Philip Henry Gosse - Popular Nature Writer

Popular Nature Writer

Back in England, Gosse wrote books in his field and out. (One quick volume for the SPCK was Monuments of Ancient Egypt, a land he had never visited and never would.) As his financial situation stabilized, Gosse courted Emily Bowes, a forty-one-year-old member of the Brethren, who was both a strong personality and a gifted writer of evangelical tracts. They were married in November 1848, and their union was an extremely happy one. As D. J. Taylor has written, "the word 'uxorious' seems to have minted to define" Gosse. Gosse's only son was born on 21 September 1849, an event Gosse noted in his diary with the words, "E. delivered of a son. Received green swallow from Jamaica"—an amusing conjunction which Edmund later described as demonstrating only the order of events: the boy had arrived first.

Gosse penned a succession of books and articles on natural history, some of which were (in his own words) "pot-boilers" for religious publications. (At the time, accounts of God's creation were considered appropriate Sabbath reading for children.) As L. C. Croft has written, "Much of Gosse's success was due to the fact that he was essentially a field naturalist who was able to impart to his readers something of the thrill of studying living animals at first hand rather than the dead disjointed ones of the museum shelf. In addition to this he was a skilled scientific draughtsman who was able to illustrate his books himself."

Suffering from headaches, perhaps the result of overwork, Gosse and his family began to spend more time away from London on the Devon coast. Here along the sea shore Gosse began serious experimentation with ways to sustain sea creatures so that they could be examined "without diving to gaze on them." Although there had been attempts to construct what had previously been called an "aquatic vivarium" (a name Gosse found "awkward and uncouth"), Gosse published The Aquarium in 1854 and set off a mid-Victorian craze for household aquariums. The book was financially profitable for Gosse, and "the reviews were full of praise" even though Gosse used natural science to point to the necessity of salvation through the blood of Christ. In 1856 Gosse was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, which, because he had no university position or inherited wealth, gave him "a standing he otherwise lacked."

A few months before Gosse was honored, his wife discovered that she had breast cancer. Rather than undergo surgery (a risky procedure in 1856), the Gosses decided to submit to the ointments of an American doctor, Jesse Weldon Fell, who if not a charlatan, was certainly on the fringe of contemporary medical practice. After much suffering, Emily Gosse died on 9 February 1857, entrusting her husband with their son's salvation and thus perhaps driving Gosse into "strange severities and eccentric prohibitions."

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