Monday, 16 October 2017

Anne Pratt – a woman of the seashore

In her book Kindred Nature, Barbara Gates discusses the part that women played in the Victorian passion for Natural History. Seashore plants and animals were found especially fascinating, as marine coasts were previously under-explored, and among the women who wrote guides was Anne Pratt. She is now almost forgotten, yet Barbara Gates writes [1]:

When George Eliot and George Henry Lewes arrived in Ilfracombe in 1856, awkward and ill-equipped novices in seashore life but ready to learn enough for Lewes to be able to write Sea-side Studies in 1858, they would have been as likely to be carrying Anne Pratt's Chapters on the Common things of the Sea-side (1850) as they would Philip Gosse's Aquarium (1854) or Kingsley's Glaucus.

Having posted previously on Lewes, Gosse and Kingsley [2], I wanted to explore Anne Pratt's book and imagine the impression that it made on its readers.

As might be expected in a book written by a specialist on land plants, Chapters on the Common things of the Sea-side [3] begins with seaside plants and seaweeds, going on to describe animals of various types; the text being accompanied by Anne Pratt’s own illustrations (see below for an example). She enthuses about what we might find and encourages close observation, including, where necessary, taking specimens to small tanks of sea-water to get a better view of their form and function. A good example of the style and approach of her book can be found in her descriptions of zoophytes (i.e. animals that resemble plants):

Perhaps the zoophytes best known as such to visitors at the coast, are the beautiful Sea Anemones, which offer their loveliness to every eye, and need no microscope to reveal their tints or forms. Clustered by thousands on sea-side rocks or sands, adorning the sides of rocky pools, with flowers which resemble marigolds or China-asters in their form, but which are brighter in their colours than any flowers which our garden can show; redder than roses, of richer purple than the violet, and wearing the rainbow hues of the gorgeous cactus flower, which the painter in vain essays to copy, there are few objects in nature more calculated to attract our notice that are these living flowers..

..To look down upon these flowers, one would deem them the most helpless of living creatures. The water, with its myriads of tiny insects, seems to afford their proper nutriment, and none would guess, to glance at them, that they could possibly kill, and swallow crabs and shell-fish larger than themselves. But the great Creator, when he made them, furnished them all, helpless as they seem, with the means of securing their appropriate nutriment. They possess a poisonous secretion which soon extinguishes life in the animal which comes near them..

Reading these passages today, we recoil at some of the descriptions (of “flowers” and “insects”, for example, although we know what she meant) and many would dislike the creationist stance that was not surprising in a book published by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. However, her readers in the mid-Nineteenth Century would certainly have been encouraged to visit the shore and find some of the plants and animals that she describes. Indeed, her work in Natural History was recognised by the award of a grant from the Civil List, a reflection of her popularity with the public.

In the Introduction of their excellent bibliography of Philip Henry Gosse, Freeman and Wertheimer (1980) put Pratt’s book into the context of the developing science of Marine Biology that made such advances in the Nineteenth Century. They place Gosse’s work in comparison to what has gone before [4]:

His seashore studies.. ..marked an advance over previous books. Many of these, such as Mary Roberts’ Sea-side companion (1835), Elizabeth Allom’s Sea-side pleasures (1845), Anne Pratt’s Chapters on the Common things of the Sea-side (1850), and more importantly W. H. Harvey’s Sea-side book (1849), were successful enough, but as works of art, literature and science, bore feeble comparison to Gosse’s volumes.. ..Gosse’s lively and enthusiastic style was firmly based upon something which very few of the previous authors had attempted – original scientific investigation – and this makes them valuable for the present-day naturalist.

No wonder that Charles Kingsley was so impressed that he produced Glaucus as a paean of praise for Gosse and his early books. Gosse wrote for both the popular and the scientific audience and was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in recognition of his discoveries.

Does that mean we should dismiss Anne Pratt’s book about the shore in the way that Freeman and Wertheimer have done? Decidedly not, for she, together with the other women authors they mention, encouraged many who may otherwise not have become inspired by the study of the shore and among their numbers must have been many women, to whom Pratt, Roberts and Allom showed the way.

I would like to end with two further quotes about Anne Pratt, the first from the doverhistorian website and the second from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography:

..although she brought the interest of botany to the masses, she never received academic acclaim – she was self-taught and a woman. Indeed, fifty years after her death her work was trivialised by the art historian Wilfred Blunt. [5]

Anne Pratt’s works were written in popular style but were said to be accurate. [6]

Being self-taught was viewed as a handicap in some circles and may explain the patronising comment about accuracy in the second quote above. Perhaps of greater significance was that Anne Pratt was a woman and a populariser, rather than a member of the developing scientific establishment that was completely dominated by men. Does that explain the condescension towards her?

[1] Barbara T Gates (1998) Kindred Nature: Victorian and Edwardian Women Embrace the Living World. Chicago, Chicago University Press.

[2] [several posts].

[3] Anne Pratt (1850) Chapters on the Common things of the Sea-side. London, Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

[4] R. B. Freeman and Douglas Wertheimer (1980) Philip Henry Gosse: A Bibliography. Folkestone, Dawson.

[6] B. B. Woodward (2004-16) Pratt, Anne (1806-1893), rev. Giles Hudson. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

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