Sir Edmund Gosse

You may be among those who would prefer to do without Christmas, but it's unlikely that you feel as strongly about it as the father of one of the residents of East Finchley Cemetery, Sir Edmund Gosse.

Gosse was born in London in 1845. His father was a naturalist and a member of the strict Protestant sect the Plymouth Brethren, which coloured his attitudes more than somewhat, as Gosse described in his fine autobiographical study Father and Son:

On the subject of all feasts of the Church [my father] held views of an almost grotesque peculiarity. He looked upon each of them as nugatory and worthless, but the keeping of Christmas appeared to him by far the most hateful, and nothing less than an act of idolatry . . . he would adduce the antiquity of the so-called feast, adapted from horrible heathen rites, and itself a soiled relic of the abominable Yule-Tide. He would denounce the horrors of Christmas until it made me blush to look at a holly-berry.

On Christmas Day of this year 1857 our villa saw a very unusual sight. My Father had given strictest charge that no difference whatsoever was to be made in our meals on that day: the dinner was to be neither more copious than usual nor less so. He was obeyed, but the servants, secretly rebellious, made a small plum-pudding for themselves . . . Early in the afternoon the maids – of whom we were now advanced to keeping two – kindly remarked that "the poor dear child ought to have a bit anyhow", and wheedled me into the kitchen, where I ate a slice of plum-pudding. Shortly I began to feel that pain inside which in my frail state [from living on milk-sop because of a persistent illness] was inevitable, and my conscience smote me violently. At length I could bear my spiritual anguish no longer, and bursting into the study I called out: "Oh! Papa, Papa, I have eaten of the flesh offered to idols!" It took some time, between my sobs, to explain what had happened. Then my Father sternly said: "Where is the accursed thing?" I explained that as much as was left of it was still on the kitchen table. He took me by the hand, and ran with me into the midst of the startled servants, seized what remained of the pudding, and with the plate in one hand and me still tight in the other, ran till we reached the dust-heap, when he flung the idolatrous confectionery on to the middle of the ashes, and then raked it deep down into the mass. The suddenness, the violence, the velocity of this extraordinary act made an impression on my memory which nothing will ever efface.

That was first published in 1907, when Gosse was librarian to the House of Lords, having previously worked as an assistant librarian in the British Museum and as a translator to the Board of Trade. His 1879 Studies in the Literature of Northern Europe had introduced Ibsen to British readers, and he also wrote several other critical studies, especially on seventeenth-century literature. He was knighted in 1925, and died three years later.


Edmund Gosse, Father and Son (London: William Heinemann, 1907; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1949)

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