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PHILIP HENRY GOSSE (1810-1888)


Gosse lived a “vehement, eager life,” according to his son, formed by enthusiasms that followed one upon the other. As a young man abroad, he studied insects in Canada and Alabama, birds in Jamaica. Upon returning to England, he turned his attention to the wonders of the seashore – especially anemones.  He developed the first practical marine aquariums and published numerous popular books devoted to all manner of natural wonders that fascinated him.  Darwin and others respected him for the quality of his observations and his rare ability to describe what he saw in writing that was clear and engrossing. In his seventies he became passionate about butterflies, and, ambitious to collect “the Papilionidae of the whole world,” he acquired thousands of specimens from a global network of collectors.  Gosse was also deeply religious, and his reputation has suffered from the publication of two books, one he wrote himself, one written by his literary son, Edmund. His own book was Omphalos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot, published in 1857, two years before The Origin of Species.  In it he tried to reconcile the claims of the Bible with the evidence of geology and the fossil record by asserting that God created the world with a pre-existent history already in place (thus the title Omphalos, meaning “belly button” in Greek and referring to the peculiar question of whether Adam had one). Although the book met with ridicule, it expresses the tensions that defined his own and so many other Victorian lives.  As his recent biographer puts it, “It is the combination of cool, objective scientific observation of the natural world and the complete passionate commitment to the truth of the Bible that puts Philip Henry Gosse at the heart of the Victorian crisis of faith” (Thwaite 2002, 2). After Gosse’s death his son published Father and Son, a minor classic of autobiography that paints Henry as a fanatical and not very lovable father – a reconstruction of Edmund’s childhood that the facts do not entirely corroborate (Thwaite 2002).