Seaside Pleasures

Seaside Pleasures

ISBN 978-0-9544572-0-4
Littoralis Press, p/b, e-book
Published 2003

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When Matt Myers decides to spend the summer with his mother at the Shell House, 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.

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Comments and reviews

‘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.'

Jane Gardam: ‘A big book with a MIND behind it!’.

Shell ladies, made by Rachel Lackie, from shells from a south Cornish beach.

When malacologist (basically, an expert on snails, or Molluscs) Elizabeth Wilson helps artist Barbara Lewisham repair a pattern of shells on the facade of the Shell House, 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: image from David Brown's book, 'Freshwater snails of Africa and their medical importance', Taylor & Francis 1994. For the explanation of the joke, see p296.

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 in London.

Colour polymorphism in periwinkles: citrina,aurantia, rubens and fusca - 'Lovely poetic names', see p99.

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. He 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.

The stories of the three contemporary 'voices', Hazel, Matt and Elizabeth, are intertwined with the story of the love between the Victorian naturalist, Philip Henry Gosse, and his wife Emily, as 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.

Gosse's engraving of Stomphia churchiae (bottom left) from Actinologia Britannica

Rudolf and Leopold Blaschka, famous for their glass flowers, also made exquisite glass models of invertebrate animals such as sea-slugs, octopi, and sea-anemones; see Chris Meechan's excellent article about their lives and work for more information. Their 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.

A rather battered Blaschka model of Stomphia  (ie not the one from the NHM); my thanks to Chris Meechan for the photo.

The text of an article from the Scots Magazine, May 2006,  The anemonizers of Scotland, is reproduced here.

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 ElizabethWilson spent many of the happiest, and also most tragic, periods in their lives.