Joanna here, talking about English Goldfish.
Did Shakespeare say, "That which we call a goldfish, by any other name would be as bright"?
Or insult some catiff with a, "Thou wimpled, reeling-ripe goldfish-licker!"
He did not.
Goldfish didn't make it to England till nearly a century after Shakespeare's death. We got Shakespearean dogs and cats, camels, carp, marmosets, mackerel, and whales . . . but no goldfish.
Basically, the goldfish is the carp who made good.
The carp is a wide-spread, useful and tasty fish that's been domesticated for a couple millennia in China. While the Chinese were raising carp for the table, they'd noticed a common mutation that threw an orange or gold fish in among the ordinary ones.
After centuies of noticing that, about a thousand years ago, the Chinese set down to the serious business of breeding these bright-colored fishes as garden ornaments. The women of the imperial court doubtless engaged in a little friendly rivalry as to the beauty and vigor of their particular line of goldfish. They'd bring them inside in big porcelain basins to enjoy. Especially favored courtiers would be invited over to watch the fish swim, this being before TV and Wii.
When trade routes opened in the 1600s, goldfish were freed from their splendid isolation in the Mandarin's garden and went travelling the world. Japan first. Then southern Europe, coming in through Portugal. Then just about everywhere.
The Japanese Kanji characters for goldfish are 'gold' and 'fish'. 'King yo'. In Dutch, goldfish is goudvis. French, poisson d'or. Spanish, carpa dorada. Goldfish tend to be called 'goldfish'.
When goldfish hit Europe, it settled a bit of an artistic conundrum. Chinese paintings had been arriving in Europe with representations of goldfish. "Pooh," said some. "Mythical animals."
Turned out it wasn't artistic license.
It was fish.
Legend has it goldfish were brought to France as a present for Madame de Pompadour. In Russia, Prince Potemkin gave goldfish to Catherine the Great.
Goldfish were the Tiffany trinket of the Eighteenth Century.
And across southern Europe in those years, it became a tradition for husbands to give their wives a goldfish on the first anniversary as a symbol for prosperous years to come.
Here's a pair of impeccable French goldfish from 1800 in an impeccable period fishbowl.
Goldfish moved into England in 1728, brought over to a Sir Matthew Dekker who handed them out to his friends and neighbors in London.
They were, when first introduced into England, considered rare and fragile. As late as 1821, a naturalist could write,
"Great care is necessary to preserve them; for they are extremely delicate, and sensible of the least injuries of the air; a loud noise, such as that of thunder or cannon; a strong smell, a violent shaking of the vessel or a single touch, will often destroy them."
Admittedly, the survival of a goldfish in the care of a ten-year-old boy is somewhat of a crap shoot. But it's not as bad as that.
The most illustrious patron of goldfish in Georgian England was Horace Walpole, who kept a pond of them at his home, Strawberry Hill, bred them and gifted them about Europe.
"I have lately given count Perron some gold-fish, which he has carried in his post-chaise to Turin: he has already carried some before. The Russian minister has asked me for some too, but I doubt their succeeding there . . ."
Goldfish: Eighteenth Century baksheesh, greasing the wheels of international diplomacy.
Walpole tells the story:
"I Was prevented from finishing my letter yesterday, by what do you think ? By no less magnificent a circumstance than a deluge . . . About four arrived such a flood, that we could not see out of the windows: the whole lawn was a lake . . . I had but just, time to collect two dogs, a couple of sheep, a pair of bantams, and a brace of gold-fish; for, in the haste of my zeal to imitate my ancestor Noah, I forgot that fish would not easily be drowned.
In short, if you chance to spy a little ark with pinnacles sailing towards Jersey, open the sky-light, and you will find some of your acquaintance. You never saw such desolation ! A pigeon brings word that Mabland has fared still worse."
I can see Walpole, retreating from his flooded house with his 'brace of goldfish'. (ETA: This is Horace Walpole, not Robert Walpole, as I originally wrote. Jeesh. Pay attention, Joanna.)
That's Strawberry Hill somewhat far above, Walpole's magnificent Gothic madness. To the left and slightly above is an entirely unrelated set of Matisse goldfish.
Elsewhere Walpole says,
"You may get your pond ready as soon as you please; the gold fish swarm: Mr. Bentley carried a dozen to town t'other day in a decanter.
You would be entertained with our fishing; instead of nets and rods and lines and worms, we use nothing but a pail and a basin and a tea-strainer, which I persuade my neighbours is the Chinese method."
It's not impossible your goldfish — if you have one — is descended from the adventurous fish of Walpole's pond at Strawberry Hill.
By the Regency, goldfish were a commonplace in the parlor, kept in goldfish bowls that looked exactly like the modern variety. Goldfish seem to have made 'unexceptional', affectionate presents.
In Maria Edgeworth's novel, Belinda, goldfish are sent to an invalid. — "I have some gold fish, which you know cannot make the least noise: may I send them to her?"
Developing on the courtesan theme, below Kitty is the courtesan Wakamurasaki playing with a goldfish.
Folks tended to moralize about the whole 'gold' thing. In Thomas Gray's poem, The Cat and the Gold Fish, the poor cat falls into the goldfish vase:
No master came, no servant stirr'd;
Nor cruel Tom, nor Susan heard :
A fav'rite has no friend!
Not all that tempts your wand'ring eyes,
And heedless hearts, is lawful prize;
Nor all that glisters gold.
In Regency England, if you weren't lucky enough to be gifted with goldfish, you might buy your own from the itinerant goldfish peddler. The Regency was a great time for merchandise coming to you instead of t'other way round.
In the interests of providing a full audio-visual experience, I'm going to wander far afield from the Regency and bring in Debussy's piano piece, Poisson d'or.
You can listen to Poisson d'or here. That's Magda Tagliaferro playing, and she's 92.
Debussy used to call the times when inspiration ran dry, his 'factory of nothingness."
While you're listening to that goldfish music . . .
I became interested in the question of Regency and French Revolutionary goldfish, (allow me to pause while I rid my mind of the image of small revolutionary fish carrying banners,) because, in my book, The Forbidden Rose, my heroine keeps fish.
Well . . . she kept fish.
In this scene her chateau has been burned and looted, and naturally no one thinks about the fish in a situation like this. It's always the innocent fish that suffer.
The wide granite pool was white as the moon. It was cold as the moon when she dipped her hand beneath the surface of the reflection. “Will you tell me what you plan to do with me? I am naturally curious.”
“We’ll talk about it when we’re on the road. I want to get away from here. Soap.” LeBreton laid it beside the towels. A metal box of soft and greasy-looking soap. “Probably not what you’re used to.”
“It is lovely. Thank you.”
“Don’t get any in the pool.”
Fish were poisoned by soap. She liked it that LeBreton knew that, and cared. It is in such small things that men reveal themselves.
Goldfish came and nibbled at her fingers. She had named them all when she was a child. Moses—because he parted the waters—and Blondine and fat, lazy Rousseau. Once the noisy Jacobin riffraff took themselves off, Mayor Leclerc would come from the village with tubs to steal her fish for his own pond. He had coveted them for many years. She hoped he would hurry. They should not be neglected in this fashion.
. . . (and later) . . .
She wore nothing at all. It was strange to be unclothed under the open sky.
Her reflection looked up at her from the fish basin, more pale than the sky, rippling in the circles that spread where fish came to lip at the surface. The rim of the basin was gritty under her, with little puddles in every unevenness. The wind of the new day scraped her skin like a dull knife. She put her feet in the water. The slippery film of mud at the bottom of the pool crept up between her toes.
Cold. Immeasurably cold.
Quickly, before she lost her courage, she wet half the towel, rubbed water down her arms, over her stomach, hissing every breath in and out. Then up and down her thighs. She washed every scratch, every cut. There was not one of them without a sting. It was not helpful to remind herself that she was the descendent of warriors.
Moses and Rousseau and the other great rulers of the pool held themselves aloof, but many small fish came to nibble at her calves and ankles and the knuckles of her hands with little bites, like kittens.
Author anecdote here: My aunt had a goldfish named Moses who lived in a big ornamental pond behind her house. He used to come up to the top and blow bubbles when she rang a bell. When you write your own books you get to name the fictional goldfish after goldfish you have known personally.
Anyhow . . . While goldfish were swimming happily about in English drawing rooms in 1730-ish, they didn't arrive in America till about a century later. They showed up sometime in the early years of the Nineteenth Century. No one knows just when. Actress Fanny Kemble recounts finding goldfish in a pool at a florists in New York in the 1830s.
Which brings us at last to the vexatious question of goldfish versus koi.
Koi to the left. Goldfish to the right.
Koi are Johnnies-come-lately. No Regency koi, alas.
Since I cannot resist talking about koi anyway: The Japanese word 'koi' means simply 'carp'. What we call koi the Japanese call 'nishikigoi'. 'Brocaded carp'.
By chance, the Japanese word, 'koi', is a homophone for another word that means 'affection' or 'love'. Koi are therefore symbols of love and friendship in Japan.
In celebration of the goldfishes Blondine, Rousseau and Moses, I'll be giving away a copy of either The Forbidden Rose or the trade paperback of Spymaster's Lady, (your choice,) to one lucky poster in the comment trail.
So — what pet should the Romance heroine, (or hero,) keep? Monkey, hedgehog, ferret, hummingbird? Maybe an attack dog?