- Coastal Cultures of the Long Nineteenth Century ed. by Matthew Ingleby, Matthew P. M. Kerr
Matthew Ingleby and Matthew P. M. Kerr’s edited collection, Coastal Cultures of the Long Nineteenth Century, is a beautifully illustrated volume. As its title suggests, it is concerned as much with the societies and cultural meanings invested in coastlines as it is with modern beaches and seascapes. Composed of thirteen essays, its scope moves variously toward, over, below, and sometimes away from the sea itself. Interdisciplinary in focus, the volume draws on literature, art history, photography, and museum studies to create new perspectives on modernity, war, imperialism, technology, aesthetics, and the seaside holiday. As such, it makes an important contribution to the burgeoning field of seaside and marine studies.
The editors’ introduction achieves that most difficult of tasks, weaving a coherent argument through the essays that follow to show the ways in which each topic contributes to an integrated whole. Its strong awareness of the nineteenth-century coast as “a meeting place where modernity and antiquity could be experienced at once” paves the way for a number of the discussions that follow (21).
Provocatively, the book also moves the sea inland, outlining some of the ways in which eighteenth-century panoramas and ephemera “rendered the experience of the coast portable, transportable and available” (7). The sea would be interpreted in new ways as technology advanced; as Kerr shows in his chapter “Developing Fluid: Precision, Vagueness, and Gustave Le Gray’s Photographic Beachscapes,” the controversial method of combination printing in photography blurred the lines still further between creative art and the supposedly objective transmission of authentic views. Moving from entertainment to health, Christiana Payne similarly points out in “A Breath of Fresh Air: Constable and the Coast” that while seascapes function as a reminder of eternity, they can be domesticated for the wellbeing of invalids who are thought to benefit from looking at pictures of the sea. For Sarah Longair in “Seats and Sites of Authority: British Colonial Collecting on the East African Coast,” however, such acts of translation are potentially less benign. Focusing on two chairs now held by the British Museum, she considers what is at stake in acts of appropriation and reinterpretation in the context of imperial power. Notwithstanding its emphasis on the reduction of battle scenes to panoramas, and the [End Page 672] natural life of coastlines to the amateur aquarium, the volume’s introduction registers the complex and contradictory modes in which the coast is purveyed. This sense of multiplicity permeates the collection in different ways. Taken together, the essays are notable not least for the disparate ways in which they figure the sea as ambiguous while contesting or complicating received assumptions about the liminal status of the shore. In “‘Unconscious of her own double appearance’: Fanny Burney’s Brighton,” Leya Landau argues that Burney’s response to Brighton reverses the wider trend whereby the resort’s status as a health resort was overtaken by its fashionable reputation. Burney’s intermittent gaze toward the sea, however, gives “a rare glimpse of the oceanic sublime” that is at odds with her equivocal identification of sea bathing with the sexualized materiality of the body (38). A later essay, Nick Freeman’s “Symons at the Seaside,” examines Symons’s construction of an aesthetic sea through his debt to the painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler. If the voyage to Dieppe figured the sea as “an unfortunate, if occasionally beautiful, obstacle that separated perfidious Albion from an altogether more significant artistic culture” (247), then Symons’s writing shows an increasing tendency “to use the environment as a means of talking about himself” (251).
The often uneasy relations in coastal environments are explored from the local to the international level. For James Kneale in “The Battle of Torquay: The Late Victorian Resort as Social Experiment,” “local scandals might become a test of national legislation in even the most decorous coastal sites” (83). The ambiguous application of bylaws in the...