir Edmund Gosse (1849-1928) was a classic Victorian man of letters who today is mostly famous for a doctrinal disagreement with his father Philip Gosse.
Known for introducing the idea of marine aquariums to the viewing public, Philip was a lay preacher who in the 1850s rejected Darwin’s theories in favour of the strict religious faith of the Plymouth Brethren sect.
The ensuing dispute with the evolutionary Edmund provided the material for the latter’s book Father and Son. Under the title of Where Adam Stood, this was dramatised for TV by Dennis Potter in 1976.
In 1867, fresh from his father’s influence, Gosse began his career as a clerk in the cataloguing section of the British Museum. At the time, the clerks were treated rather like errant schoolboys under the control of a superintendent, the Rev Frederick Laughlin, “a man who ruled with an iron hand and an uncontrollable temper”.
One day, when Laughlin was absent for an hour, discipline relaxed and the clerks chatted and told jokes. On his surprise return, instant decorum was restored. One clerk, though, had left to fetch a book from an upper gallery. Not noticing Laughlin’s return, he leant over the balustrade, spread his arms wide, and boomed out to the workers below: “Am I or am I not the department’s darling?”
Gosse: “Laughlin turned his head slowly and looked upwards – one look. The clerk fled, and the sound of his footsteps was heard echoing up the metal stairways till they seemed to fade away into infinity.”
One of Gosse’s co-workers was the poet Arthur O’Shaughnessy.
O’Shaughnessy was an expert on reptiles and worked in the natural history department. On one occasion, he broke a valuable exhibit and repaired the accident by uniting the head of one fish with the skeleton of another. His accidental creation of a new species baffled the authorities for months.
In 1875 Gosse moved on to become a civil servant at the Board of Trade, a post that he held until 1904. This gave him time for writing and enabled him to marry and start a family. He said that the job gave him “peace to write, a lovely view of the Thames, and unlimited stationery”.
In the 1880s despite his lack of academic qualifications, Gosse proved capable enough to lecture in English literature at Cambridge University. Then in 1904, he was appointed the custodian of the House of Lords library where he exercised considerable influence till his retirement in 1914.
The library became his personal domain where he sat watching for misdemeanours through “gleaming gold-rimmed spectacles”. One lord reported that “the mishandling of a book would bring him hurtling in a trot across the floor to the side of the offender with a bitingly civil request to know if he could be of any assistance”.
Some of his contemporaries regarded Gosse with disfavour. George Moore, when writing in favour of the tavern as opposed to the club, commented: “The tavern gave the world Villon and Marlowe; the club and its leather armchairs have begotten Mr Gosse.”
When Gosse received his knighthood, Frank Harris said that it was “for services to mediocrity”.
However, Gosse did have a benign influence on the world of literature through his translations of Ibsen’s plays into English, and his encouragement of official financial support for the then struggling writers WB Yeats and James Joyce.
When a group of Americans, shocked that England had provided no memorial already, presented a bust of John Keats to Hampstead Parish Church in 1894, it was Gosse who was asked to give the speech of acceptance there.
His literary associates included Robert Louis Stevenson for whom he wrote the poem Tusitala.
Gosse revealed an interesting insight on his friend’s writing methods. While in Switzerland for health reasons, Stevenson wrote much of his famous book Treasure Island. “He had made a mud map of the island all over the floor of a chalet, and would lie there all day, moving dolls about to represent his characters as he wrote.”
Occasionally Gosse’s temper was tested by printing errors. He reported that “when Robert Browning died I wrote in his obituary that ‘to the end of his life he was faint, yet pursuing’. The printer’s reader queried this, and being angry about many things, I scribbled ‘Rats!’ at the side. They printed that the venerable poet died ‘faint, yet pursuing rats.’”
• Adapted from Neil Titley’s book The Oscar Wilde World of Gossip. For details go to www.wildetheatre.co.uk