Many young men feel trapped and unappreciated in uncongenial jobs, and on a hot summer day in 1871 one 22-year-old felt more frustrated than most.
Edmund Gosse, son of the famous naturalist Philip Henry Gosse, had worked at the British Museum since he was 17. His father’s friend Charles Kingsley had helped secure him the post of Junior Assistant in the Department of Printed Books. For someone with literary ambitions, this must have seemed an attractive position but it was, in fact, a clerical treadmill. With the other Juniors, his task was simply to write out the seemingly endless stream of revised entries prepared by his seniors for the catalogue of what was then the largest library in the world.
The sense of imprisonment was made worse by his working conditions. The Junior Assistants were confined in the south-west basement of the iron book-stacks that encircled Panizzi’s new Reading Room. Gosse later described it as ‘a singularly horrible underground cage, made of steel bars, called the Den’. The bars were to allow light to filter in since there was no artificial lighting. It was freezing in winter and stifling in summer. A number of deaths were attributed to it. The resulting scandal even reached the pages of The Times.
On this particular day, however, in these hot and gloomy surroundings heavy with the scent of rotting leather, Gosse’s labours were interrupted. One of the Senior Assistants, who had been keeping a friendly eye on him, descended literally from on high and appeared at his desk.
William Ralston was an imposing, almost patriarchal figure – six feet six inches tall, with a beard that reached to his waist. Though destined to come to a sad end, at this stage he was still a rising star, a distinguished Slavonic scholar, the friend and translator of Turgenev. He was also on familiar terms with many famous authors. He brought the exciting news that there was an important visitor upstairs in the Museum, one of the to
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