Theatres of Glass: a book review

Theatres of Glass by Rebecca Stott (2003)

I recently read Theatres of Glass: The Woman who Brought the Sea to the City by Rebecca Stott. The book tells the story of Anna Thynne, wife of the Reverend Lord John Thynne, who was Sub-Dean of Westminster Abbey from 1831 to 1881.

Anna with her daughters Selina and Emily

Beginning in 1846, when she took her children on a holiday to Devonshire, Anna Thynne developed the marine aquarium (realising that constant aeration of the water was required) and studied stony corals such as Caryophyllia smithii, publishing an article with the deeply religious zoologist Philip Gosse.

The Devonshire Cup Coral, Caryophyllia smithii (photo: National Museums Northern Ireland)

Stott quotes Tennyson’s The Princess as an indication of the Victorian mania for collection:

And me that morning Walter showed the house,
Greek, set with busts: from vases in the hall
Flowers of all heavens, and lovelier than their names,
Grew side by side; and on the pavement lay
Carved stones of the Abbey-ruin in the park,
Huge Ammonites, and the first bones of Time;
And on the tables every clime and age
Jumbled together; celts and calumets,
Claymore and snowshoe, toys in lava, fans
Of sandal, amber, ancient rosaries,
Laborious orient ivory sphere in sphere,
The cursed Malayan crease, and battle-clubs
From the isles of palm: and higher on the walls,
Betwixt the monstrous horns of elk and deer,
His own forefathers’ arms and armour hung.

Indeed, as Stott explains, Anna Thynne’s work (together with the book The Aquarium: an unveiling of the wonders of the deep sea by Gosse) helped extend that mania to aquaria as well. My understanding of the chronology is this:

1806: Anna born (April 1)
1824: Anna marries Lord John Thynne (age 17, almost 18)
1841: Ward experiments with freshwater aquaria
1846: Anna begins her marine aquarium (age 40)
1849: Anna moves to Tenby in Pembrokeshire
1850: Anna conducts detailed investigations of the “Madrepores” in her aquarium
1850: Warrington experiments with freshwater aquaria
1852: Anna abandons her aquarium and moves to Hawnes Park, Bedfordshire
1852: Warrington experiments with marine aquaria; the London Zoo establishes an aquarium
1854: Gosse publishes The Aquarium
1856: Second edition of The Aquarium
1859: Anna (age 53) and Gosse publish “On the increase of Madrepores” in The Annals and Magazine of Natural History
1866: Anna dies (age 60)

An illustration from Gosse’s book, which appears on the dust cover of Stott’s

Overall, a very enjoyable book, about a forgotten heroine of science. I didn’t quite feel I’d gotten inside Anna’s head, but that is probably because the limited range of source material often forces Stott to speculate. Anna’s role is weakened a little by the fact that Gosse was unaware of her when he wrote his book in 1854, although he lists her as one of three pioneers in the second edition (and quotes the sentence “The individual to whom is due the merit of having introduced marine vivaria into London is Mrs. Thynne,” which justifies the carefully chosen subtitle of Stott’s book).

Also, I was perhaps subconsciously expecting some of the flavour of Barchester Towers, in a book about the wife of a Sub-Dean. No doubt that is the wrong way to think about Anna Thynne, but Stott does not give a strong alternative. I can’t help wish that more source material existed. I would have liked some colour plates in the book too.

Theatres of Glass by Rebecca Stott: 3.5 stars

1 thought on “Theatres of Glass: a book review

  1. Pingback: Miniature World. - Freethinkers Anonymous

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