The Book That Scared Symonds

Throughout the first volume of Symonds’s Letters, Symonds rarely writes about leaving a book unfinished. Often, Symonds discusses how engaged he is in his reading, from describing how “enchanted” he was with Berkeley’s Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge to how he “devoured” Collins’s Woman in White (Letters, 158, 242). There are moments when Symonds describes a book as difficult, with one example being Spinoza’s infamously incomprehensible Ethics, but even then, he says that he reads it with “great labour, interest, & profit” (Letters, 296). The picture that the Letters paint of Symonds is a man deeply in love with his books.

This tone is somewhat to be expected. After all, these are the letters that Symonds sent to his friends and family; why would he talk about the books that bored him? Given how prolific Symonds was as a reader, many of the books he did not finish most likely would not have made their way into his Letters. So when Symonds mentions a book in his Letters that was so terrifying that he had to stop reading it, that book merits some attention.

That book is The Life and Death of Silas Barnstake by Talbot Gwynne1, which Symonds writes about in a letter to his father. Of the book, Symonds writes the following:

In the evening we had a great fright. We had got a book called Silas Barnstake by Gwynne from the Library, & I began to read it out. It was the most horrible beginning all about dying people, & winter’s nights, & diabolically hard hearted little boys, so that we had to relinquish it. But its lugubrious influence remained, & we fell to talking “ghosts,” robbers, etc. At last Edith was worked up to a climax, & said she could not sleep in her room (which was the best room, on the drawing room floor, with no one beneath her), & that she & I must exchange.   

Letters, 162

In this letter, Symonds recalls a night of reading with his oldest sister Edith while staying in Edinburgh. According to the story, Symonds borrowed the book (presumably from the house library), read the book out loud, and stopped after he and Edith were frightened by the beginning of the book and its talk of “dying people, winter’s nights, & diabolically hard hearted little boys.” However, after they stopped and returned the book, they could not stop thinking about it, leading them to discuss it and other “scary” topics such as ghosts and robbers until, at some point, Edith was so scared that she could no longer sleep in her room and asked a young Symonds to swap rooms with her for the night.

At first glance, Symonds’s and Edith’s experience in this letter feels like a common childhood response to reading a scary story: they read it, they were scared by it, and they were unable to stop thinking about it to the point that it prevented them from sleeping normally. If Symonds and his sister were children at the time of this letter, then this would seem to be a normal response. However, this letter was written on September 28th, 1858. For reference, Symonds was born in 1840 and started at Oxford in 1858, close to the time that this letter was written (Memoirs, 169). Meanwhile, we know that Edith, Symonds’s “eldest sister,” is at least 20 at the time of this letter2 (Memoirs, 181). Rather than a story of two young children responding to a scary book, the incident described in the letter involves an Oxford student and his 20-odd-year-old sister being so terrified of a book that the older sister had to ask her 18-year-old brother to swap rooms with her. While such an event is not impossible by any means, it is undoubtedly strange.

Title page of The Life and Death of Silas Barnstake, Talbot Gwynne, Smith, Elder, & Co.
Public domain via HathiTrust (accessed

What about The Life and Death of Silas Barnstake managed to scare the two of them so much? And how should we interpret their fear? Just from the letter, it is impossible to tell exactly how far into the book Symonds read that night. However, the three aspects he mentions, “dying people, winter’s nights, & diabolically hard hearted little boys,” all appear within the first twenty pages of the book, which detail Silas’s mother dying from childbirth, his father dying from grief, and Silas’s separation from his little brother Walter (Gwynne, 1-20). What is strange about these first twenty pages in relation to Symonds’s story is that they do not seem to be scary in a traditional sense. For example, the description of a winter’s night starts off the book, as Gwynne writes, “The night was dark – dark with the melancholy, mysterious blackness of a winter midnight, and so still that distant sounds seemed near at hand” (Gwynne, 1). The note about diabolically hard-hearted little boys seems to reference Silas’s cold character, especially in relation to his grieving father and Silas’s “thoughtless questions and remarks” (Gwynne, 7). Finally, there are two descriptions of death within the first twenty pages, one being Silas’s mother’s death and the other his father’s. However, these descriptions seem grim and sad, as opposed to something that would inspire fear or terror. Consider the following passages:

[Edmund Barnstake] stept [sic] up to the bed where lay his wife: she feebly put forth her hand. He took it in his, which were cold and trembling. His words choked him: to speak was, to him, impossible.

The night was over, day was breaking, and the snow still fell from the clouds; the clouds that hung so low, that were so sad-looking, grey, dark, and heavy.

The light still burned in the room where throughout the night Barnstake had watched, or wearily slept. The cull light of morning struggled with that of the candle, giving a melancholy air to the large low room, and seeming to add to the chilly cold of the now fireless chamber.

Barnstake sat before his table, his arms folded and resting on it, whilst his face was buried in his arms.

He remained motionless for hours, with teeth tight set, and brows knit closely together; whilst a mown burst from him at rare intervals.

In the room above, behind the closed curtains of the ponderous, dark bed, lay the clay-cold body of his wife.

A sound rang through the still air and smote his ear.

It was the tolling of the church bell, announcing that a soul had passed away.

Gwynne, 4-5

Delirium soon seized him, during which he raved of the happy days of his love, nor seemed once to dream of his loss and sorrow. For many days, for many nights, he raved, muttered, and wearily tossed in his burning bed.

A fortnight after the burial of his wife, [Edmund] Barnstake, an unconscious corpse, was placed beside her. He had died without recovering the senses which pain and fever had scared away. Thus, within but a brief space of time, were Silas and his little brother left orphans.

Gwynne, 17

Examining the prose, none of it fits what today would be considered “scary.” The descriptions of the sky and Silas’s uncompassionate nature are not only strange candidates for something “scary,” especially for two people eighteen and above, but are also extremely short, to the point that it would be difficult to imagine them inducing terror. Meanwhile, the descriptions of death are undoubtedly saddening (which explains Symonds’s use of the term “lugubrious”), but not fear-inducing. So why does Symonds express his night reading The Life and Death of Silas Barnstake as “a great fright?”

What makes slightly more sense here is to interpret Symonds’s fear not as terror, but as a sort of existential dread. After all, Symonds’s mother died of scarlet fever when he was only four (Memoirs, 63). Maybe Gwynne’s descriptions of death were a little too familiar, either raising memories of their mother or worries about the possible death of their father. Symonds also acknowledges that talk of his mother was scant during his childhood and that his father “showed no outward sign of grief, and said nothing” about his mother’s death (Memoirs, 63-64). This reluctance might have represented a taboo regarding discussions of mourning and familial death. Gwynne’s descriptions would then have personally resonated for Symonds and his sister, on a topic that they had for a long time avoided.

While this interpretation is stronger, it does not yet account for Symonds’s own feelings about his mother’s death. Symonds notes in the Memoirs that he has no “distinct memory” of his mother and that he had not “exactly felt the loss of her” (Memoirs, 63-64). Instead, Symonds describes his feelings around his mother’s death as a sort of “vague awe” at the “mystery” of death (Memoirs, 64). With his mother’s death occurring so early in Symonds’s life, Symonds’s impassionate tone here makes some sense. However, Symonds’s feelings are not completely opposed to this interpretation. For example, Symonds’s lack of connection with his own mother explains why Edith’s response to reading Silas Barnstake was much more powerful than his, as she almost certainly had more experience with their mother due to her elder status. Nevertheless, the question of why Symonds was affected so much despite that lack of connection remains unanswered.

One interesting possibility is that it is precisely that lack of connection that led Symonds to resonate with Silas Barnstake to such an extent. In the Memoirs, Symonds himself laments that he lacked that connection with his mother, worrying that he was “heartless and sinful” because he did not feel more (Memoirs, 64). Even though Symonds admits that those feelings were irrational due to that lack of physical connection, it is apparent that, when it came to writing the Memoirs, some of those thoughts stuck with him. These thoughts might explain why he found Gwynne’s “hard hearted little boys” so troubling. He might have seen a reflection of himself in the character of Silas Barnstake, a young boy, uncaring and dispassionate despite the death of someone close to him. It most certainly was not a positive reflection of Symonds’s character, which might have been why he decided to stop.

There are some parts of the story that are still unexplained. For example, why does Symonds makes note explicitly of the descriptions of night –which, while vivid, do not evoke the same sense of dread that the descriptions of death do? Why did Symonds and Edith, after being reminded of the death of their mother and facing a feeling of existential dread, choose to discuss “robbers” and “ghosts” (Letters, 162)? These questions are left unanswered. So, for a reader as prolific as Symonds, the reason why he stopped reading The Life and Death of Silas Barnstake is still up for interpretation.

It is very possible that Symonds’s story in this letter and The Life and Death of Silas Barnstake are insignificant blips in the story of Symonds’s life. However, to note a book in a letter, especially one to a parental figure, implies that the book held some significance, and, for a reader like Symonds who writes prolifically about how engaged he becomes with the texts that he reads, the one text that he not only drops within a night but notes to his father raises a few questions. The possibility that the reason he stopped was that the book and its rather mild prose evoked an overwhelming sense of terror or dread while he and his sister were both above the age of 18 raises a few more.

1 Talbot Gwynne is a masculine pseudonym used by Josepha Heath Gulston. As the gender of Talbot Gwynne/Josepha Heath Gulston is unclear, for the purposes of this blog post, I have avoided using any gendered pronouns in describing them.

2 Symonds notes that another one of his elder sisters, Mary Isabella (Maribella), was born in 1837 (Memoirs, 68). As Symonds describes Edith as his eldest sister, we know that Edith was born at earliest in 1837, meaning that she was around 20 in 1858 when this letter was written.

Gwynne, Talbot. The Life and Death of Silas Barnstake: A Story of the Seventeenth Century. Smith, Elder, & Co. London, 1853. Accessed

Symonds, John Addington. The Letters of John Addington Symonds, edited by Herbert M. Schueller and Robert L. Peters, vol. 1, Wayne State University Press, 1967.

Symonds, John Addington. The Memoirs of John Addington Symonds: A Critical Edition, edited by Amber K. Regis, Palgrave Macmillan Publishing. London, 2016.

Harrow: Pantomimed Heterosexuality

To say that Symonds was disgusted by the version of homosexuality that he saw at Harrow is an understatement. Symonds saw the relationships at Harrow as brutal and vulgar, which eventually led him to discover Plato and the idealized form of homosexuality that the Platonic dialogues espouse (Memoirs, 152). However, the comfort that Symonds found in Plato might not have been merely a more elegant form of homosexuality. Looking at Pausanias’s speech in the Symposium, what Symonds might have seen and rejected in the relationships at Harrow was not only a more carnal form of homosexuality but one that he saw as pantomiming the binary relationships of heterosexuality, making Symonds’s disgust an early rejection of heterosexuality itself.

Taken at face value, Symonds’s disgust towards the sexual goings-on at Harrow seems primarily directed at their carnality. Consider the language that Symonds used in the Memoirs to describe what he saw:

The earliest phase of my sexual consciousness was here objectified before my eyes; and I detested in practice what had once attracted me in fancy.…The animalisms of boyish lust sickened me by their brutality, offended my taste by their vulgarity. I imagined them to be a phase of immature development, from which my comrades would emerge when they grew to manhood. Nevertheless, they steeped my imagination in filth.

Memoirs, 149

Symonds’s disgust here seems primarily directed at the animalistic and juvenile nature of what he witnessed at Harrow. If Symonds’s disgust here is directed solely at the carnality of the acts, the important distinction between the love Symonds read about in the Platonic dialogues and the acts he witnessed at Harrow is merely the difference between two versions of homosexuality: the more carnal version he witnesses at Harrow and the more idealistic version he reads about in the Symposium. In this “carnality” reading of Symonds’s disgust, the comfort that Symonds then finds in the Symposium is an affirmation of his more innocent homosexuality. However, there might be another part to the story. Looking at Pausanias’s speech in the Symposium, what Symonds saw at Harrow and reflected in Plato might have been not only the distinction between a “cruder” and “purer” form of homosexuality but a distinction between a pure form of homosexuality and one that mimicked heterosexuality. For Symonds, what he saw at Harrow was not only carnal; it also reflected the gendered, binary relationship of heterosexuality.

In the Symposium, Pausanias makes a distinction between heavenly love and common love. Heavenly love, for Pausanias, is “from the male only,” as those that participate in heavenly love “turn to the male, and delight in him who is the more valiant and intelligent nature,” with heavenly love also being concerned with the well-being of those involved (Symposium, 181c-d). Meanwhile, consider how Pausanias describes common love:

The Love who is the offspring of the common Aphrodite is essentially common, and has no discrimination, being such as the meaner sort of men feel, and is apt to be of women as well as of youths, and is of the body rather than the soul – the most foolish beings are the objects of this love which desires only to gain an end, but never thinks of accomplishing the end nobly, and therefore does good and evil quite indiscriminately. The goddess who is his mother is far younger than the other, and she was born of the union of the male and the female, and partakes of both.

Symposium, 181a-c

Here, Pausanias notes that common love is not only more brutal than its heavenly counterpart, but it is also more concerned with ends and is uniquely tied to heterosexuality. Meanwhile, heavenly love is an idealized non-carnal love, one that is innately homosexual. Therefore, the distinction between the two is not only one of carnal and non-carnal, but also one of homosexuality and pantomimed heterosexuality, where the former is concerned with the well-being of those involved and the latter only concerned with the pleasure of the lover.

There are echoes of Pausanias’s distinction in the way that Symonds described the goings-on at Harrow. Consider the passage with which Symonds begins the fifth chapter of his Memoirs:

One thing at Harrow very soon arrested my attention. It was the moral state of the school. Every boy of good looks had a female name, and was recognized either as a public prostitute or some bigger fellow’s ‘bitch.’ Bitch was the word in common usage to indicate a boy who yielded his person to a lover. The talk in the dormitories and the studies was incredibly obscene. Here and there one could not avoid seeing acts of onanism, mutual masturbation, the sports of naked boys in bed together. There was no refinement, no sentiment, no passion; nothing but animal lust in these occurrences. They filled me with disgust and loathing.

Memoirs, 147

Upon first glance, this passage is merely Symonds describing his disdain for the homosexual culture at Harrow. However, in this passage, Symonds also makes note of parts of the Harrow homosexual culture that mimic the gendered relationship of heterosexuality. In particular, he notes that more submissive, good-looking boys were given female names, recognized as prostitutes, and were referred to as the “bitch” of a more dominant boy. These are aspects of Harrow’s culture that Symonds not only described as crude, but that he distinctly linked with the traditional gendered power relationship of heterosexuality, one where the male figure is dominant and the female is submissive. Symonds mentions this pantomimed heterosexuality two other times in the chapter about Harrow’s homosexual culture: one when describing the mistreatment of a boy named Cookson, who others abused and referred to as “their bitch,” and another when he details the case of two boys, Dering and O’Brien, with the latter having been given the name “Leila,” whose relationship led to an assembly in which the headmaster condemned the practice of giving boys female names (Memoirs, 148-49). In these stories, Symonds once again calls direct attention not only to the crude and violent nature of the acts, but also the ways in which those events reflected the traditional power structure of heterosexuality. In Symonds’s eyes, not only were the relationships at Harrow vulgar and crude, they were a pantomime of heterosexuality.

Attic kylix depicting a lover and a beloved kissing (5th century BCE), Anselm Feuerbach, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

This pantomime of heterosexuality almost directly reflects Pausanias’s distinction. Symonds almost certainly saw the love at Harrow as matching Pausanias’s description of common love, being what “the meaner sort of men feel,” and one “of the body rather than of the soul” (Symposium, 181b). Symonds would also almost certainly agree with the sentiment that Pausanias espouses later in his speech when he says, “Evil is the vulgar lover who loves the body rather than the soul” (Symposium, 183d). However, Pausanias’s distinction is not merely one of crudeness and carnality but one between homosexuality and pantomimed heterosexuality. With that in mind, considering Pausanias’s distinction in light of what Symonds saw at Harrow (and what Symonds noted in his Memoirs) highlights another possible layer in the story of Symonds’s disgust. What Symonds saw at Harrow and what he rejected about the homosexual culture of Harrow was not only a form of homosexuality that was vulgar and carnal, but one that pantomimed heterosexuality.  

Symonds describes in detail the profound effect that discovering Plato during his time at Harrow had on him, but it seems as if Pausanias’s speech was of unique significance to Symonds. For one, Symonds names Pausanias’s speech as particularly influential, along with Agathon’s, Diotima’s, and the Phaedrus’s Myth of the Soul (Memoirs, 152). He even references Pausanias’s distinction in the letter to Benjamin Jowett, the professor whose translation of the Symposium Symonds would later help revise, which Symonds includes in the very same chapter when he writes that “Erôs Pandemos [common love] is everywhere” (Memoirs, 154). For Symonds to note Pausanias’s speech both in his Memoirs and in a letter sent decades after the events at Harrow shows that Symonds identified Pausanias’s distinction as significant. Pausanias’s importance here seems to only confirm that Symonds’s disgust at the culture at Harrow was not only towards the vulgarity of the acts, but also the ways in which they pantomimed heterosexuality. In expressing his disgust and turning to the more idealized form of Plato, Symonds not only rejected a cruder form of homosexuality, but he also rejected heterosexuality itself. Put differently, according to Symonds:

At the same time, [Plato] confirmed my congenital inclination toward persons of the male sex…

Memoirs, 152

Plato. “Symposium.” The Dialogues of Plato Translated Into English: With Analyses and Introductions, edited by Benjamin Jowett, vol. 1, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 1892.

Symonds, John Addington. The Memoirs of John Addington Symonds: A Critical Edition, edited by Amber K. Regis, Palgrave Macmillan Publishing. London, 2016.