The Graveyard Tract of Emily Gosse

Kathy Rees

1.    Among the many hundreds of evangelical tracts being distributed in mid-nineteenth century London, one was entitled “The Two Maniacs: A True Story” by Mrs P.H. Gosse. This story of madness was set in a graveyard, a location intended to unnerve the reader with its ghoulish and eerie connotations. The opening story of any tract had to be economically and forcefully written in order to arrest a reader’s attention, to challenge complacency, and to engage emotions. The story was a vehicle designed to prepare the reader’s mind for the ensuing three sections of the tract: the didactic implications of the story, the sermon, and finally the exhortation; it was “salvation in four easy-to-read pages” (Nord 270). The night-time setting in the graveyard further exploits the unearthly atmosphere and plays on notions of ghosts, judgement and conscience. Mrs. Gosse’s tracts were written for the working classes, intended to awaken individuals to the perilous state of their souls. The organizing principle behind the writing was one of contrast, foregrounding binaries of good and evil, heaven and hell, and the acceptance or rejection of God’s Word. The graveyard, the place that brings together the living and the dead, was a powerful motif to encourage the reader towards a personal conviction of sin.

2.    Levels of drunkenness and blasphemy caused great concern amongst reforming evangelicals, and in Mrs. Gosse’s tract, both of these sins are committed in a graveyard. The story concerns a group of young men who meet regularly to “pass round the jovial cup,” and on one evening, they goad each other with “tales of wonder and fear” (Gosse Narrative i). One member of the company declares himself utterly fearless, so his two friends dare him to “go through the churchyard, stand upon a tombstone, and cry out, ‘Arise, ye dead, and come to judgement’ ” (i).[1] As soon as the “wretched drunkard” had enacted his “impious daring,” a “white object sprang from behind a tomb,” exclaiming ‘Yes, Lord, I come! I come!’ ” (i). The sudden shock is overwhelming: the young man “flees in terror” and when found, Mrs. Gosse tells us impassively, “he had lost his reason, which he never again recovered . . . [he] passed the remainder of his days in the madhouse” (i, ii). His companions, terrified, immediately amend their ways. To avoid any danger of reading the supernatural into the story, the “white object” is carefully explained as a “a poor crazy woman” who had been resting amongst the graves and who, on hearing what sounded like the Archangel’s command “gladly responded to the summons” (ii). The tract conveys the classic moral binary of the lost and the saved. The drunken blasphemer is rendered insane and faces “a long eternity” in the everlasting fire, while the onlookers repent and reform (ii).

3.    The tract-writer, Emily Gosse (1806-1857), was the wife of a famous husband, the marine biologist and popularizer of the seawater aquarium, Philip Gosse (1810-1888), and mother of an even more famous son, Edmund Gosse (1849-1928), pre-eminent man of letters in the Victorian period and known today for his autobiographical work, Father and Son (1907).  Emily and Philip belonged to the Plymouth Brethren, a Dissenter sect which emphasized the Second Coming, claiming that the faithful, both dead and alive, would be taken up to Heaven in the “Rapture” before the Great Tribulation. William Neatby observes that “the Brethren all held the doctrine of the Secret Rapture of the Church; and it would scarcely be possible to exaggerate the extent to which all their ministry and worship, and not less their ordinary life and conversation, have been moulded and coloured by this belief. Even their evangelistic preaching […] partook largely of it” (Neatby 227-8). The verse from Thessalonians, “Arise ye Dead,” mimicked by the drunkard, was therefore a very important text among Dissenter groups. When Abney Park Cemetery in Stoke Newington, London, was founded in 1840, largely as a result of Non-Conformist pressure, the officiating minister at its Opening Ceremony urged: “we know that when the figure of the Archangel shall loom on the distant sky, and the fiat shall be uttered, Arise ye dead! – it shall fall with startling – with vivifying energy on the dull cold ear of death” (Collison 290). The Second Coming was a constant reference point in the Gosse household: “sometimes,” Edmund Gosse recalls, “when we parted for the night, [my father] would say with a sparkling rapture in his eyes, ‘Who knows? We may meet next in the air, with all the cohorts of God’s saints!’” (Gosse Father 170). For dissenters, it was therefore insupportable that such pivotal beliefs be mocked, and Mrs Gosse’s tract addresses the issue with what her son called her “unflinching directness” (29): the “wretched drunkard” is consigned to “hell-fire, which is never quenched” (Gosse Narrative ii).

4.    In the tract, little compassion is afforded to the “poor crazy woman” who inhabits the graveyard (Gosse Narrative ii); certainly, within dissenter sects, there was often a blurred line between madness and religious enthusiasm. William Pargeter (1760-1810), writing at about the time when the tract-story is supposed to have occurred, noted that it was the capacity of Methodism to arouse fanaticism, “where reason lies ‘buried in the body’s grave’ ”; “the brain is perplexed in the mazes of mystery, and the imagination overpowered by the tremendous description of future torments” (Pargeter 180-1). Edmund Gosse recalls his childhood experience of the Marychurch congregation where the eccentric behavior of “lunatics” occasioned little comment or surprise (Thwaite 228, 330).[2] First there was Miss Flaw, “a détraquée” who went through the evening service at an accelerated rate:

[W]hen we rose from our knees, Miss Flaw was already standing up, and was pretending, without a sound, to sing a hymn; in the midst of our hymn, she sat down, opened her Bible, found a text, and then leaned back, her eyes fixed in space, listening to an imaginary sermon, which our own real one soon caught up . . . nobody ever thought of checking the poor creature in her innocent flightiness. (Gosse Father 85-6).

The second crazed parishioner in Marychurch was one Mr. Paget, but “in our circle, it was never for a moment admitted that Mr. Paget was a lunatic. It was said that he had gravely sinned, and was under the Lord’s displeasure (149). Indeed, the eccentric Mr. Paget was employed in assisting Gosse’s father’s ministry; the “poor crazy woman” in the tract similarly operates as part of the graveyard landscape.

5.    Like many Dissenters, Emily Gosse believed the reading of fiction to be a heinous sin, and according to her unpublished “Recollections,” a searching record of her early life, Mrs. Gosse confesses that that “the longing to invent stories grew with violence; everything I heard or read became food for my distemper” (Gosse “Recollections” n.p.). Consequently, from the age of nine, she eschewed all fiction, a prohibition she maintained for the rest of her life, restricting herself to Biblical and religious books. This explains Mrs. Gosse’s insistence that her tract-tale about the two maniacs is “true,” and her emphasis that the revelers were partly led astray by reading ghoulish stories.

6.    In his biography of Emily Gosse, Robert Boyd records that in her youth, she read The Young CottagerA True Story (1810) by Legh Richmond (24). Here, the narrator describes his practice of assembling a group of children in his garden next to the churchyard, and pointing to “the heaving sods that marked the different graves and separated them from each other, and tell[ing] my pupils that, young as they were, none of them were too young to die; and that probably more than half of the bodies that were buried there were those of little children” (Richmond 12). Just as the doctrine of the Second Coming pervaded Dissenter culture, so graveyard pedagogy was widely communicated in everyday life. Emily’s narrow spectrum of reading also included the time-honoured Dissenter text, The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), in which Christian and Hopeful are shown a graveyard, where blind men wander about hopelessly. The shepherds explain that these men had deviated from the “rough path” and were consequently taken by the giant Despair, who had “put out their eyes,” and then he “led them among these Tombs, where he has left them to wander to this very day, that the saying of the Wise Man might be fulfilled, ‘He that wandereth out of the way of understanding, shall remain in the congregation of the dead’” (Bunyan 118).[3] Mrs. Gosse’s tract story of the maniac contains resonances of Bunyan’s graphic image of the men stumbling on the tombs, forever trapped within the graveyard: it is a vividly disturbing picture of the psychological torment endured by those who deviate from the Christian path.

7.    Mrs. Gosse died of breast cancer in 1857, and was buried in Abney Park Cemetery, Stoke Newington. The cemetery had been founded seventeen years earlier, in 1840, motivated by the Nonconformist desire for cemeteries where all denominations and all classes could bury, according to their own forms of service and ritual. It was dedicated as “an asylum for the dead,” wrote George Collison, Registrar of the Abney Park Cemetery Company, “or as the free translation of the original Greek, ‘Koimeterion’ more eloquently expresses it, ‘a sleeping-place til the resurrection’ ” (286). The epitaph on Mrs. Gosse’s headstone, which tells us that she “slept in Jesus” on February 10th 1857, and that her dust “awaits here the morning of the first resurrection,” reflects both the ethos of the cemetery, and the belief of her sect (MacFarlaine n.p.).

8.    When Mrs. Gosse’s husband died in 1888, the son Edmund discovered family documents which showed that his mother had originated from New England stock. Her parents, William Bowes and Hannah Troutbeck, had both been born in Boston, but were taken as children by their parents to England in 1776, travelling with many other Loyalists.[4] They married in 1798, and Emily was born six years later.  On this discovery, Edmund immediately wrote an article entitled “My American Ancestry” for The Independent of New York, musing that “As her race closed in her, extinguished save for me, in the penumbra of her tomb, there was no-one to tell me” (1362). In 1890, in the company of William Dean Howells, Edmund visited the former haunts of unknown relatives in Boston, in particular, the garden cemetery of Mount Auburn, founded in 1831. It is not known whether on this visit, Gosse noticed the similarities in architectural and landscape design between Mount Auburn and Abney Park, where his mother lay buried. The London cemetery had in fact modelled itself on the Boston prototype, most obviously in the design of the Egyptian Revival style gates. This striking architectural feature stemmed from contemporary archaeological interest in Ancient Egypt: Egyptian architecture, with its stern and severe proportions was thought to provoke thoughts of eternity (Curl 179). As Ken Worpole comments, “it was known that the Egyptians thought more about death than life, as a number of Victorians also did” (139).

9.    Graveyard connections thus link two writers, Emily and Edmund Gosse, and two countries, America and England. The early history of Mount Auburn, furthermore, returns us to the starting-point of Emily Gosse’s tract. Mount Auburn’s founders emphasized their desire to protect the graves from “the unfeeling gaze of the idler [and] the baleful visitations of the dissolute” (Story 12). In 1838, seven years after its foundation, Joseph T. Buckingham, politician and journalist of The Boston Courier urged, “Go not there, as the manner of some is, with cold indifference, to scoff at the mourner, and with heartless irreverence, to shock the sensibility of the bereaved with your antic and unseemly behavior, and the loud laugh that speaks the vacant mind” (150). It seems that Mrs Gosse’s story of the drunkard’s “impious daring” in the graveyard may have been true after all.


Works Cited

Boyd, Robert. Emily Gosse: A Life of Faith and Works. Inverness: Olivet Books, 2004.

Buckingham, Joseph T. Personal Memoirs and Recollections of Editorial Life. Boston: Ticknor, Reed and Fields, 1852.

Bunyan, John. The Pilgrim’s Progress. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Collison, George. Cemetery Interment. London: Longman, Orme, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1840.

Curl, James Stevens. Egyptomania: The Egyptian Revival: A Recurring Theme in the History of Taste. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1994.

Gosse, Emily. Narrative Tracts. London: Morgan and Chase, 1864.

Gosse, Emily. “Recollections”Manuscript. Cambridge University Library: Add.7035, 1835, not paginated.

Gosse, Edmund. Father and Son: A Study of Two Temperaments. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Edmund Gosse. “My American Ancestors.” Independent of New York. vol. 40, no. 2082, October

MacFarlaine, Iain. “Emily Gosse.” Find a Grave. 20, 2003.

Neatby, William Blair. A History of the Plymouth Brethren. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1901.

Nord, David. Faith in Reading: Religious Publishing and the Birth of Mass Media in America.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Pargeter, William. “Observations on Maniacal Disorders (1792).” in Patterns of Madness in the Eighteenth Century: a Reader. Ed. Allan Ingram. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1998.

Richmond, Legh. The Young Cottager: A True Story. Minneapolis: Curiosmith, 2011.

Story, Joseph. An address delivered on the dedication of the cemetery at MountAuburn: September 24, 1831 / by Joseph Story; to which is added an appendix, containing a historical notice and description of the place, with a list of the present subscribers. Boston: Joseph T. & Edwin Buckingham, 1831.

Thwaite, Ann. Glimpses of the Wonderful: The Life of Philip Henry Gosse. London: Faber and Faber, 2002.

Worpole, Ken. Last Landscapes: the Architecture of the Cemetery in the West. London: Reaktion, 2003.



[1] This verse (1 Thess. 4:16) is the command given by the Archangel Michael at Christ’s Second

Coming. To evangelicals who believed that their sins had been forgiven, the prospect of such judgement was not alarming.

[2] Gosse’s father was the pastor of the Brethren community in St Marychurch, Devon, from 1857             to 1888.

[3] Bunyan is quoting Prov. 21:16.

[4] “It seems that my mother’s people took the wrong side in 1775. When ‘the Boston Teapot

bubbled,’ William Bowes, my grandfather […] was hurried away by his parents, whose

nerves the tea-party had shaken, to North Wales” (Gosse “American” 1361-2).