Blog #44: To the Lighthouse: Lily Briscoe and Nellie Epps Gosse

I concluded last week’s Lily entry with the following thought: “The more models there are for Lily, the less particular and more general she becomes, in a historic sense at least. Paradoxically, this allows her to be more herself in an individual sense, since our understandings cannot fix her to one particular model, and must let her shimmer between several possibilities.” Today’s entry provides yet another model for Lily, a model which starts to call attention to the choices or options available to a historical Lily.

Let it be proposed that Lily Briscoe may owe part of her identity to Nellie Epps. As an artist, as a painter of the Cornish coast, as a visitor and guest with the Stephen family at Talland House, and as a woman who had to choose between domesticity and career, Nellie Epps Gosse certainly has some plausibility as a prototype for Lily. When Edmund Gosse began courting her in 1874, she was a promising young painter who had apprenticed to Ford Maddox Brown and to her brother-in-law, Lawrence Alma-Tadema.

Anne Thwaite, in Edmund Gosse: A Literary Landscape 1849-1928, describes Nellie Epps as “ a feminist of the most attractive sort, totally aware of her own equality with men, but not strident in making them aware of it.” According to an aunt, when Gosse proposed to Nellie, she initially rejected him, because of “determination of will, she having willed that she will not marry, but prosecute her art with all her might, for, since she has no fortune, she wishes to be indebted to no one for a livelihood.” Gosse, however, was undeterred by her initial rejection and gradually won her over. They were married on August 15, 1875, and their honeymoon included a reading and painting trip to Cornwall.

Nellie continued to paint and exhibit as at least as late as 1882, but her energies were increasingly focused on looking after her three children and her husband. A 1881 note from Edmund to her gives some idea of the sacrifice Nellie Epps made:

Please let me know by return of post:–
1) Where are my white flannel trousers and shirts?
2) Have I a decent pair of tennis shoes?

Thinking about a possible Lily Nellie connection deepens understanding of the pressures Mrs. Ramsay puts upon Lily, and of the strength required by Lily to say no to William Bankes’ marriage offer. A Lily Nellie identification also adds a further fillip to speculation about Virginia’s feelings toward Edmund Gosse: read as alternative history, Lily’s refusal of Bankes denies Gosse his marriage to Nellie. Such denial would have been particularly delicious, if, as is entirely possible, Virginia had had knowledge about the details of Nellie and Edmund’s courtship.

Arthur Briscoe last week, Nellie Epps Gosse this week: next week I’ll suggest yet another ancestor for Lily. If I can keep it up, she will soon put Bridey Murphy to shame.

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