The Amateur as English Man of Letters: the salutary case of Edmund Gosse


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

Etiquette for young ladies at Cambridge

Found - this scarce pamphlet: Say "Thank you" : a manual of university etiquette for young ladies. It is known to be by Jean Olivia Lindsay and is light-hearted in tone. Jean Lindsay was at Girton in the 1930s and published several books on Spanish and Scottish history. The text of this book has (so far) been unavailable. Google Books note the existence of the book but have no text. Although she is very down on jeans and corduroys ('deplorable') the work is quite modern in tone, at one point she suggests you could meet men by joining a religious club 'but there the young men are apt to have very honourable intentions...' There is also a lot of practical advice, some of which probably still holds, like 'It is more important to be polite to gyps and bedders than to the Bursar or Senior Tutor.'



Almost certainly no bluestocking would ever worry whether her behaviour was ladylike or not, so a book of University etiquette for young ladies may appear to be so much wasted effort. However, as the great majority of young women who come up to the University every autumn would hotly repudiate the title of bluestocking, some of them may find these notes useful. Some dyed-in-the-wool donnish bluestockings may even find them amusing.
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I once met Borat’s cousin

His name is Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, and he is based at the Department of Psychology, Cambridge University, where he is a world authority on autism. In fact, I’ve interviewed him twice—firstly in 2000 at his rooms in Trinity College, and a few years later in his Department on the Trumpington Road. With a name like Baron- Cohen , and at a time when Ali G was beginning to do his famous TV stunts, I could hardly fail to ask him the obvious question. He didn’t flinch from the truth.

He’s not as tall as his cousin and doesn’t resemble him facially. He is very softly-spoken and, like many academics, was very precise and deliberate in his responses to my questions. On the first occasion we talked about the advantages and disadvantages of having Asperger’s Syndrome, which back then wasn’t the fashionable condition that it now is. He revealed that many high-achieving academics, most them mathematicians, engineers and physicists, functioned perfectly well in their chosen fields, although quite a few had problems in wider society. He argued that though those with Asperger’s Syndrome were often regarded as odd or unusual by their neural-normal colleagues and friends, it was wrong to demonise them. On the contrary, society should celebrate the fact that their abilities, which included often excellent memories, especially for facts, a liking for repetitive or routine work, and strong interests in systems analysis, were in high demand in the modern world. If all these positive attributes inevitably came with some negative aspects, most notably, a lack of social skills, including a sometimes shocking lack of tact and a brutal honesty, together with occasional disabling physical sensitivities, then that was a price society should be able to pay.

Thirteen years on, and two best-selling books later, Borat’s cousin has become a major academic guru in the field of autism studies, which has grown into a little cottage industry (see the catalogue of the publishers Jessica Kingsley and numerous online sites). Today, the annals of British achievement in the arts and sciences is being retrospectively raked over---with Bertrand Russell, Patricia Highsmith and Jonathan Swift-- emerging as Asperger’s candidates. Baron- Cohen’s most controversial book, The Essential Difference, which argues that male and female brains are wired differently, and that therefore it is possible for a female to have  a man’s brain, and vice versa, is required reading for anyone interested in transgender politics -- not an issue about which Borat himself would have had anything useful to say. [Thanks H]