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
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