Like meet­ing the gaze of a friend in a room of strangers

Sarah Perry re­calls her aus­tere Bap­tist child­hood – and the 1907 poet’s mem­oir that struck an in­tense chord

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - ESSAY -

Each De­cem­ber, my fa­ther greeted the on­set of Christ­mas with wry dis­favour. The mince pies my mother baked would, he said, have been out­lawed un­der the Pro­tec­torate of Oliver Cromwell, and quite rightly too; the plas­tic Christ­mas tree drawn an­nu­ally down through the loft hatch was noth­ing but a pa­gan log; and the name it­self – Christ’s Mass, if you please! – evoked the yoke of Popish su­per­sti­tion so coura­geously cast off by Protes­tant Eng­land.

Th­ese reser­va­tions ap­peared to van­ish the mo­ment our grand­fa­ther clock ticked Christ­mas Eve into Christ­mas Day. My fa­ther, with his white beard, would hand out gifts to his five daugh­ters, and no­body could eat mince pies more quickly, or with greater rel­ish. In most re­spects, the Christ­mases of my child­hood were not so dis­sim­i­lar to those of my school friends, but there were cer­tain in­scrutable dif­fer­ences.

No, I ex­plained, we did not at­tend church on Christ­mas morn­ing, and any­way it was not a church, but a chapel. Yes, we some­times sang car­ols, but rarely dur­ing the month of De­cem­ber – we had been known to sing

O Come All Ye Faith­ful in full har­mony at mid­sum­mer, by way of af­firm­ing our chapel’s lib­er­a­tion from the rit­u­al­ist cal­en­dar of the es­tab­lished church. If Christ­mas fell on a Sun­day, it was post­poned for 24 hours, so that all the usual rigours of the Lord’s Day – which were in­im­i­cal to the open­ing of gifts, or to games of Trivial Pur­suit – could be pre­served.

It was so im­pos­si­ble to ac­count for th­ese dis­tinc­tions – to agree that, yes, we were a very re­li­gious fam­ily, but that our se­nior dea­con would not say the word “Christ­mas” within the chapel walls, pre­fer­ring in­stead to re­fer obliquely to “the hol­i­day sea­son” – that in time I learnt only to men­tion the books I was given, and the ex­cel­lence of my mother’s cakes.

I did not read Fa­ther and Son un­til I was 28. I was not, like Ed­mund Gosse, raised among the Ply­mouth Brethren, but as a Strict Bap­tist, in a chapel whose shib­bo­leths and so­cial at­ti­tudes re­sem­bled those of a de­vout ru­ral com­mu­nity at the turn of the cen­tury. By the time Gosse and I be­came ac­quainted, I had ne­go­ti­ated more than two decades of ex­plain­ing my­self away, and had taken to declar­ing that I had been born in 1895.

This small and tire­somely re­peated joke seemed both to il­lu­mi­nate and ob­scure all the ways in which I felt my fail­ure to be an or­di­nary care­free young woman: my lack of fa­cil­ity with pop­u­lar cul­ture, be­cause I had been raised with no tele­vi­sion, or pop, or vis­its to the cin­ema; my long skirts and em­broi­dered dresses, which per­haps I wore be­cause I sub­con­sciously re­tained the be­lief that trousers on women were un­godly; my pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with what it meant to be good, and my som­bre knowl­edge that I was a sin­ner; my speech, which lapsed into the phrases and pat­terns of the King James Bible, from which I had re­cited since the age of three.

To read Gosse was to meet the gaze of a friend across a room of hos­tile or in­dif­fer­ent strangers. No other book has so pre­cisely evoked the feel­ing that it had been writ­ten not for a gen­eral read­er­ship, but par­tic­u­larly and specif­i­cally for me. I read in a fever of self-ab­sorp­tion. I had not lost my mother when I was a child, I had never been any­one’s son, and I had been born 130 years af­ter Gosse, but the par­al­lels I found in Fa­ther and Son so as­ton­ished me that of­ten I found my­self weep­ing in a kind of self-con­sol­ing way, un­able to go on un­til the storm blew out.

Gosse wrote that he con­sid­ered his mem­oir “a record of ed­u­ca­tional and re­li­gious con­di­tions which, hav­ing passed away, will never re­turn”, and could not have imag­ined how those con­di­tions would per­sist, here and there, to­wards the con­clu­sion of the 20th cen­tury. Christ­mas, for Gosse, was a pe­riod of con­fu­sion and iso­la­tion that struck a note I recog­nised, but which was greatly am­pli­fied. His fa­ther, the cel­e­brated nat­u­ral­ist Philip Henry Gosse, far out­ranked mine in the sever­ity and fe­roc­ity of his loathing of the fes­ti­val, and per­haps the most fa­mous pages of the book are those in which, hav­ing dis­cov­ered his son had suc­cumbed to a piece of plum pud­ding, Philip con­signs the re­mains of the pud­ding to an ash-heap, rak­ing it in as if dis­pos­ing of a corpse. Gosse noted that his book com­prised “an ex­traor­di­nary mix­ture of com­edy and tragedy”, and that the reader would “not need to have it ex­plained to them that the com­edy was su­per­fi­cial and the tragedy es­sen­tial”.

The de­tails of Gosse’s youth seemed so close to my own that the years be­tween them may as well have been a mat­ter of weeks.

There is a shared lan­guage, used by Brethren and Bap­tists and Methodists and all the lit­tle frac­tured de­nom­i­na­tions alike, which unites even the most doc­tri­nally iso­lated chapels in a com­mon prayer. Saints, sin­ners, the five points of Calvin­ism, the Last Times, the Lord’s Day, the Catholic Church as the Whore of Baby­lon – th­ese words were

Gosse’s liturgy, and they were mine. The hymns Gosse sang, I knew by heart; the Sun­day School trips to the sea­side had been my sum­mer treats, too.

I also had failed at my bed­side prayers, un­able to sub­ju­gate all the de­sires and needs of my child’s heart to a vir­tu­ous and dis­in­ter­ested com­mu­nion with a God whose will could not pos­si­bly be swayed by mine. When Gosse writes of how he prayed for a hum­ming-top, which he needed “a great deal more than the con­ver­sion of the hea­then and the resti­tu­tion of Jerusalem to the Jews”, a nightly pe­ti­tion which left him “very cold”, I was choked half­way be­tween laugh­ter and tears.

Like Gosse, I too had failed at my bed­side prayers, un­able to sub­ju­gate my de­sires

Gosse uses phrases I had never heard out­side the walls of the chapels where I wor­shipped, or the homes of other wor­ship­pers. When he writes of his par­ents’ de­sire to keep him “unspot­ted from the world” the line does not seem strange or an­ti­quated to me: I re­spond with re­flex­ive fond­ness for the life of chapel teas and

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