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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