What are you doing this summer? I would always prefer going near the sea as I was born and spent my childhood on Croatian seaside. I was the sort of child who filled their pockets with stones and empty shells, and even in the winter came home with overcrowded wet pockets. But the Victorians went far more than I did and they would bring many more souvenirs from their visits to the beach resorts. A popular summer pastime in the Victorian era was collecting sea creatures from rock pools. ‘Rustic Adornments for Homes of Taste: and recreations for town folk in the study and imitation of nature’, a book from our collection, published in 1856, describes how to make an aquarium. ‘The most pleasureable task in forming a Marine Aquarium is that of stocking it with specimens… The true lover of nature will collect his specimens rather than purchase them, and will learn many lessons of the minute completeness of the Great Design of Creation, as he probes among the clefts of rocks, or searches the tide-washed sand, or assists in the exhilarating work of dredging the deep water… Lady-collectors will of course dispense with the boots, and obtain the help of the gallants in exploring the half-fathom depth.’
‘Any one having the least taste for natural history, may find much profitable recreation by a hunt on the coast at low tide. No doubt since the Aquarium has become fashionable, our city folk who hurry out of Babylon to the silver mediterranean shores, or even to the sands of Brighton, Weymouth, or the shadowy cliffs of Dover, when the virgin lures them with her spike of corn, there to transform themselves into mermaids and mermen; no doubt when they find themselves once again in the bright region of sea-gulls and uglies, they may think also of “tangle and shells”, of medusas, and sea anemones, and crabs that travel delicately on tip-toe. There are many less-gratifying amusements sought at watering-places, such as sometimes turn the balance against the benefits of bathing and invigorating sea-breezes, and cause many a pang for health shattered where it should be renewed. If Glaucus and Arethusa will join hands to pick up shells and sea-weeds, what treasures of wonder shall they find concealed within them.’
When choosing a container for collected aquatic life, ‘Globes and cylindrical vessels afford the cheapest forms, but apart from this commendation, they have few qualities to recommend them. They are liable to break, and there is a limit to their size. They distort objects they contain by unequal refraction; and, being blown, their sides are never regular in form, never perfectly globular or truly cylindrical. Hence our little favourites change their shape and magnitude at every movement. Now they pass us in front, and appear simple lively creatures; but as they recede they assume monstrous proportions, and surpass all that we picture of the ugliness of gorgons and “chimeras dire.” ‘
Describing a completed aquarium, author Shirley Hibberd says: ‘The merest glimpse of water is always refreshing to the eye; its clear, cool aspect, the mingling of many colours and forms; the peculiar growth of aquatic plants, and the still more curious movements of aquatic animals, combine to form an assemblage of delightful and ever-changing pictures’. Earlier in the 1800s it was thought that keeping aquatic creatures at home was impossible, but by the middle of the century aquariums were very popular. Hibberd writes: ‘Now we have them beside us in our rooms, and may study the minutest details of their economy and habits while we sip our coffee, or converse with our friends.’
I fear the new vogue and luxury was at the expense of the sea creatures’ lifetime.
If you would rather choose to stay in the quietness and shade of your garden this summer, why not indulge yourself with some novel reading? The first novel readers read to be entertained. Oral storytelling and dramatic performance were two of the earliest forms of entertainment, both being precursors of novels. Later, French romances, secret histories, scandalous chronicles and novels offered models for Aphra Behn in the 1680s, Delarivier Manley in the 1700s and Eliza Haywood in the 1710s, to publish their novels of amorous intrigue.
But cultures use narrative to make sense of nature and history, and print entertainment, as with any other entertainment, never makes a completely different world; instead, it is related to the culture it entertains, whilst telling us a lot about that culture.
Novelist Aphra Behn introduced an already successful print form, the continental novel, to the British market. The fiction of Behn, Manley and Haywod gained an enormous popularity. Reading became more widespread, with those of the middling classes reading the same novels as the upper classes in British society. A new reading practice arised- avid reading for pleasure. Cheaper prices opened books to a broader readership, while their small format made them easy to carry in one’s pocket into private-reading spaces, such as bed, the garden, or on a journey. Reading was private and silent, solitary reading practices provided the preferred mode for consuming the novel. In Britain, over the course of the 1700s, novels were considered to be an increasingly large proportion of printed matter.
Early modern print entertainment produced resistance. There were accusations that novels had bad moral effects and were corrupting to their readers. Novels were seen especially dangerous to young women because of ‘the pleasures they induce’ and ‘the desire they incite’, writes professor of English and author William B. Warner.
In Britain the resistance to the early novels proliferated alongside novels on the market. From the beginning of this antinovel discourse, the novel-addicted reader in Britain was usually gendered female. But accounts of novel reading tell us that novels were written to appeal to both sexes, and men as well as women confessed to,or were accused of, reading novels in a voracious, absorptive manner. The Gentleman’s Magazine of 1767 writes that ‘It must be a matter of real concern to all considerate minds, to see the youth of both sexes passing so large a part of their time in reading that deluge of familiar romances’. Women also read texts other than novels, from studies of physiology and psychology and advice manuals to educational writing and the periodical press.
Antinovel discourse incited by the early novels made future novelists give their fiction a more valuable purpose, by entering reflections upon the meaning of protagonists’ life and ethical dimensions of protagonists’ acts so that novel reading might be morally improving.
This summer I am enjoying novels of writer Yasunari Kawabata and heartily recommend starting journeying into the literary work of this author with ‘Beauty and Sadness’.
What will you be reading this summer?
William B. Warner, Licensing Entertainment: the elevation of novel reading in Britain, 1684-1750, 1998