Edmund Gosse by John Singer Sargent
There must be very few examples of literary men who have managed to penetrate the hallowed halls as a professor in one of the greatest universities of the world—the University of Cambridge, no less—without a degree. The brilliant orientalist, Samuel Lee, a former carpenter of humble background who taught himself Hebrew, Arabic and a dozen other languages in his spare time while working as a lowly-paid schoolteacher, was one. Lee was appointed Professor of Arabic at Cambridge in the early nineteenth century, having already distinguished himself as an independent scholar, and had to be granted a special MA through an act of parliament before he could take up his post. The literary odds and ends man Edmund Gosse, whose famous father, the naturalist Philip Gosse had seen to it that the Holy Bible had been his principle reading matter as a child, was another. These are two rarities. It’s hard to recall any other contenders in the modern era.
Back in those mid Victorian days, when early advancement in the arena of learning sometimes began with a junior post in some national cultural institution, such as a national library or a museum, Edmund Gosse was given the post of library cataloguer at the British Museum on the strength of a certain verbal facility and ‘a working knowledge of Italian, French and German’. Today, as well as a good degree from a good university, candidates for an equivalent post in the British Library would probably need a diploma in librarianship or in archive administration plus a few years of practical experience. He or she might even need to have passed the dreaded Civil Service Examination.
No such problem for the young Edmund Gosse. In 1866 he breezed at the tender age of seventeen into his cushy ‘opening’ worth £90 a year thanks to the ‘influence ‘of the novelist and cleric Charles Kingsley, a friend of his father. His literary colleagues at the Museum included Richard Garnett, who became a fixture in the Library, the poet Arthur O’ Shaughnessy and the exotic Theo Marzials, later to become a favourite poet of John Betjeman. To his credit, Gosse did not rest on his laurels. Perhaps recognising that he had had a fortunate start to a literary life for someone with no formal qualifications, he worked hard on the two languages—Danish and Swedish– that he guessed might help him progress. Continue reading
When the Austro-Hungarian empire was dissolved following the end of World War One the new nation of Austria came into being. The economic consequences for this country was a drastic devaluation of the krone (or Crown) and inevitable hyperinflation. The following short article in the December 1921 issue of the University College Magazine is a chilling report of the privations suffered by academics in Austria and other countries in central Europe:
As a result of the privations which they had to undergo, ten per cent of the professors in Austria died between1918 – 20. Consumption is usually the first symptom---and that means the end is not very far off when there are no supplies of fresh milk and nourishing food, with nothing but a chilly room in the heart of winter, and no fire in the grate.
On October 15th 1921, one tin of milk in Vienna cost kr. 240, and today, since the appalling crash of the krone, probably costs 500 at least. A professor’s weekly salary therefore would be entirely expended on the purchase of three tins of milk.
The case of a Professor of Egyptology---met personally by the present writer in Vienna—is typical of many. He was working many hours every day as a clerk in the tramway office. Imagine---and pardon the suggestion—Professor Flinders Petrie filling up returns of ‘bus tickets, at the headquarters of the L.G.O.C, and being proud to have obtained such dignified work.
Eighty to 120 thousand kronen is the average salary of a professor. At present exchange rates this represents a maximum of £10 a year.
Try to imagine a professor in the University of London living on £10 a year!!
And the lot of a student is by no means brighter.2,000 kronen, the average monthly income of about 7,000 Austrian students will now buy 3s 6d, or a pound.
But there is fortunately a happier side to this otherwise gloomy picture.
The Universities of twenty-nine different countries banded themselves together last year to save, in so far as they could, the thousands of students and professors in the Universities of Central Europe. The £150,000 raised “fulfilled a noble purpose”, as Sir Maurice de Bunsen, former British Ambassador in Vienna wrote, “in keeping alight the torch of learning in countries where its brilliancy has been overshadowed by the national disaster.”
Let us all unite again this year and continue this splendid work.
Complete guarantees have now been obtained which warrant us starting relief work immediately in the Russian Universities. Your help is needed to make this possible.
From the L.R. Reeve* collection this piece about a distinguished teacher written in about 1971/2. Can find nothing about him online but Reeve's piece may revive memories.
John C. Felgate I find now lives in Australia. I wonder why. Has he a son or daughter, brother or sister already out there who made him decide to leave his numerous friends, acquaintances and relatives in England where he was so popular and respected?
I doubt whether I shall ever know. That question, however, is not very significant. What is important to me is the fact that the memory of John (rarely Called Jack) always brings to mind many happy days together at dinners, reunions, conferences, not to mention one afternoon some years ago when he called unexpectedly at my bungalow in Kingskerswell, and left a note informing me where I could locate him at Newton Abbot. I found him, and that reminiscent happy evening was the last time we met.