‘Jenny Haniver’ is the mysterious name given to grotesque composite fish-creatures made by sailors. They were conventionally made from skates or rays, presumably because these are among the most anthropomorphic sea-creatures easily obtainable from a boat – compare Jean-Baptise-Simeon Chardin’s haunting still life ‘The Ray’ (below), where the dismembered fish hovers in the background like a lacerated human soul in torment.
Jenny Hanivers overlap thematically with ‘strange fish’ – curiosities from the sea displayed at fairs and markets for money. Strange fish might be either outright composite fakes or bizarre fish believed by their exhibitors to be genuine – in The Tempest Trinculo mistakes Caliban for one such, in the process evoking a contemporary English consumer culture of exotic objects:
A strange fish! Were I in England now, as once I was, and had but this fish painted, not a holiday fool there but would give a piece of silver: there would this monster make a man; any strange beast there makes a man: when they will not give a doit to relieve a lame beggar, they will lazy out ten to see a dead Indian.
Jenny Hanivers also have obvious connections to mermaid fakes – many ‘sirens’ were made from sewing a monkey corpse to a fish corpse, or indeed assembled from the ground upwards like craft objects (as with the talismanic merman at London’s Horniman museum, which seems to have had a religious significance). This strain is the less Pre-Raphaelite image of the mermaid in history.
Where exactly Jenny Hanivers get their bizarre name is not clear – in The Fabled Coast (previously reviewed on this website), Sophia Kingshill and Jennifer Westwood give the term’s origin in ‘Jenny’ (as in female, like a ‘Jenny Wren’) and ‘D’Antwerp / D’Anvers’ (‘from Antwerp’, where they were supposedly manufactured). Wikipedia gives an uncited emendation as ‘jeune d’Anvers’, so they are not gendered, but rather precisely aged. But it’s still not entirely clear what their purpose was – clearly they had a commercial value, since they were made in a trading port and (presumably) sold to sailors as souvenirs; perhaps they also had uses as low-level fakes giving credence to sailors’ yarns. I think, with their evident strangeness, they also have something of the talismanic about them – in a harsh natural environment like the sea, you need all the help you can get.
Jenny Hanivers tie together many of the ideas running through this project – they are hybrids (albeit man-made) and they speak to an ancient tradition of myth and legend surrounding mermaids, mer-creatures and the sea. They also appear to have had a commercial value, which is a telling point in the light of our last trip to Deptford Creek (a key trading port), as well as in some of the discussions we’ve had about the commercialisation of the mermaid in the twentieth century. It’s interesting, too, that they appear to have been gendered as female. I thought I’d have a go at making some.
In this joint essay, we explain some of the ideas that have come to tie the project together for us.
The site of the first Poems Underwater excursion was St Michael’s Church, Longstanton, and its disused baptismal well.
One of the spookiest features of the church was the bell tower: it had no bells in, and the frayed rope looked like a snipped nerve. There was a sense of loneliness: the church could not summon anyone to it, and it could not ring a warning, as church bells traditionally do, if anyone was in danger (in a modern twist, church bells rang out a few years ago to signal danger to the climate).
This prompted us to start thinking about the ways in which phantom limbs used to be described using metaphors of bell ropes.
Phantom limbs and bell ropes
In the seventeenth century, Rene Descartes described a young girl who experienced a phantom arm after her arm was amputated. In this, one of the earliest accounts of phantom limb syndrome, Descartes notes that the girl:
‘complained of feeling various pains in her fingers, wrist and forearm; and this was obviously due to the condition of the nerves in her arm which had formerly led from her brain to those parts of her body’.
Commentators on Descartes’ analysis often used the image of the nerve as a rope pulling on the brain to explain why, even though a nerve is cut and shortened, it can still suggest to the brain that the arm is in place.
Often, these commentators argued that the nerves are like bell ropes: just as a shortened bell rope can still ring a bell as well as a long bell rope can, a cut nerve sends exactly the same signals to the brain as an undamaged nerve does – fooling the brain into thinking that an amputated limb is still in place.
This metaphor gained hold; Silas Weir Mitchell wrote in the nineteenth century:
‘In other words, the nerve is like a bell-wire. You may pull it at any part of its course, and thus ring the bell as well as if you pulled at the end of the wire; but, in any case, the intelligent servant will refer the pull to the front door, and obey it accordingly’.
This idea has since been refuted; neurologists like VS Ramachandran have found that phantom limbs are not caused because nerves ‘pull’ on the brain like ropes, but because when a limb is amputated, the sense receptors in the lost limb are ‘recreated’ elsewhere in the body.
Mermaids and amputations
Nevertheless the bell rope idea became richly suggestive for thinking about mermaids and amputations. Phantom bells ringing sailors to their doom are a pervasive feature of maritime and mermaid legends, including those of the sunken Suffolk village of Dunwich, the feature of a permanent exhibition in Orford (site of the second excursion), which was overwhelmed by the sea, and whose bells are still said to ring out threats and warnings.
And, in so many mermaid narratives, mermaids give up their tails in order to replace them with legs. Though Disney turned this into a magical transformation seemingly effected by means of some swirling smoke, many stories speak of mermaids physically ripping their tails apart in order that they may have legs. The pictures of mermaids’ tails made from twisted up tights in our gallery suggest translucent, phantom legs haunting the tail shape.
Andersen’s nameless Little Mermaid longs to be free of her tail in order to gain an immortal soul. Indeed, her grandmother tells her:
‘Your fish’s tail, which amongst us is considered so beautiful, is thought on earth to be quite ugly; they do not know any better, and they think it necessary to have two stout props, which they call legs, in order to be handsome.’
The Little Mermaid’s ‘fish’s tail’ is the key attribute dividing her from the ‘earth’ and keeping her from integration with the mysterious others (‘they’) who inhabit it. The telling one-remove possessive the grandmother chooses – a ‘fish’s tail’, not a hybrid mermaid’s – locates that tail firmly in the world of the sea, well away from any suggestion of uncertainty, and simultaneously distances the mermaid from her own body (which, thus, may not be her own).
The painful phantom
One of the most striking features of both mermaids’ new legs in mermaid narratives and medical accounts of phantom limbs is the emphasis on the pain of the transformed body.
In Anderson’s tale, though her ‘fish’s tail’ inhibits the mermaid’s spiritual development – her chance to gain a soul – the later acquisition of the necessary ‘stout props’ is equally disabling, since, once she actually gets on the earth, the mermaid’s steps become excruciatingly painful and every step feels like ‘treading upon the points of needles or sharp knives’.
For Andersen, this pain is morally justifiable, even desirable, because it is in the surface of spiritual attainment – the Little Mermaid’s pain, which she ‘bears willingly’ is comparable with bodily mortification or indeed the passion of Christ, and Andersen clearly approves of his heroine’s fortitude, though he refuses to give her a happy ending.
For the mermaid, then – particularly in Anderson – legs are often a means of coping with a particular desire to be human, to assuage a feeling that her current body and her current environment frustrate her desires. Her newly-acquired legs can be at once enabling in helping her to achieve this desire and disabling as they cause her excruciating pain.
By the time Silas Weir Mitchell coined the term ‘phantom limb’ in his fictional Case of George Dedlow in the nineteenth century, cited above, the phenomenon of phantom pain had been documented for centuries. (Weir Mitchell’s story of phantom legs takes the idea very literally: the protagonist, George Dedlow, summons his amputated legs during a séance, and, because they have been preserved in alcohol, becomes drunk as soon as he puts them on and starts reeling and swaggering about on them: it’s a great story and you can read it online).
In 1551, the French surgeon Ambroise Paré notes (the following quotation is from the 1649 English translation of his works)
‘the Patient who have many moneths after the cutting away of the legge, grievously complained that they yet felt exceeding great paine of that Leg so cut off’.
Paré did as much as he could for his patients – indeed, he patented some pretty cool prosthetic limbs like this iron hand that was filled with levers and cogs so that, when buttons were discretely pressed in the palm, it could gesture and grasp objects (above).
However, before anaesthetic, amputation was always a painful affair in itself: the use of a tightly tied ribbon near the amputation site was often the only means of pain relief, and the bone was subsequently sanded down with an ornate metal knife, its exquisite patterns no doubt filled with bacteria (as in the depiction of an amputation below, right).
Most of the treatises describing amputation from the early modern period are written by surgeons at sea (a popular example was John Woodall’s The Surgeon’s Mate of 1617, where the stylised picture below of an amputation in progress comes from), confirming the sea as a site of violent bodily transformation.
Today, scientific studies and first hand accounts from suffers, show that phantom pain manifests itself in many ways, for instance phantom hands may dig their fingernails constantly and excruciatingly into phantom arms.
The pain of the mermaid when she gets her legs, the feeling that she is walking on upturned knives or swords, consolidates this idea of the transformed mermaid’s body as a painful phantom.
Legs on land, fins in the water
In more recent pop cultural representations of the mermaid (for example the 1984 film Splash!) the mermaid, unlike Andersen’s, can go onto land with her tail – ‘she has fins in the water and legs out of the water’, as the film’s scientist villain explains – but this decision calls attention to the mermaid’s helplessness within the wrong environments.
Darryl Hannah’s mermaid, Madison, is disabled by the appearance of her fins on land, which incapacity allows her to be taken to a laboratory and experimented upon.
This is a typical 1980s addition to the standard fantasy plot (see also: ET) that attempts to locate the Splash! mermaid within some kind of ‘rational’ biology – the scientist leading the examination is particularly interested in finding out how Madison’s reproductive organs work, arguably the central mystery of the mermaid figure since its first appearance in Western art many centuries ago. He doesn’t get to find out, because the ailing Madison is carried back to the sea in a blanket, and allowed to swim away freely.
However, we found a several parallel examples of mermaid tails in the popular imagination as enablers. Alongside the idea of ‘phantom limbs’ is the contrasting one of prosthesis – etymologically an ‘addition’ or an ‘attachment’. This sense of growth through an external appendage is present in, for example, Eric Ducharme’s ‘Mertailor’ company – a niche business making ‘various mermaid tail products varying from swimsuit fabrics to realistic full body mermaid tail prosthetics’ for both commercial and recreational markets.
Ducharme’s website states he wants to ‘promote the idea of “mermaiding”’, which is presented as a kind of self-discovery through underwater swimming. Like his compatriot, Mermaid Melissa (a professional mermaid performer) – Ducharme’s story focuses on a sense of personal growth through an affinity with the sea. Quoted, Ducharme says:
‘It’s taken me a really long time to kind of understand my place in life […but] when I put on a tail I feel transformed. I feel like I’m starting to enter a different world.’
Andersen’s Little Mermaid might recognise the feeling of not understanding one’s ‘place’ in life, but misfits can attain border-crossings through Ducharme’s mermaid prosthetics in a manner alien to the physical brutality of Andersen’s hacked limbs and disabling steps.
Mermaid Melissa’s story, too, focuses on the idea that a sea-crazy child came into her own, as an adult, by ‘owning’ her mermaid passion – something that was always there, but had never before come through fully (whether because of suppression or unawareness is unclear).
Like Ducharme’s, Melissa’s is a tale of capitalist triumph and ‘girl done good’ happy ending: she manages to marketise her interest in mermaids to a mass audience and becomes a ‘mermaid for hire’, crossing from niche hobby and career misfit to semi-mainstream businesswoman.
These mermaid tail prosthetics provide access to another world – spiritual or psychological peace or exploration, career triumph – in a way that Andersen’s mermaid never experiences, even when she gets her much-desired legs. They also allow for an appropriation of the seas and sea mythology that is curatorial in both senses of the word, since there is also a strong ecological bent to both Ducharme and Mermaid Melissa’s work (Melissa’s strapline is ‘Saving the world’s oceans before all creatures become mythical’).
It’s an interesting parallel with the Angry Mermaid campaign against climate change, which appropriates Andersen’s own mermaid through the Copenhagen statue, and as with that campaign, these mer-businesspeople are using the boundary-crossing facilitated by mer-prosthetics to pull the concerns of one world into the public discussion of the other.
This becomes doubly interesting in the case of the prosthetic tail made for Nadja Vessey, a double amputee who commissioned Peter Jackson’s Weta Workshop to make her a mermaid tail for swimming.
The Workshop had made mermaid tails before, but making one for a double amputee posed unique problems with mobility and weights, because Nadja was not able to manipulate the tail with her legs. These problems perhaps highlight the essential (and inaccurate) concept of the Ducharme / Melissa Mermaid franchise: that human and fish can be interchangeable, since both states rely on insistent use of legs to bring about the illusion of not having any.
Melissa’s tail in particular follows the line and movement of the human body beneath to the extent that it almost becomes unconvincing. Indeed both she and Ducharme (who spent childhood holidays at the Weeki Wachee Springs) are clearly in the tradition of the 1940s mermaid epitomised in ‘Million Dollar Mermaid’ and synchronised swimmer Esther Williams, whose whole aesthetic is focused around the legs, thus highlighting the essential human-ness of these supposed magical beings with their slip-on tails.
Life within environments
This sense of being at home, or not at home in different environments, and how the body (or disabled body) might interact with different prostheses, takes on a new shape when comparing the mermaid idea with a work such as Sue Austin’s ‘Underwater Wheelchair’ performance work. Here, the artist – and her wheelchair – are filmed swimming underwater, in a project that (in the artist’s words) explores ways of ‘representing a strong and empowered image of disability’.
‘Portal’ (2007), the image produced as part of the project, showing the artist submerged underwater in her wheelchair seeks to ‘capture something of the experience of finding one’s identity being “submerged” by prejudice when acquiring a disability’ but also to ‘reshape cultural stereotypes associated with the wheelchair’.
As discussion around disability increasingly demands recognition for the significant impact of environments on the actual experience of being (or becoming) disabled, a work such as Austin’s asserts the perceived limitations of extreme environments (and, in metaphorical form, their power to efface ‘identifies’) whilst simultaneously seeking to ‘reshape’ those perceptions.
In bringing two worlds together it highlights the importance of environment for people who might find themselves marginalised and brings the question of identity to the fore.
These are some of the questions we’ve been exploring in response to the first two trips of the Poems Underwater project. Mermaids’ tails can prove both enabling and disabling, acting variously as phantom limbs or prosthetics – and it all comes together through this idea of an environment which accepts or rejects the mermaid. Though the mermaid’s body is neither ‘disabled’ , ‘ideal’, ‘able’, or ‘unable’ per se, she may encounter an environment which frustrates her desires, or makes it difficult to move. The environment itself, rather than her body, then, can be either disabling or enabling for the mermaid. The next trip is planned for very soon, and we look forward to seeing how these ideas might develop further in the context of a new space again.
 Rene Descartes, The philosophical writings of Descartes, trans. J. Cottingham et al, volume 3 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 64.
 For instance in his 1694 translation of Anthony LeGrand’s commentary on Descartes, the bookseller and author Richard Blome says ‘the Nerves, which came from the Brain to the Hand, upon the cutting off of her Arm, reacht no further than her Elbow, where being affected after the same manner, as they used to be when her Hand was yet pained, made her suppose, that she felt the same pain she formerly felt in her Fingers….As is manifest in a Rope, the End whereof may as well be pull’d or hal’d by that Part which is nearest to the midst, as by the other End opposite to it’, An Entire Body of Philosophy Relating to the Principles of Renate Des Cartes (London: Samuel Roycroft, 1694), Ddddv.
 VS Ramachandran and Sandra Blakesee, Phantoms in the Brain (London: Fourth Estate, 1998), 22-9, 45. Cf. JP Hunter, J Katz, and KD Davis, ‘The effect of tactile and visual sensory inputs on phantom limb awareness’, Brain (2003) 126, 579–89.
 The Workes of that Famous Chirugion Ambroise Parey, trans. Thomas Jonson (London: Richard Cotes, 1649), 773.
Newton Perry was known as ‘the Human Fish’. He could stay under water for over three minutes.
After a stint training SEALs in the US Navy during World War II, Perry decided to set up shop in Weekiwachee, a spring in Florida so named by long-ousted Native Americans (‘winding river’) said to be so deep no-one had ever found the bottom.
When Perry took over its management, it was full of debris and junk, a long way from the holiday paradise Perry was planning to create. But that didn’t matter. Perry was planning mermaids, and there was a film in the offing.
The Underwater Theatre
In October 1947, Newton Perry opened Weeki Wachee Springs, and with them, his ‘Underwater Theatre’, an auditorium built into the stone, looking onto a glass window into the Springs themselves. Early audiences, for whom there was insufficient lighting, were forced to press their faces to the glass to see properly, lending an unintended spice of authenticity to this holiday safari.
On the other side of the glass, a bevy of attractive young women – carefully selected by Perry – swam and performed tricks under the water. Guests could see them swimming in sequence, performing ‘underwater ballets’ and – Perry’s own party trick – eating and drinking under the water. They were billed as the Weeki Wachee Mermaids – something that extended even to their publicity strategy, by which, siren-style, they would wait for the sound of passing cars, run out to the passengers, and entice them in to see the show.
These ‘mermaids’ had been trained to smile, swim and breathe underwater, using Perry’s Navy experience and a radical new invention – an air hose that could be concealed in scenery or around the costume, with no need for a tank. They were portrayed in every way as magical beings, something that fitted in well with the prevalent post-war desire for escapism and fantastical, glamorous women. Soon girls were flying in from all over the world, in the hopes of becoming one of the Weeki Wachee mermaids themselves, so they too could join in singing:
‘We’re not like other women,
We don’t have to clean an oven
And we never will grow old,
We’ve got the world by the tail!’
There had, of course, been a growing trend for specifically water-women since the arrival of ‘Million Dollar Mermaid’ Esther Williams at MGM in 1941. But when filming for Nunnally Johnson Productions’ Mr Peabody and the Mermaid began on-site at the Springs – with Perry’s expertise for the swimming scenes – the Weeki Wachee marketing machine – and the mermaids it represented – really started coming into its own.
Mr Peabody was the lightweight tale of a middle-aged man experiencing a mid-life crisis and meeting a mermaid (with hilarious results), and Perry used it as a launch pad to rebrand the springs from the Native American ‘Weekiwachee’ to the obviously more comprehensible Weeki Wachee – in the process shifting most people’s pronunciation from the more authentic ‘Wicky-washee’ to the phonetic form favoured today. On the film’s release, Perry brought an enormous water tank to the premiere and had his mermaids perform inside it – Weekie Wachee, he so declared, was the place for mermaids.
Working with Ann Blyth
The star of the film was Oscar nominee Ann Blyth – now best remembered as the malevolent Veda, daughter to Joan Crawford in the Oscar-winning Mildred Pierce (1945). She actually had some small success in Mr Peabody, though today the most striking thing about her appearance in this role is how clearly it, like the mermaid theme more generally, was a product of the Forties. The micro-fringe and immaculate make-up are clearly rooted in their time (though, ironically, the look might now be mistaken as uber-modern retro) – almost as if the escapism of the post-war era needed to be ironically set within its own time.
Here is Ann Blyth with Perry, getting her webbed feet on:
This picture dates from Blyth’s training with Perry, during which she learned all the techniques his usual mermaids employed – though most of them actually preferred not to wear tails in performance, as they impeded free movement. Although Blyth was said to be a quick learner, she still had a ‘real’ Weeki Wachee mermaid as her stunt double for many of the more elaborate swimming scenes – though, of course, she had to wear a tail. Here she is being helped into it, by two men in full suit and tie:
Blyth is apparently sitting on something, rather than leaning all her weight on the two men either side of her – but it’s not entirely clear who these men are. They are probably not from the wardrobe department, but they don’t look like technicians either – perhaps this is simply a created scene for the public, with no pretence at real-life accuracy.
Poised as she is, semi-naked, between two fully dressed men, Blyth’s physical immobility is striking, although the effect of the tail is to make her appear taller, and more fantastical. In some ways, it’s the perfect representation of the 1940s mermaid who, though most obviously represented by Blyth in Mr Peabody, finds a truer embodiment in Hollywood star Esther Williams.
A competitive swimmer, Williams’ roles throughout the Forties were water-themed, and her consequently frequent appearances in publicity shots clad only in bathing suits made her a pin-up (particularly in Perry’s native US Navy). She was a regular visitor to Weeki Wachee Springs, and Perry worked with her on Neptune’s Daughter in 1949 – also largely filmed on-site, just after Mr Peabody.
Just like Perry’s own mermaids, Williams was also ‘not like other women’ – there is an Esther Williams Trophy meme that persists in Navy parlance to this day. But it wasn’t all positive: Williams’ autobiography claims that Van Johnson, her co-star in Thrill of a Romance (1945) told the papers he wouldn’t consider dating her ‘because I’m afraid she can’t get her webbed feet into a pair of evening sandals’, suggesting equal parts desire and suspicion – even the sense that this female athlete might not be fully human.
The implication that Williams might almost have no legs at all – that she could be a melusine-like figure only seeming to be a woman – is doubly telling since her legs formed the main part of Williams’ sex appeal in all those publicity stills of the Forties – as they do in so many films of mid-century America, and in the publicity shot of Perry with his ‘mermaids in training’, above – the outdoorsy, healthy, all-American look that so permeates mid-century advertising and film. Perry’s mermaids in training – as in all the photos in this piece – have webbed feet too.
So there’s a strange ambiguity to the Mermaids’ pronouncement that ‘we’ve got the world by the tail’, when that tail, in fact, turns out to be their own.