Mary Anning lived for her whole short life in Lyme Regis on the south coast of England. Born into a working-class family—her father was a cabinet-maker—Mary started while still a small child helping with the family’s sideline of gathering fossils from the cliffs that stretched along the shore. These were sold to tourists for much-needed income.
As a child, Mary’s claim to local fame was that she had been struck by lightning while only a little over a year old and survived, unlike the woman holding her or the two other children nearby. Chevalier imaginatively uses this incident as a source of much that is different about Mary, such as her remarkable eye for spotting fossils.
Chevalier’s novel is historical fiction, but Anning was a real person who lived during the first half of the 19th century. So was Elizabeth Philpot, a lady of limited means who moved with her sisters to Lyme Regis. While looking for the pretty stones she did not yet realise were fossils, Elizabeth became friends with young Mary even though she was 20 years older.
The story is really about their friendship, a peculiar one not only because of the difference in their ages and circumstances, but because of their shared rejection of the customs of the day. Climbing around on the cliffs digging out fossils and reading scientific treatises about them were not approved activities for women of any class. Mary taught Elizabeth how to recognize fossils in the shale and limestone of the cliffs, while Elizabeth taught her how to read and write and also shared with her the scientific papers that she found.
Gathering fossils was dangerous work because the cliffs were unstable. As the ground crumbled during storms, new fossils were exposed, but the two women were always in danger of being buried by a landslide. It was also dangerous because at the time the very existence of fossils was disputed because they repudiated the prevalent literal understanding of the Bible by suggesting not only that the earth might not have been created in a handful of days, but also that God may have allowed some of his creatures to die out. At that time it was believed that God watched over his creatures and could not have made a mistake or allowed any of them to become extinct.
Completely self-taught, Anning became a significant figure in the history of science. We follow her footsteps as she discovers an ichthyosaur skeleton—she was the first to suggest that it was not a crocodile, but something that must have lived long ago—as well as two complete plesiosaur skeletons and a pterosaur skeleton. She and Elizabeth also find important fish fossils. Elizabeth’s significant contributions later led her nephew to build a museum originally named after who her that later became the Lyme Regis Museum. Part of her collection is in the Oxford Museum of Natural History.
Amateur fossil hunters and prominent geologists of the day not only consulted Anning, and but also asked her to lead them on fossil hunting expeditions on the cliffs. Some of the men whom she helped took credit for her, finds but towards the end of her life this misrepresentation was corrected and her accomplishments began to be recognized.
While I’m delighted to have these two foremothers’ stories brought out of obscurity and introduced to a popular audience, I do have some qualms about historical fiction in general. Because so little is known about the details of their lives, there is ample room for a novelist’s imagination.
However, when we are talking about two women who actually lived, I have reservations about taking the liberty of adding to their stories. We can guess at their likely motivations, but the author herself admits that she made up some events that I believe the women would not thank her for. Of course, after we’re dead and have no one to speak for us, we have no control over our own stories. At least Anning has not been featured in a commercial dancing with a vacuum cleaner like Fred Astaire.
Still, Chevalier has done a great deal of research and written an engaging book. She has also done a great service in bringing out the inspiring story of these two women.
Have you recently learned about an area of women’s history that was new to you, perhaps through a book or a film?