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  • Tide Pools
  • Amy M. King (bio)

In "Recollections of Ilfracombe, 1856," George Eliot recounts the first low tide in which she and George Henry Lewes look for a "zoophyte" in the tide pools of the Devonshire coast:

About five o'clock, the tide being then low, we went out on our first zoophyte hunt. The littoral zone at Ilfracombe is nothing but huge boulders and jutting rocks of granwacke or clay slate, which when not made slippery by sea-weed are not very difficult to scramble over. It is characteristic enough of the wide difference there is between having eyes and seeing that in this region of Sea-anemones ... we climbed about for two hours without seeing one Anemone, and went in again with scarcely anything but a [End Page 40] few stones and weeds to put into our deep well-like jars which we had taken the trouble to carry in a hamper from London, and which we had afterwards the satisfaction of discovering to be quite unfit for our purpose. On our next hunt, however, after we had been out some time, G. exclaimed, "I see an anemone!" and we were immensely excited by the discovery of this little red Mesembryanthemum, which we afterwards disdained to gather as much as if it had been a nettle.


Eliot's charming tide pool story captures a perhaps not uncommon Victorian experience with natural history: the meeting of theoretical enthusiasm with first practical experience. Outfitted with the impractical gear sold to them in London, eager for practical experience and not just theoretical ideas, and keen as journalists to capitalize on the new interest in marine studies, Lewes and Eliot spent the summer of 1856 and the spring and summer of 1857 in various seashore locales. There, they met initially with the frustration of not knowing enough about the denizens of the tide pools to even identify a common sea anemone, but, by mid-July, Lewes, who quickly learned to trade his Londonish deep jars for homely pie-dishes, sent the first of his "Sea-Side Studies" to Blackwood's, which published it in the August number.

A tide pool, broadly defined, is the ecosystem that exists as a separate entity from the ocean at low tide. Most often created by surrounding rocks, these pools are unique habitats for intertidal creatures, which must adapt to a constantly changing environment. A tide pool, like all ecosystems, contains interdependent organisms that function as a unit and share the same habitat. The complex system of relationships that develop in an ecosystem such as a tide pool can perhaps give us some sense of why the tide pool proved to be such a compelling subject for mid-century Victorians.

The tide pool is an ecosystem that exists out of time as a natural environment common to any number of shorelines throughout the world, but here, I will think about the tide pool through the cultural-historical lens of the 1850s, when interest in the tide pool reached a certain popular zenith in England. The story of the tide pool in 1850s England contains both a popular history and a figurative narrative that takes in a number of mid-Victorian aspirations and anxieties about class in particular, but also militarism and other more metaphysical concerns.

Lewes and Blackwood's were tapping into a burgeoning mid-Victorian fascination with the tide pool that was in part fueled by the public's fascination with the 1853 opening of the aquarium in the Regent's Park gardens. The relationship between the marine aquarium and the seaside craze, as Bernard Lightman shows, was induced in part by Philip Henry Gosse, who described a parlour-version of the aquarium. As David Allen points out, "the aquarium, almost overnight, turned into a national craze," and a "general advance on the beaches by a large section of the British middle classes" also occurred (121). [End Page 41] Allen emphasizes that the prosperity of the 50s, following upon the economic depression of the 40s, made for a new audience of middle-class consumers who had the money and leisure time to spend on activities they hoped were both respectable and fashionable (122). Certainly...


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