The romance of natural history: the imaginative project of Philip Henry Gosse

Adam Nicol

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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Philip Henry Gosse (1810-1888), the British naturalist, biologist and science populariser, is the type of writer who will, on the same page, transcribe the minute details of the orientation of ‘small nuclear lamina’ on the ‘angular plates’ of a tortoise, and refer to the whole as a ‘high-domed house of bones’. Memorably described by Stephen Jay Gould as ‘the David Attenborough of his day’, Gosse wrote popular natural history volumes that sought an unsteady balance between exacting biological detail, engaging narrative anthropomorphism, and firm natural theology. These registers contribute to a discursive practice, exploration of which will inform my own approach to Gosse’s oeuvre.

Gosse’s writing caught the imagination of the Victorian reading public: works such as A Naturalist’s Rambles on the Devonshire Coast (1853) brought the middle class to the shore; The Aquarium (1854) brought the shore back into the middle class home; and The Romance of Natural History (1860) taught the ‘Poet’s Way’ of nature studies. But, as Lynn Merrill puts it, ‘Of Philip Gosse, two legacies remain—both of them unfortunate’. Today Gosse is remembered principally as a symbol, rather than a writer: as the withholding, Calvinist bully of Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son (1907), or as the supposedly feeble casuist of the Omphalos model (1857), who sought to run Genesis and geology in parallel, through a model of implied history. In each, he remains the defeated party in the battle of ideas which marked the latter half of the Victorian era. This thesis seeks not to redeem Gosse from these interpretations, as such, but to trace his own imaginative project: to read a model of natural history which animates his writings, and which is peculiar to him among the wealth of nineteenthcentury popularisers of science.

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Publication statusUnpublished - 2010


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