The genesis of this project was an introduction by Alison Mills to the 19th century pressed seaweed collection of the Rev Hore of Shebbear in Barnstaple Museum. I was particularly struck by the preservation of the red seaweeds, whose repeated branching ends in a barely visible diaphanous feathering.
Alison told me that the novelist George Eliot had collected seaweed in Ilfracombe during the 1850s. The radiating structures that I was looking at reminded me of the closing sentence of “Middlemarch”
“But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependant on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
I did some research into Eliot’s visit to Ilfracombe, found a connection with the Victorian scientist Philip Gosse and began to trace the threads that multiplied and grew into history out of a series of events that happened in Ilfracombe during the 1850’s – which take the form of an overture to the publication of Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” in 1859.
The third factor that determined the eventual form of “VIVARIUM” was a memory of watching a play on TV about Philip Gosse (Denis Potter’s “Where Adam Stood”) with my mother in 1976. My mother, normally extraordinarily sympathetic and even tempered, expressed irritation with Gosse. She took a degree in marine biology and had used some information from Gosse’s study of British Sea Anemones in her thesis, information that turned out to be incorrect.
After leaving University, she worked for a while in London’s Natural History Museum. When I was young, my brother and I were shown a small drawer of white blobs in the museum, which our mother informed us were sponges that she had classified. She found this work tedious, and it was exactly the kind of job she told me, that Gosse would have relished.
After my mother died in 2007, I found an account of a trip to the seaside that I had written when I was five years old, which she had kept. I describe collecting fossils and catching sea creatures, then begin to mark rocks with a cross to show that they are mine, find some wood in the shape of rifles and “play wars” with my brother. This project represents a belated attempt to catch up on marine biology and is dedicated to her memory.
The antiquity of these rock-pools, and the infinite succession of the soft and radiant forms, sea-anemones, seaweeds, shells and fishes, which had inhabited them, undisturbed since the creation of the world, used to occupy my Father’s fancy. We burst in, he used to say, where no one had ever thought of intruding before; and if the Garden of Eden had been situate in Devonshire, Adam and Eve, stepping lightly down to bathe in the rainbow-coloured spray, would have seen the identical sights that we now saw,–the great prawns gliding like transparent launches, anthea waving in the twilight its thick white waxen tentacles, and the fronds of the duke faintly streaming on the
water like huge red banners in some reverted atmosphere.
Ch V1 Father and Son – Edmund Gosse 1907
“Is it not an end worthy of a Being infinitely wise and good, that He has stocked every nook and corner of his world, even to overflowing, with sentient existences, capable of pleasure, and actually enjoying it to the full, hour by hour and day by day? It is sin alone that is the cause of suffering; and though as a whole the domain of man partook of the lapse of its federal head and lord, and so “the whole creation groaneth and travaileth together until now,”…. we may suppose that at least the invertebrate portions of the animal creation suffer their share of the fall rather corporately than individually, rather nominally, in dignity, than consciously, in pain or want .. at that glorious “manifestation of the sons of God,” when creation shall be more than reinstated in primal honour, and shall be permanently established .. even these low-born atoms of almost unseen and unsuspected life, shall in some way or other, get an augmentation of happiness, and thus take their humble share in the blessing of the redeemed inheritance.”
Ch V111 A Naturalist’s Rambles on the Devonshire Coast – P.H. Gosse 1853
Philip Gosse was a self educated scientist, whose writing, illustration and public speaking made him the David Attenborough* of his day. His father was an impoverished miniaturist so Gosse drew and painted from an early age. The ability to record his observations and produce striking images helped him to become a successful wildlife presenter.
He was born in 1810 and raised by the sea in Poole. Two years after leaving school at the age of 15, Gosse sailed for Newfoundland to work in a counting house. Over the next seven years and throughout his subsequent travels, he embarked on a systematic study of natural history. He had many adventures; he was relieved of constipation by his guide’s use of a pointed stick as they walked across frozen lakes in country where the native people had disappeared, hunted like animals by trappers and seamen. His attempts to farm in Quebec were an economic disaster but his entomological studies gave him comfort. While teaching in Alabama he refused to destroy the beginnings of a wasp’s nest in the classroom, arguing that it would be instructive for the pupils to watch its construction. (He left Alabama in part because he could not bear to live where people tolerated the “enormous evil” of slavery)
He compiled journals wherever he went, which he filled with detailed illustrations, and in 1839, returned to England.
With the help of his cousin, Thomas Bell, who worked alongside Charles Darwin, Gosse obtained an introduction to the publisher John Van Voorst and the first of his many books, “The Canadian Naturalist” was published the following year.
During his time in America, where he often found himself in lawless, violent places, his Christian faith grew stronger and when he settled in London he attended chapel. However, in 1843 he joined the Hackney Brethren, a small sect who subscribed to a “Utopian dream of a Christian Socialism.” They thought that Christ’s return, the apocalypse and last judgment would happen in 1867, a belief not uncommon at that time. After the resurrection of the elect, this world would become as it was in the days of Adam, a natural paradise (whose echo and promise, Gosse witnessed in the beauty of butterflies, lizards and flowers).
His last foreign expedition was to Jamaica, where he collected specimens and painted the wildlife in singing colours. He married a member of the Brethren, Emily Bowes in 1848 and his son, Edmund was born within a year.
One of the happiest periods in his life coincided with his first visit to Ilfracombe in 1852. Ilfracombe had taken the first important steps in establishing itself as a holiday destination by building a new sewage works. Visitors were lured to the coast by the promise of health.
Ilfracombe became his wife’s favorite place and scientific study was combined with the pleasures of introducing a young child to the seaside. It was here that he gathered the materials for “A Naturalist’s Rambles on the Devonshire Coast” a book that sparked a craze for marine biology across Great Britain. The sensual prose, full of heat, light, scents and tastes, was a passport to an undiscovered Eden within reach of a society exhausted by industrial revolution.
The ocean’s combination of otherness, proximity and overwhelming importance provided the perfect setting for his idiosyncratic fusion of science and religion.
Gosse favored experience over theory. The tentacles of the jellyfish (Chrysaora Cyclonota) are very adhesive but “I did not find in them any power of stinging” and the taste of an anemone is “not repugnant” but he has to make an effort to swallow it. He introduces pigment into the water around an ascidian mollusc to discover the routes of ingestion, at night he lights candles on the beach to examine the reactions of marine organisms and in darkness delights in phosphorescence winking and glowing around him like “the illumination of a city”
One reader of Gosse’s books, Charles Darwin, while praising his research, said that he would have preferred more theory to structure and interpret the observations, but Gosse already possessed a paradigm that gave meaning to his data.
Religious fervor is never far from the surface and occasionally erupts.
“As a child roams over his father’s estate, and is ever finding some quiet nook, or clear brook, or foaming waterfall, some lofty avenue, some bank of sweet flowers, some picturesque or fruitful tree, some noble and widespread prospect, – how is the pleasure heightened by the thought ever recurring, – All this will be mine by and by! And though he may not understand all the arrangements, nor fathom the reasons of all the work he sees going on, he knows that all enhances the value of the estate, which in due time will be his own possession.
So with the Christian. The sin-pressed earth, groaning and laboring now under the pressure of the Fall, is part of the inheritance of the Lord Jesus, bought with his blood. He has paid the price of its redemption, and at the appointed time will reign over it. But when the Lord reigneth, his people shall reign too;.. I have the right to examine, with as great minuteness as I can bring to the pleasant task, consistently with other claims, what are called works of nature. I have the very best right possible, the right that flows from the fact of their being all mine,- mine not indeed in possession, but in sure revision – And if anyone despise the research as mean and little, I reply that I am scanning the plan of my inheritance. And when I find any tiny object rooted to the rock, or swimming in the sea, in which I trace with more than common measure the grace and delicacy of the Master Hand, I may not only give him praise for his skill and wisdom, but thanks also, for that He hath taken pains to contrive, to fashion, to adorn this, for me.”
Gosse Ch X1V A Naturalist’s Rambles on the Devonshire Coast 1853
This was a socialism that regarded political change and the redistribution of property as all but irrelevant given Christ’s imminent return. His books created an arena where hierarchies of race, class, wealth or worldly success were temporarily suspended – a vision of the world to come, seen through the lens of a rock pool.
Charles Darwin never publicly questioned the Church, referred to the creator in his writing and insisted after publication of “On the Origin of Species” that his theory of evolution did not preclude the existence of God, However his own faith had been extinguished when his ten year old daughter, Annie, died in 1851.
Darwin may well have skipped the religious passages of “A Naturalist’s Rambles on the Devonshire Coast,” but his attention would have been gripped by the most influential section of the book, which gave details on how to construct a tank “made wholly of plate-glass to allow distinct vision in every part”. Gosse later found out that he was not the first person to invent this apparatus, but it was he who popularized the new invention and coined a new word “Aquarium” to describe what was soon to become a common feature in drawing rooms across the country.
During 1852, Gosse had been pivotal in establishing the first public aquatic vivarium in Regent’s park, which was stocked by specimens he collected in Ilfracombe. A range of species was tested in order to establish a balance between the oxygen supplied by plants and the carbonic acid produced by animals. Crucially he had worked out that decaying organic matter can be broken down and water purified, by constructing a fountain that exposes toxic detritus to oxygen. By scaling down the apparatus and making his research generally available he hoped that the general public would be able to create their own rock pools.
Gosse responded to Darwin’s request for further information, provided a recipe for manufacturing artificial sea water and helped him to set up his own aquarium. He assisted Darwin in experiments which investigated the possibility of species crossing oceans, seeing whether seeds still germinated after submersion in salt water. In one letter Darwin asks Gosse to see whether seeds or molluscs will stick to a bird’s foot, hitching a ride around the world to colonize new environments.
In subsequent books “The Aquarium” (1854) and the shorter updated volume “A Handbook to the Marine Aquarium” (1855) Gosse whipped up enthusiasm for his pet project and unwittingly began a process of destruction that he would later regret.
People began to visit the coast in increasing numbers in order to take and identify specimens, which they either put into collecting jars where they died – or took them back to their new aquariums where they took longer to die. Anemones in particular were highly prized (Ilfracombe was famous for the variety and numbers of these decorative creatures) An army of merchants catered for the increasing demand for stock and made good money. One businessman, Marcus Samuel, later diversified but continued to deal in natural resources. The name of the global oil company “Shell” is a reminder of the increase in sales that kick started his company’s expansion.
The moral implications of this new hobby were explored; some worried about unchaperoned women on lonely seashores (their passions aroused by thunderous waves pounding the beaches) while others pointed out that the pursuit of marine biology might dissuade women from behavior which lured men into sin – behavior that was potentially dangerous given the combustible mingling of the classes that was a feature of the Victorian seaside holiday.
Marine organisms were collected dead or alive, volumes of pressed seaweed assembled and shells stuck together to make faces, animals and jewellery. Due to its association with the book that ignited this craze, North Devon became increasingly identified with the hobby known as “seaweeding” Barnstaple museum contains 18 volumes of pressed seaweed – over 600 specimens, a collection begun in the late 1840’s by the Rev Hore of Shebbear . By 1860 he is able to state that North Devon can claim to have made a worthwhile contribution to this particular branch of botany.
Although the collection is presented as scientific catalogue – it is hard to ignore the beauty of its pages. Science was fed by an aesthetic which had its roots in Victorian Christianity.
At the time, there was an explicit connection between theology and the study of natural science – God’s handiwork. And if the clergy wrote about their scientific work – this was an age that not only tolerated but also encouraged references to religion in scientific studies (although this attitude was soon to change)
The author of “The Water Babies” the Rev. Charles Kingsley, was from North Devon and a friend of Gosse. He wrote “Glaucus, the wonders of the shore” in 1855, which linked scientific observation with moral instruction. He compared marine biologists to medieval knights (“let no-one think that Natural History is a pursuit fitted only for effeminate or pedantic men”) and hoped that a revival of the age of chivalry could be achieved via the microscope and collecting jar.
Kingsley’s sister, Charlotte Chanter, who was married to the vicar of Ilfracombe, published a study of local natural history – “Ferny Combes” – in 1856. A year later, another resident of Ilfracombe, the Rev George Tugwell published his study of British Sea Anenomes.
Yet another book about the area “Seaside Studies at Ilfracombe, Tenby, the Scilly Isles and Jersey” came out in 1857. However, this time the author was not a member of the clergy but a professional man of letters.
George Lewes was not only one of the most popular journalists of his time but also a novelist, philosopher, biographer, playwright and actor. He had a particular interest in science – but given the English distrust of the polymath – found it difficult to gain acceptance within the scientific community.
He had been accused by the young T.H. Huxley of being “without the discipline and knowledge which result from being a worker” possessing “mere book knowledge” Lewes wanted to prove his credentials as a practical experimental scientist and to cash in on the fashion for marine biology. He also needed to get out of London.
He had scandalized Victorian Society by condoning his wife’s adultery and supporting her financially – maintaining his relationship with his children. A sin whose gravity it is hard to fathom today. Then he had taken up with a fellow journalist, Marian Evans whom he passed off as his wife. The Rev. Charles Kingsley referred to her as Lewes’ concubine.
Huxley recommended Ilfracombe, where he had spent a part of his honeymoon, as a suitable refuge and laboratory for Lewes. So in 1856, taking “A Naturalist’s Rambles on the Devonshire coast” with him as a guide, Lewes traveled down to Devon with Marian in order to escape the censure of London society and begin his studies.
The “concubine” kept a journal of her stay – published eventually under the name she adopted shortly afterwards and by which she is now known the world over – “George Eliot.”
Although raised in an evangelical household and demonstrating fanatical piety in her youth, her intellectual curiosity had led her to question many of the tenets of her faith. She had studied the new science of geology, which showed her an earth far older than the date proposed for creation by working back through the genealogy of the bible. She translated German texts that treated Christ as an historical figure and was in the process of evolving a highly complex and subtle attitude towards a Christianity in which she no longer believed.
Her affair with Lewes (with whom she remained until his death in 1878) followed an unsuccessful relationship with Herbert Spencer who is now remembered as the man who coined the phrase “The survival of the fittest”. Spencer published his own theory of evolution in 1852, but without an effective theory of natural selection, it failed to make much impact. After the publication of “On the Origin of Species” he pioneered social Darwinism, applying what he regarded as Darwinian principles to sociology – a mechanical, reductive approach that “George Eliot” would later undermine in her novels.
(Spencer’s influence is apparent in neo-liberalism but his assumption that natural selection is inherently progressive contradicts the core of Darwin’s thesis. Natural selection favours adaptation to the environment which does not require species (or societies) to become better, stronger or more complex) Spencer, Huxley and Lewes were to become the three most important public champions of Charles Darwin after the publication of “On the Origin of Species” in 1859.
The paper of which Marian Evans was editor (in all but name), “The Westminster Review” circulated the latest trends in Victorian thought. Her book reviewing enabled her to write on a wide range of topics of contemporary relevance, albeit anonymously. In October 1855, she reviewed a book by Dr John Cumming – a rabid anti catholic (an ugly prejudice that Gosse shared) and a leading figure in the apocalyptic literature of the day. Dr Cumming set out an interpretation of the book of revelations which would have been familiar to the Hackney Brethren – that the sixth vial of judgment was poured out in 1820, the seventh followed soon after, the apocalypse and Christ’s return would come in or about 1867.
Marian Evans set about demolishing Cumming’s intellectual pretensions with gusto – her arguments sharpened by the chance to repudiate what she now considered to be the errors of her youth. A writer with whom Marian had far more sympathy, whom she considered to be the greatest writer in England (not withstanding his evangelical faith), was John Ruskin. Reviewing his third volume of “Modern Painters” that year she wrote “The truth of infinite value that he teaches is realism, the doctrine that all truth and beauty are to be attained by a humble and faithful study of nature”
When she came down to Ilfracombe to study its rock pools, it was in order to study nature, but her view of nature had been defined by Ruskin’s response to painting. Her letters, diary and journal are full of references to visual phenomena and the visual arts. The difference between a picture and a diagram, between experience and abstraction, was to become central to her aesthetic.
She wrote that “appeals founded on generalizations and statistics require a sympathy ready made, a moral sentiment already in activity; but a picture of human life such as a great artist can give, surprises even the trivial and the selfish into that attention to what is apart from themselves, which may be called the raw material of moral sentiment…. when Wordsworth sings to us the reverie of “Poor Susan”, when Kingsley shows us Alton Locke gazing yearningly over the gate which leads from the highway into the first wood he ever saw, when Hornung paints a group of chimney sweepers, more is done towards obliterating the vulgarity of exclusiveness, than by hundreds of sermons and philosophical dissertations”
This distinction between a picture that anchors the mind in direct experience and the ultimate impotence of disembodied abstractions, which make no appeal to the senses, prevented her from merely cataloguing her discoveries among the rock pools. Buoyed up by her new sexual happiness, reacting against Herbert Spencer’s cold theoretical approach to human relationships, the sensual impact of the Ilfracombe coastline proclaimed a state of imminent revelation.
During the earlier part of her stay in Ilfracombe she completed a review of Riehl’s “Natural History of German Life”, an ethnographic study of German provincial life. She placed a particular emphasis on the relationship between the naming and classification of different sectors of society and how this process should (but rarely does) lead from the general to the specific – as is the case with the subtle observation which enables a marine biologist to distinguish between one closely related species and another. Mindful of Gosse’s advice on the difficulties of establishing the correct balance between species in captivity she wrote
“And just as the most thorough acquaintance with physics, or chemistry, or general physiology will not enable you at once to establish the balance of life in your private vivarium, so that your particular society of zoophytes, molluscs, and echinoderms may feel themselves, as the Germans say, at ease in their skin; so the most complete equipment of theory will not enable a statesman or a political and social reformer to adjust his measures wisely, in the absence of a special acquaintance with the section of society for which he legislates, with the peculiar characteristics of the nation, the province, the class whose well-being he has to consult. In other words, a wise social policy must be based not simply on abstract social science, but on the Natural History of social bodies.”
When on the 17th June, her article was dispatched she “felt delightfully at liberty and determined to pay
some attention to sea-weeds”
Her journal reveals her enthusiasm for naming her finds.
“The Corallina Officinalis was then in its greatest perfection, and with its purple pink fronds threw into relief the dark olive fronds of the Laminariae on one side and the vivid green of the Ulva and Enteromorpha on the other. After we had been there a few weeks the Coralina was faded and I noticed the Mesogloia Vermicularis and the M. Virescens, which look very lovely in the water from the white cilia which makes the most delicate fringe to their yellow-brown whip like fronds, and some of the commoner Polysiphoniae.”
Writing to a friend she told her that “I never before longed so much to know names of things as during this visit to llfracombe. The desire is part of the tendency that is now constantly growing in me to escape from all vagueness and inaccuracy into the daylight of distinct, vivid ideas. The mere fact of naming an object tends to give definiteness to our conception of it “
She was determined to allow information that she gathered to alter the way in which she viewed the natural world. She allowed herself to see mankind as a part of that classification system which was changing her thinking and bringing her clarity and a new vision – not merely in terms of ordering data but in gaining access to the sensual world.
“In hilly districts, where houses and clusters of houses look so tiny against the huge limbs of Mother Earth one cannot help thinking of man as a parasitic animal — an epizoon making his abode on the skin of the planetary organism.”
She describes the village houses as “barnacles clustered on the side of a great rock” and comments on “the strong family likeness between ourselves and all other building, burrowing house-appropriating and shell-secreting animals”
They were helped throughout their stay by a local curate, the Rev. George Tugwell, whose book on sea anemones incorporates some of the research done by Lewes. He accompanied Eliot and Lewes on their expeditions and his local knowledge proved to be invaluable. According to Eliot he was “really one of the best specimens of the clergyman species I have seen”
After they had finished their exploration of Ilfracombe’s beaches, George and Marian boarded the steamer for Tenby, where they continued their zoological studies. It was here that Marian, having written up her notes from Ilfracombe, lying in “dreamy doze,” not only imagined herself writing a story but also its title, “The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton”. Although she had not previously attempted a work of fiction, she began to write a novel that examined the enclosed world of provincial clerical life with the same rigor, determination and precision she had bought to her inspection of rock pools. It is perhaps indicative that her diary records that the day after she began to write “The Sad fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton,” she purchased a microscope.
While Marian Evans and George Lewes patrolled the beaches of Ilfracombe, Gosse was in crisis.
Emily Gosse was diagnosed with breast cancer in April 1856 and died on Feb 9 1857. Shortly afterwards Philip wrote a memoir, which described in detail, the hideous operations that occurred on a daily basis from Oct 11 to Dec 17, 1856.
Emily and Philip had asked God for guidance in selecting an effective and painless course of treatment.
“The treatment we selected was the one, which in this particular case, He saw really best for us……
After much tribulation, through great agony of body, was her spirit made ripe for glory”
God had chosen a treatment that did not help Emily recover, but whose torments prepared her for paradise. Gosse contrasted his wife’s suffering with her future happiness.
“It was an unspeakable mitigation of her sorrow in the thought of parting (nor hers alone) that she could look forward to a speedy approach of the revelation of Jesus in the air, and our gathering unto him.”
Emily, like Philip believed that in a few years at most, Christ would return to judge the living and the dead. After the resurrection, she would walk again alongside her husband and their son Edmund. The world would be as it was when the first wave broke over Adam’s feet and Eve saw for the first time, fish gliding with their shadows across pools of sunlit water.
In the months following his wife’s death, Gosse made a determined effort to eliminate the threat that his scientific work posed to the accuracy of the information contained within the Bible, information that made it possible to predict the exact date of Emily’s resurrection.
While Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” had yet to be published, “The Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation,” had already introduced the idea that the variety of plants and animals we see around us have evolved from simple life forms. This book was popular and widely discussed. In addition, Gosse would have read Wallace’s paper, delivered to the Linnean Society in 1855 which showed that when a new species comes into existence, it does so co-incident in space and time with a pre-existing, closely allied species.
(His son, Edmund claimed that Darwin and his supporters, were worried about the likely reaction to his new evolutionary theory, so in 1857, two years before its publication, they began to approach selected scientists of national repute in order to muster support. Edmund Gosse says that Darwin spoke to his father after a meeting at the Royal Society – but there is no evidence to corroborate his story.)
Gosse spent his days tracing similarities and small differences between organisms, seeing for himself on a daily basis, how one organism might have evolved into another. He made additions to the Linnaean classification system of life, which little by little, by showing the pathways between one species and another, was drawing mankind into the generality of animated nature.
He was familiar with the latest scientific research and was able to see through the arguments of those who suggested ingenious means by which geological history was consistent with the account of creation described in Genesis: a world at first without form and in darkness, and within the space of six days given light, plants, animals and finally mankind. There were many such theories put forward at the time; perhaps Adam’s life in paradise lasted for millions of years, the extraordinary forces at work during the deluge might account for the hundreds of layers of sedimentary rock beneath our feet and a biblical day could encompass millennia.
Gosse’s “attempt to untie the geological knot” was published in 1857 as “Omphalos” His theory rested upon the consequence of Adam having been created fully grown, with adult bones, hair, teeth and an “omphalos” – the classical term for a belly button.
“If you had been present in Eden twenty minutes after Adam’s creation, you would have observed his navel, a scar left from a birth that never happened. In his digestive tract would have been the remains of a meal he had not eaten two hours before. His feet would have had calluses from walks he had never taken. A nearby tree, cut down, would have shown real rings of unreal years of growth”
Every plant and animal in the Garden of Eden would contain evidence of a history that must have occurred before time began.
Therefore, even the geological record that contained fossils of simple organisms in earlier rock formations and complex species in more recent strata could, according to his “Omphalos” theory, have been created simultaneously.
The bulk of the text simply describes how time is inextricably linked with and evidenced by the forms of life. He describes the life cycle of species and since adult examples would be present on the earth at the time of creation, their individual embryonic or larval stages must have had an existence within the time before time – which God constructed at the moment of creation.
Gosse quotes the astronomer, Herschel, not in order to question his own hypothesis but to prove it “Hence it follows that when we see…..an object of the calculated distance at which one of these remote nebulae may still be perceived … the rays of light which convey its image to the eye must have been…almost two millions of years on their way…this object must already have had an existence …. in order to send out those rays by which we now perceive it”
God selected a moment from his ideal plan in which to create the universe. Because God created the present and a prehistory simultaneously, the light from distant nebulae was created as if it had come from that nebulae two million years ago – and when we observe astronomical events, which by our deductions must have occurred millions of years in the past, we see a pattern of light created in space between the stars and ourselves – at the time of Adam’s creation.
In a remarkable section of the book, he imagines how we might interpret the world that we experience if it had been created in its entirety overnight. He posits this miraculous event in the year in which the book was published – 1857. We would see evidence of history all around us (half finished paintings on the easel, the passenger on the steam train) but this history would not actually have occurred. It would have been embedded automatically into the structure of flora, fauna, geology and the psyche. We would be able to investigate this virtual history scientifically. And it would be so complete that it would be understandable if we leapt to an erroneous conclusion.
The reaction by his scientific friends is described in “Father and Son”, the biography written by his son, Edmond. After the book’s publication, Phillip Gosse lived “in a fever of suspense” and waited for the gratitude that was his due for reconciling scripture with science. He waited in vain. He would have known that certain members of the scientific community could never accept his ideas but had believed that religion would welcome his findings and hoped that open-minded scientists would recognize the logic of his thesis. Darwin was silent on the matter (although Gosse’s only citation in “On the Origin of Species” concerns the number of markings on the legs of a mule), but many public reviews poured scorn on his ideas.
Even his friend the Rev. Charles Kingsley, who Gosse had assumed would support him, wrote to tell him that he could not bring himself to believe “that god had written on the rocks one enormous and superfluous lie”
Gosse found it difficult to recover from his “amazement at having offended everybody by an enterprise which had been undertaken in the cause of universal reconciliation.” The book produced an effect that was the exact opposite of its intended purpose. The thoroughness with which it demonstrated that the Omphalos theory was the only possible way in which the new scientific discoveries could be consistent with the account of creation given in Genesis, assisted the cause of those who argued that the Old Testament was not an account of
Kingsley’s reaction after the publication of “On the Origin of Species” – that it was “just as noble a conception of the Deity to believe that He created primal forms capable of self development” and ”It was more remarkable that He can make all things make themselves” was ultimately more in keeping with the spirit of the age.
Today, “Omphalos” is only praised in terms that would have been anathema to its author. The evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould uses it to make the point that science is not a compendium of certain knowledge but a procedure for testing and rejecting hypothesis – Omphalos being a supreme example of an untestable hypothesis.
Jorge Luis Borges includes his essay “The Creation and P.H. Gosse” in a collection which explores the relationship between time and identity. Even in Gosse’s virtual reality, time is continuous. The first instant of creation is the first instant of time – yet tolerates both an infinite future and an infinite virtual past. Borges, writing before the advent of the Big Bang theory, uses “Omphalos” to demonstrate the impossibility of an intellectual conception of time that is not successive – which he contrasts later in the collection with the sensory experience of time and the effect on our psyche of the living words of dead writers.
This distinction is useful when considering the Omphalos theory. Gosse argues that since no one witnessed events before mankind’s creation, the evidence is circumstantial. The insistence on experience as a guarantor of reality can be of value to the experimental scientist (he has strict procedures for verifying data and must duplicate the experiments of others to see the results for himself). However, in science (as opposed to art) experiments are repeated to prove consequential consistency, which has a universal application, not to gain possession of a truth exclusive to the observer.
The section dealing with the creation of the world in 1857 takes this stance a step further. Gosse proposes not only that the historical data of others is potentially suspect, but also his own. In effect he is proposing that the supreme validation of reality is the unique experience of the present – via the senses. However, the argument is not sustained. While empirical evidence of the past is suspect, he can rely on the Bible to provide an accurate account not only of the past but also of the future; the Last Judgment will take place in 1867. The days will continue to count down, one after another, towards the Apocalypse, when at last the terms of his contract with God will be fulfilled, time will end and the reign of the senses begin.
“George Eliot” explored the relationship between intellectual and corporeal authority with greater sophistication, in novels such as Middlemarch, Silas Marner and Adam Bede. While applying Darwinian ideas – recognizing that “there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it,” she counters Spencer’s mechanistic (and mistaken) application of an evolutionary model to complex societal structures through portraying the incalculably diffusive effect of moral actions on others. She combines imagery, which engages the senses and provokes sympathy, with a multiplicity of literary devices that not only give pleasure but also draw the reader’s attention to the nature of the information on offer.
While Gosse attempted to combine scientific methodology with religious faith, Eliot is careful to use theory only within an appropriate context. And her belief in the power of images does not blind her to the ego’s capacity to project crude meanings and patterns that are delusory.
“Your pier-glass or extensive surface of polished steel made to be rubbed by a housemaid, will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination, and lo! the scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun. It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially, and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement, its light falling with an exclusive optical selection. These things are a parable.”
George Eliot Ch XXV11 Middlemarch 1872
Marian Evans read Darwin’s “The Origin of the Species” when it was published in 1859 (a diary entry records a night of music, “Arabian nights” and Darwin) and continued her interest in the Natural sciences. Throughout her work she continued to draw on Natural Science for her imagery; a well known example describes Mrs Cadwallader’s interference in Middlemarch society by way of a creature in a waterdrop under a microscope – which under a weak lens is seen to exhibit an actively voracity, but under a stronger one shows “certain tiniest hairlets which make vortices for these victims while the swallower waits passively at his receipt of custom”.
Gosse would have immediately recognized this description of a Rotifer – “among all the classes of animated beings…my own special delight”. He obtained “unwearied pleasure” from studying such microscopic organisms and wrote about them with extraordinary delicacy and love. The sight of these transparent goblets creating whirlpools that draw the universe and the future towards them – to be incorporated in crystalline perfection – would have fascinated him.
Gosse continued to correspond with Darwin and to quote his work on marine biology with approval. It is possible that they met in 1861 when Darwin visited Torquay although there is no record of their meeting. The two men shared a passion for orchids. Gosse had settled near Torquay in St Marychurch in 1857 and remained there for the rest of his life. Darwin was in Torquay to work on his book on the fertilization of orchids and praised Gosse’s powers of observation in this sphere.
Although Gosse continued his scientific work, published papers and produced some of his finest paintings, his last book for the general public “A Year at the Shore” came out in 1865. The book ends with a palinode. He quotes lines from the end of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner
“He prayeth best who loveth best
All things, both great and small”
which he castigates as a sentiment as silly as it is unscriptural and remarks that if the intense study of nature were enough to bring a sinful man into the presence of God, then there would have been no need of Christ’s crucifixion.
He died in 1888 and is now remembered, if at all, through his son’s biography which includes a vivid account of a child’s reaction to the claustrophobic and terrifying aspect of his father’s fundamentalist Christianity. A more sympathetic account of his life can be found in Ann Thwaite’s “Glimpses of the Wonderful” that provides much of the facts about Gosse’s life used in this text.
Thomas Bell (1792 – 1880) cousin of P.H. Gosse. Dental surgeon and professor of zoology. Assisted Darwin in the work on reptiles bought back from the Beagle expedition and published A History of British Quadrupeds (illustrated in part by a young Edward Lear) He was President of the Linnean Society and chaired the meeting at the Linnean Society in July 1858 when the papers of Alfred Wallace and Charles Darwin were presented simultaneously; the first public expression of true evolutionary theory.
Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) Most important Argentinean writer of the 20th century. Particularly well known for his short stories.
“Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river that carries me away, but I am the river; it is the tiger that mangles me, but I am the tiger; it is the fire that consumes me, but I am the fire. The world, alas, is real; I, alas, am Borges.”
Charlotte Chanter (1828-1882) was the sister of Charles Kingsley and wife of John Mills Chanter, well-known Victorian pteridologist (fern specialist) and incumbent of Holy Trinity Church, Ilfracombe. Her book on local Natural History, Ferny combes: a ramble after ferns in the glens and valleys of Devonshire was published in 1856 and, such was the vogue for ferns, it had already reached its third edition the following year. Also a novelist, she wrote a best seller with the splendid title Over the Cliffs in 1860.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772 – 1834) “If there be one sure conclusion respecting the Bible, it is this – that it not only uniformly speaks the language of the Senses, but adopts the inferences which the Childhood of the Race drew from the appearances presented by the Senses. The Bible must be interpreted by its known objects, and ends, and these were the Moral and Spiritual Education of the Human Race. These ends secured, the truths of Sciences follow of their own accord.” Letter to Mrs W Rogers 1824
“(The first chapter of Genesis is, in effect saying:) The literal fact you could not comprehend even if it were related to you; but you may conceive of it as if it taken place thus and thus.” Literary Remains 1838
Charles Darwin (1809-1882) His first work in 1837 described his five year voyage on the Beagle where he gathered the information which informed his theory of evolution published in 1859 in On the Origin of Species. It is arguable that his insistence that evolution is not progressive, that mankind does not represent a pinnacle of development through natural selection is still habitually ignored. Other books included Descent of Man 1871, The expression of Emotion in Man and Animals 1872, Insectivorous Plants 1875 and Worms 1881
George Eliot (1819-1880) pen name of Marian Evans. Novels include Middlemarch, Silas Marner, The Mill on the Floss and Adam Bede.
Edmund Gosse (1849–1928) Only son of P.H. Gosse. Distinguished biographer, poet and critic. Books include lives of Sir Thomas Browne, Gray, Congreve and Donne. In 1907 published his biography of his father “Father and Son”
Emily Gosse (1806 – 1857) wife of PH Gosse. m 1848. Edmund Gosse claimed that although both his parents were strong, his mother was the stronger. Writer of numerous, widely distributed gospel tracts (it has been calculated that over 7 million of her tracts were distributed across the globe)
Philip Henry Gosse (1810-1888) Victorian scientist, writer and illustrator, a selection of whose works are listed below. Best known today through the biography written by his son Edmond in 1907 but in 2002 a more sympathetic account of his life was recorded in Ann Thwaite’s “Glimpses of the Wonderful”
Stephen Jay Gould (1941– 2002) prominent American paleontologist, evolutionary biologist and historian of science. He was one of the most influential and widely read writers of popular science of his generation.
William Strong Hore(Rev) (1807–1882) Botanist Curate of Stoke Damerel, Devon, 1841–7, All Saints’, Norwich, 1848–50, St Clement’s, Oxford, 1850–5 and Shebbear with Sheepwash, Devon, 1855–82. Was at Cambridge with Charles Darwin and corresponded with him.
Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895) Assistant surgeon on H.M.S. Rattlesnake, 1846–50, during which time he investigated Hydrozoa and other marine invertebrates. Appointed president of the Royal Society in 1883 and called “Darwin’s bulldog” due to the enthusiasm with which he defended Darwin’s evolutionary theory.
Charles Kingsley(Rev) (1819-1875) Christian Socialist best known for his historical works Westward Ho! and Hereward the Wake and his children’s book The Water Babies. Sanitation enthusiast. Co-founded The Working Men’s College where John Ruskin taught between 1854-58.
George Lewes (1817-1878) Partner of George Eliot with whom he lived from 1854. Carlyle called him “the Prince of Journalists”, author of a Life of Goethe, also a study of Auguste Comte, positivist philosopher and father of sociology. Wrote articles on literary and philosophical subjects for the quarterly reviews. Published on physiology and on the nervous system in the 1860s–1870s.
John Ruskin (1819-1900) Major Victorian art critic and writer. Author of over 250 works and the most important cultural theorist of his day. His mantra “go to nature in all singleness of heart, rejecting nothing and selecting nothing” was essentially romantic. His evangelical belief lasted until about 1848 and was followed by ten years of doubts culminating in his loss of faith in 1858; however he regained an idiosyncratic belief in Christianity in 1875, which lasted, until the end of his life.
Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) Influential Polymath. Sub-editor of the Pilot, a newspaper devoted to the suffrage movement, then the Economist, 1848–53. From 1852, author of papers on evolution and numerous works on philosophy and the social sciences. His reputation suffers from having been unfairly linked with the creation of a model of social progress that justifies merciless economic competition – although perhaps his relentless theorising got the offspring it deserved. It was said of him that his definition of Tragedy was the destruction of a beautiful theory by an inconvenient fact.
Peter Stiles (1959- ) Painter. Moved to North Devon in 1980 after studying at the Slade School of Fine Art. Devised the Samuel Taylor Coleridge festival in Somerset (2007). Recent one man shows include Gloucestershire University (2008) British Academy, London, Exeter University, The Brewhouse, Taunton (2007)
Tugwell, George (Rev) (1829-1910) marine biologist and curate of Ilfracombe 1853-67 then of
Lee 1869-71. Author of A Manual of Sea Anemones. He also wrote The North-Devon Scenery Book and The North Devon Hand Book.
Glimpses of the Wonderful: The life of Philip Henry Gosse Ann Thwaite Faber & Faber 2002 ISBN 0-
Darwin and the Barnacle Rebecca Stott Faber & Faber 2003 ISBN 0-571-21609-9
Other Inquisitions 1937-1952 Jorge Luis Borges University of Texas Press 1964 ISBN 0-292-76002-
*Flamingo’s Smile Stephen Jay Gould Norton 1987 ISBN 0-393-30375-6
GH Lewes Rosemary Ashton Pimlico 2000 ISBN 0-7126-6689-3
George Eliot – a biography Frederick Karl 1995 QPD/Harper Collins ISBN 0-393-31521-5
The Journals of George Eliot ed. Margaret Harris and Judith Johnston Cambridge University Press
1998 ISBN 0-521-57412-9
Omphalos 1867 P.H. Gosse,
Seaside Studies 1867 G. Lewes,
A Manual of Sea Anenomes 1867 G. Tugwell,
Ferny Combes 1856 Charlotte Chanter,
can be found on Google Books
The text of many of the books of P.H.Gosse including
The Aquarium, A history of British Anenomes and A Naturalist’s Rambles on the Devonshire Coast is
available on www.biodiversitylibrary.org