When Matt Myers decides to spend the summer with his mother at the Shell House in Cornwall, he little guesses that he is about to step into the minefield of his family’s past and recent history …
Anne Church, a young Victorian; Matt, art student; Hazel Myers, his mother; malacologist and parasitologist, Elizabeth Wilson: their stories — of obsessional loves and conflicting beliefs — are inextricably linked with each other and with the life and tragic death of Victorian evangelist Emily Gosse, wife of the naturalist Philip Henry Gosse.
Seaside Pleasures ranges across time and geography, from Victorian Scotland to Africa in the 1960s and present-day England; the boundaries between fiction and fact become blurred, as the separate lives are woven together by the themes of shells and snails, science and religion, love and death — and the sea.
Littoralis Press, 1st edition, paperback 2003;still available from the author.
Paperback version still available from the author
COMMENTS & REVIEWS
Jane Gardam: ‘A big book with a MIND behind it!’.
‘Ann Lingard has written a thoughtful, compelling story … a very human account. The book is a rockpool in itself, concealing seaside secrets as well as pleasures deep beneath the surface.’ North Devon Journal.
‘A clever balance … that blurs the boundaries between fact and fiction’. Oxford Times
Ann Thwaite: ‘Immensely readable and extremely clever, Seaside Pleasures is a remarkable novel. Told in four distinct voices, three contemporary, one Victorian, the blend of past and present, fact and fiction is both curious and compelling.’
Matt Ridley: ‘A very fine piece of writing that, uniquely among modern novels, makes real use of science rather than wearing science on its sleeve. Tremendously good plot, story and narrative style, fascinating history and even better science … A true two-culture achievement.‘
Jennifer Rohn, LabLit: ‘ … unlike Byatt, whose science comes across largely as contrived, pretentious showing off, Lingard’s portrayal is relaxed, natural and rarely gratuitous. … [And] perhaps more importantly, science through [Matt’s] eyes eventually proves to be exciting, and its purveyors, both passionate and refreshingly ordinary.’ Read Rohn’s long and thoughtful review on LabLit.
The Victorians were great collectors of shells; they used them to decorate the interiors and exteriors of houses and grottoes, they made pictures and three-dimensional decorations, and they arranged them decoratively, although not always taxonomically, in Cabinets of Curiosity.
When malacologist (an expert on snails, or Molluscs) Elizabeth Wilson helps artist Barbara Lewisham repair a pattern of shells on the facade of her Shell House in Cornwall, she includes a highly-unusual shell at the centre: Tiphobia.
The inclusion of Tiphobia is a joke, for reasons which become apparent towards the end of the story.
Tiphobia and Bulinus: images from David Brown’s book, ‘Freshwater snails of Africa and their medical importance’, Taylor & Francis 1994. (For the explanation of the Tiphobia joke, see p296 in the paperback.)
In the 1960s, Elizabeth worked in Ethiopia and Eritrea, surveying for the freshwater snails of the genus Bulinus, many species of which are responsible for carrying larvae of the parasitic blood-worm, Schistosoma, that causes the debilitating disease bilharzia in humans. Unusually for a woman scientist at that period, she lived under canvas in the field, collecting and sending snail samples back to the Natural History Museum (NHM) in London.
When she eventually retires from the NHM to live with her husband Allan on the south Cornish coast, her home becomes a centre for discussions and collaborations with other scientists – and she befriends Matt, an art student and Barbara’s grandson, who is staying with his mother Hazel in the Shell House.
Matt and Jim, a visiting American scientist, investigate the camera obscura and its clever attachments that Allan built in the attic before he died, and through the scientists – and their jargon which he describes as a ‘dance’ – Matt becomes intrigued and inspired by the colours of snails on the shore, and the shapes of the parasites that infect them. But more importantly, he gradually begins to learn about Elizabeth’s friendship with his grandmother.
Colour polymorphism in periwinkles: citrina,aurantia, rubens and fusca – ‘Lovely poetic names’, see p99 of the p/b.
The stories of these three contemporary ‘voices’, Hazel, Matt and Elizabeth, are also intertwined with the story of the love between the Victorian naturalist, Philip Henry Gosse, and his wife Emily.
The Gosses (including their son Edmund, ‘Willy’) spent weeks at coastal towns such as Weymouth, Ilfracombe, and Tenby, while Philip (or ‘Henry’ as Emily called him) collected, observed and drew marine animals. He designed the marine aquarium as a way of keeping animals alive for observation, and he and his friend Charles Kingsley would go dredging to collect specimens, Kingsley often sending parcels of animals (including some lively cockles) to Gosse in London.
Soon Gosse was helping the Zoological Gardens in London’s Regents Park to set up large aquaria – and the fashion for small elegant aquaria in the home took off. People wanted to know more, to be able to find and identify shore creatures themselves – and Gosse began to run ‘shore classes’.
The fourth ‘voice’ in Seaside Pleasures is thus Victorian: Henry and his wife Emily, and their little son, are observed by a student on one of Gosse’s ‘shore classes’, Anne Church. Anne Church really existed – she is mentioned in Gosse’s classic book on the British sea-anemones and corals, Actinologia Britannica, as finding a new species of anemone in Loch Long, which Gosse describes and names as ‘Stomphia churchiae’ in her honour – but her character and story have been fictionalised in Seaside Pleasures. (Her fictional husband, Duncan Robertson, too, was a real-life collector of sea-anemones and is, again, mentioned and thanked in Actinologia.)
Rudolf and Leopold Blaschka were Dresden glass-blowers famous for their glass flowers, but also made exquisite glass models of invertebrate animals such as sea-slugs, octopuses, and sea-anemones; see Chris Meechan’s excellent article about their lives and work for more information. Their models of sea-anemones, the Actiniae, were based on Gosse’s coloured engravings – and I was thrilled to find that the Blaschkas had also made several glass models of Gosse’s illustration of that Stomphia churchiae. One of the Stomphia models is in the Natural History Museum and I was actually able to use it when I gave a talk there for the Darwin Live series.
Shells, religious beliefs, the patterns and shapes of things, love, and death – in Seaside Pleasures, these are all set against the backdrop and sound of the seashore, where both Gosse and Elizabeth Wilson spent many of the happiest, and also most tragic, periods in their lives.