Click Here To Visit Malacological Society Website Click Here To Visit Malacological Society Website Click Here To Visit Malacological Society Website Click Here To Visit Malacological Society Website Click Here To Visit Malacological Society Website..Click An Image To Visit Society Website  

Ann Lingard, biologist turned writer, describes how her professional background enabled a realistic portrayal of the scientists in her novel.

“The Tourist Information leaflet lists the Shell House as one of Polkenna’s attractions: it ‘has been decorated since late Victorian times with intricate patterns of local shells’.”

When Dr Elizabeth Wilson, retired malacologist, examines the façade’s ‘squares and fans, spirals and curlicues, constructed of the cockles, cowries, limpets, topshells and twenty or more other species’, she is amused by the subtle joke that is the inclusion of a belemnite.
Later, when she and the Shell House’s owner repair a small section, she describes the new pattern they have devised: ‘concentric circles formed from Turritella spires; within the inner ring are several orange-banded dogwhelks, Nucella lapillus, and in the outer ring there is a single red-flecked queen, the beautiful scallop Chlamys. But the single Tiphobia lies at the very centre and is my own contribution to the Victorian shell-collector’s joke’.

So how did the thalassoid Tiphobia come to play an important role in a novel? After I resigned from lecturing and researching in zoology and parasitology to ‘become a writer and broadcaster’ (de novo) I had no great desire also to become the archetypal starving writer in a garrett, so took on various copyediting jobs. A magnificent manuscript that came my way was David Brown’s definitive book on the Freshwater Snails of Africa and their Medical Importance (1994). A year or so later I was mulling over ideas for my fourth novel, Seaside Pleasures, in which one of the main characters was a retired malacologist, and I was looking for an unusual shell to put on the fictional Shell House — and by one of those Jungian ‘synchronicities’ that David himself so much enjoys, the hardback copy of his book arrived unexpectedly in the post. Tiphobia was an obvious choice (for reasons which I am sure are obvious to the readers of Malacological Bulletin — but the answer can be found on p. 296 of Seaside Pleasures!).

It was through conversations with David and his colleague Vaughan Southgate at the Natural History Museum that the science of snails and schistosomes became an integral and essential driving force in the story (hence Matt Ridley’s comment that ‘uniquely among modern novels, Seaside Pleasures makes real use of science rather than simply wearing science on its sleeve. A true two-culture achievement’). Elizabeth is a Bulinus expert, based at the NHM, and unusually for women scientists, even in the 1950s and ‘60s, she went out to Ethiopia and Eritrea on her own to collect Bulinus species: it was from David and his book that I learnt about the difficulties and pleasures of field-work at that period — the smells and sounds of the highlands and steamy lowlands; where to find tetraploid Bulinus; how to package live snails for air-mailing back to the NHM ... all those important details that impart credibility to fiction and draw the reader in.
And it is through Elizabeth’s experiences as a field-worker that one of the links to the Victorian side of novel, the story of Emily, the evangelical and dying wife of Philip Henry Gosse, is made. In his book, A Naturalist’s Sojourn in Jamaica (1846), Gosse writes a graphic account of his ‘naturalist’s work-room’, including a delightful description of preparing land-snails for the collection that he was making for the (then) British Museum. Elizabeth’s attempt to re-write this passage to describe her own field-working conditions also allows the reader to gain some useful insights into her past social and sexual life!

Gosse’s very readable books about the littoral fauna and flora of the Devon and Pembrokeshire coasts are packed with ‘human interest’ in the form of anecdote and humorous observation. His little son, Edmund (‘Willy’) digs a pool on the shore for some Purpurea (Nucella); Gosse experiments with the pigments of crushed Purpurea, watching the purple colour develop on white cloth; Charles Kingsley sends Gosse some Cardium tuberculatum, and the Gosse family are enthralled by the cockles as they leap about in the dish: Gosse studies and draws the extension of the foot — the cockles are later ‘eaten to save their lives’. I have been able to take passages such as this and weave the facts into the fiction of Seaside Pleasure; Gosse’s ‘shore classes’, especially those on the North Devon coast in 1856, have provided a wealth of malacological and human detail.

At Barricane Bay, the female shell-collectors lie spread-eagled on the shore, raking the fine shelly sand with their fingers — visitors are entreated to buy wentletraps, Bulla, Natica, Dentalium ... It’s surprising that he doesn’t mention finding bivalve shells drilled with the neat bevelled hole so characteristic of Natica’s predatory activity, for they are very common in Woollacombe Bay: and although he writes about the colour morphs of ‘littorinids’, he doesn’t mention the helminth parasites that winkles often so visibly contain.

But the fictional and contemporary malacologist, Elizabeth Wilson, has retired to the south coast of Cornwall and of course she knows all about the digenean Cryptocotyle lingua, larvae of which infect Littorina littorea. She collects winkles from the shore below the house and takes them home in a jar of sea-water so that Jim, the mathematician who is working with her, and his art student friend, Matt, can watch the extraordinary phenomenon of infected snails shedding cercariae; Jim has the chance to see real live parasites, rather than working on theoretical models of schistosome epidemiology. And Matt, while mooching around on the shore with Jim, idly picks up some coloured L. obtusata, and soon gets hooked on collecting the various colours as the basis for an artwork. ‘Colour polymorphism’, ‘ecotypic variation’, ‘allozymes and speciation’: ‘Do you always talk like that when you’re together?’ Matt asks Jim.
But this isn’t a story ‘about’ science: it’s a story about people, several of whom happen to be scientists and — like you — carry on with their lives against the background of their normal work, which just happens to be scientific research.

Tiphobia hoeri,
Lake Tanganyika
The science of snails can even find its way into poems (well, doggerel, perhaps):

‘Dear, dear, what can the matter be?
‘Oh dear, two snails with aphally.’
‘See, dear – they’re hermaphroditidae.
‘Can they have fun at the Fair?’
The answer, if it can be called that, is on page 262.

Ann Lingard is also Dr Ann Lackie (see
Seaside Pleasures (£8.99, p/b) is published by Littoralis Press and can be ordered through, or (credit card) Beagle Direct (, tel. 01933 443862) or through Amazon or any book shop



Contact Information Mini-Reviews Join The Malacological Society of London Bulletin Board Home