Something’s Fishy: An Ambiguous Origin Story for The Ocean World

In my last post, I introduced my pet book, The Ocean World: being a description of The Sea and some of its Inhabitants, a marine reference guide published in 1872. The Ocean World has a surprisingly complex history behind it, particularly in the fact that my edition has multiple authors and publishers.

The first publisher, D. Appleton and Company, New York, is listed at the bottom of the title page. Daniel Appleton, owner of a Massachusetts general store, founded the publishing company with the help of his son William in 1813. After Appleton died in 1849, William and his brothers took over, and the company quickly became one of the most prominent publishing houses in the world. It is likely that my specific copy of The Ocean World was printed in New York by this publishing company because of its placement on the title page instead of the colophon. 

The second publisher, Cassell, Petter, and Galpin, Belle Sauvage Works, London, E.C., is listed in the colophon, on the last page of the book before the index. This was probably the original publishing company of The Ocean World, before it began to be published and printed in the United States. 

The colophon at the end of the book that lists the European publisher as “Cassell, Petter, and Galpin, Belle Sauvage Works, London, E.C.”

This publishing house has an interesting origin story. In 1851, the newspaper publisher John Cassell rented out part of La Belle Sauvage Inn in London. The inn was actually a playhouse in Elizabethan times, and was the site of many important historical events. Cassell remodeled part of the inn to print books and magazines, and his business prospered for the next four years. However, Cassell declared bankruptcy in 1855, and Thomas Galpin and George Petter took over from 1855 to 1858. By 1858, Cassell had regained his financial footing, and he became a full partner of the company again. The company changed owners and names multiple times throughout its history, which makes my book seem like a snapshot of a rather dynamic period of publishing history. 

The title page of the book states that it is a revised edition of the original work by Louis Figuier. However, this description turned out to be a bit deceptive because the book is not purely a translation of a French text. Louis Figuier was a well-known science writer whose books popularized a wide range of subjects in science and technology in the 19th century. But among his numerous publications, there was never a book titled The Ocean World: Being a Description of The Sea and some of its Inhabitants. E. Perceval Wright, the editor of my book, created a sort of Figuier Frankenstein; the book is mostly a loose translation of Figuier’s “La Vie et les Moeurs des Animaux” but is also comprised of information from Figuier’s “La Terre et les Mers” and other sources. I wonder if, under these conditions, “revised edition” is really the correct name for this work, especially since it takes information from more than one book. 

The editor’s preface and title page illuminate some of the reasoning behind Wright’s revision process. Wright was a professor of Botany at the University of Dublin, and he wanted to make science more accessible to the general public. He was attracted to Figuier’s conversational writing style, but thought that his books lacked sufficient scientific detail and knowledge. Thus, The Ocean World is a compilation of numerous works by Figuier, but edited by Wright to make them scientifically accurate and more thorough. Wright also mentions that he edited out “the more rampant twigs of French eloquency” in light of English speakers’ (presumably) “quieter if not better taste”. His remark is a clear example of the possible negative influence editors and revisors can have on the communications circuit. When Wright changed the author’s voice to suit his subjective ideal of science writing, he inevitably altered Figuier’s original message, even if only slightly. I am a firm believer in translators doing their best to preserve the original meaning and tone of the text. Sadly, I think in this case Wright was aiming to completely change the tone of the text to something he believed was “better”.

Wright gives partial, but not complete credit to Figuier for the texts he adapts The Ocean World from. Scattered throughout the book are references to different authors and books, some of which include works by Figuier. The citations for these references always go at the bottom of the page they are found on. Although this method does give credit for direct mentions or adaptions of material, I’m still not completely satisfied with Wright’s decision. I don’t think Wright or the publishers were trying to plagiarize Figuier’s works; I just think Wright could have made his methodology more explicit, either in the preface or in a references section. But then again, thoroughly citing your sources may not have been a common bibliographical practice of the 1800s.

Since illustrations are such a prominent component of my book, it is important to note their origins too. But, surprisingly, I couldn’t find any mention of the illustrator in my book. In another book by Figuier, Les Poissons, les Reptiles, et les Oiseaux, three illustrators are cited: A. Mesnel, A. de Neuville, and E. Riou. Of the three artists, Mesnel’s work appears to most closely match the illustrations in The Ocean World


A comparison between one of The Ocean World’s illustrations and works by three illustrators who had drawn for other books by Figuier. Clockwise from top left: illustrations from The Ocean World, Albin Mesnel, Edouard Riou, and Alphonse de Neuville.

Albin Mesnel was born in Paris in 1831. His father was a tapestry artist, and as a child he studied drawing with professors at his father’s tapestry factory. His independent projects were famous for attempting to capture animals’ emotions through their eyes. However, the illustrations in my book could possibly be the work of another artist because Mesnel’s style of sketching appears to have been popular among science illustrators during the 19th century. Regardless of who the illustrator was, they clearly tried to keep the book’s illustrations consistent with the scientifically precise, pen-and-ink style drawings that were popular in the 19th century.

There is an intriguing contrast between the explicit origins of the book’s written text, provided by the title page, colophon, and preface, and the lack of information surrounding the illustrations. Hopefully in future posts I will have the opportunity to explore this contrast and uncover more information surrounding my book’s history.