Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Lady Pen’s Fish: Dr Klee revisits their identity

Thence home, and to see my Lady Pen — where my wife and I were shown a fine rarity: of fishes kept in a glass of water, that will live so for ever; and finely marked they are, being foreign.
This sentence was part of Samuel Pepys’s entry in his diary for 28 May 1665. Since the diary has been deciphered from Pepys’s shorthand in whole or in part, the identity of Lady Pen’s fishes has elicited speculation on what they could have been. Some type of goldfish from China was the initial thought but then Christopher Coates of the New York Aquarium suggested that the fish were Paradise Fish (Macropodus opercularis). This suggestion was taken up by G.F. Hervey and J. Hems in their book, The Goldfish, first published in 1948, and it is that identity which is shown in Latham and Matthews’s definitive version of the Diary, published between 1970 and 1983, as a footnote with reference to Hervey & Hems.

Coates argued that ‘finely marked’ indicated the presence of fine markings, as on a male Paradise Fish. This species can also breathe air by using its labyrinth organ, permitting its survival in a small vessel.

Embed from Getty Images   Paradise Fish

Dr Albert J Klee has published an essay1 in which he questions what has become the standard dogma for the identity of Lady Pen’s fish. He has shown that goldfish were imported into Europe earlier than claimed by Hervey and Hems and that the Paradise Fish first arrived much later. He also notes the close ties between Lady Pen2 and family in the Netherlands, where goldfish arrived with the Jesuit, Martinus Martini, in 1653. He, and I, see Coates’s point about survival in a small vessel to be irrelevant. Even large goldfish have survived for decades in small goldfish bowls. I knew of one which had been in the family for twenty or more years; the water was changed every day.

The only real description of the fish was in Pepys’s ‘finely marked’. Klee points out that this could have meant any number of things, not just in the sense of ‘with fine markings’; attractively distinctive might just as well have been Pepys’s meaning. Indeed he could have described any of his lady friends as 'finely marked'.

I have never been content with the notion that Lay Pen had Paradise Fish. While they are relatively hardy and would have survived indoors during a London summer they are not that hardy. Lady Pen must have had the fish before Pepys and his wife visited their neighbours on 28 May (7 June in the present, Gregorian, calendar) and had they been sent from the Far East would have had to have survived at least part of the European winter and spring. That winter and spring were known to have been exceptionally cold, as those seeking the cause of the outbreak of The Great Plague of London in that year, recorded and noted. English houses were, and some still are, unless within a few yards of an open fire, freezing cold in winter. Too cold, I would suggest, for Paradise Fish but not for goldfish.

Albert Klee has done a great job in reopening the case of Lady Pen’s fish.


1 The mystery of Lady Pen’s fish. Aquarium Hobby Historical Society of America, Facebook Files, May 4, 2016. See the Society’s Facebook page for a download of this and other essays.

2 Lady Pen was the mother of William Penn (1644-1718), founder of Pennsylvania.