Thursday, January 14, 2010

Paleontologist Mary Anning Deserved Better

Mary Anning was one of the great fossil hunters. Born in Lyme Regis, England, in 1799, she grew up in poverty and seldom escaped it during her short adult life, dying of breast cancer in 1847. Her father, Richard, a cabinetmaker, died when she was 11 years old. To support her mother and siblings, Mary and her brother turned to what their father had taught them, fossil hunting on the beach and crumbling cliffs that lined the shore to the east and west of Lyme Regis, a town on the southern coast of England, across the Channel from France. They sold these “curiosities” to tourists who vacationed in the area during the warm months of the year.

Long after her brother found refuge in an apprenticeship to an upholsterer (blessed indoor work), Mary Anning spent her days on the beach and cliffs, developing into a fossil hunting virtuoso, responsible for unearthing specimens that shook the scientific and religious worlds of her day. Anning’s unerring eye detected the remains of vertebrate “monsters” in the cliffs. Her discoveries of the marine reptiles ichthyosaur with its huge eyes, and plesiosaur with its improbably long neck, elevated her to paleontology stardom.

Anning developed a scientific understanding of the creatures whose fossil remains she found and sold, learning about them in part from the paleontologists and geologists, such as William Buckland, who came to Lyme Regis to buy her fossils and to seek her guidance in their pursuit. Unfortunately, she also learned that the exclusively male scientific ranks were closed to her not only because of her gender but also because of her social standing. Not surprisingly, given the prejudices of her time, seldom did those who acquired her specimens give her any credit for the finds; a male dominated world devalued her hard work, skill, and knowledge.

A Rush of Interest?

My present relationship with Mary Anning is akin to that selfish moment that may follow the elation at finding an exceptional fossil, it is a strong desire to keep the success and the area to myself. I had wanted to keep Anning to myself for a bit longer. Yes, I know Anning is well known in some paleontology-tinged circles, but certainly not broadly and that state of affairs is, I think, about to change.

Tracy Chevalier has written a piece of historical fiction entitled Remarkable Creatures, telling Anning’s story. Regardless of the worth of the new novel, the cachet of the author’s name – Chevalier is the author of the bestseller Girl With a Pearl Earring – presumably means much press coverage (I’ve heard her interviewed on January 2, 2010 on NPR, and I’ve read a review of the book in the January 13th issue of the Washington Post) and, as a result, big sales. And, last year, journalist Shelley Emling came out with an Anning biography entitled The Fossil Hunter: Dinosaurs, Evolution, and the Woman Whose Discoveries Changed the World which, though it has not caused the stir that Chevalier’s novel probably will, still extends the reach of the Anning story.

Both books are readable and informative, though neither soars and neither is without serious faults. On the whole, I prefer Emling’s biography, in part because Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures does what I think is a great disservice to Anning and to one of the men in her life.

New Novel

Remarkable Creatures has the trappings of a Jane Austen novel, though with a focus on the truly impoverished and without that author’s senses of humor and irony. (There are other Austen connections to the Anning story – she was a visitor to Lyme Regis, thought Richard Anning wanted to charge too much to repair a box lid, and featured the town in her novel Persuasion.) The dramatic tension in Chevalier’s novel, such as it is, stems from the dilemma of an unmarried, uneducated, impoverished woman fighting hard to make her way in early 19th Century England. Her encounters with male fossil collectors and scientists are typically misinterpreted and, without chaperones, deemed improper. As Chevalier put it in the NPR interview, “[I]n a way, this book tries to answer that question, what do women do who don't find the Mr. Darcy of the Jane Austen novels? What do they do when they don't get married? What is there for them in this society that expects them to marry?” Yes, it’s unfair that Anning was so circumscribed and limited by social convention; unfortunately, in Chevalier’s hands, it does not make for compelling reading.

Chevalier decided that Anning’s voice alone could not carry the novel because she was uneducated and parochial. So, the author alternates Mary’s voice with that of Elizabeth Philpot, an actual resident of the town, one of three unmarried sisters who relocated in somewhat financially constrained circumstances to Lyme Regis from London after the death of their parents. Philpot was educated, middle class, and became a consummate collector of fossil fish.

It’s this choice to add a powerful second voice to the novel that does a disservice to Anning. It’s ironic that in her own fictionalized story, Mary Anning is not allowed to be the main attraction because of what her society and circumstances did or did not allow her to be. Anning’s voice as Chevalier portrays it is often painfully immature. Elizabeth Philpot’s perspective on Anning doesn’t help since, despite her strong affection for her, Philpot still sees Mary as a victim and as a flighty, unsophisticated, and immature personality. The great intellectual strides Anning made during her lifetime receive short shrift in the novel. She worked hard to learn about what she was finding and the consequences of those finds, in the process filling commonplace books with religious and scientific works that she painstakingly copied out. It is puzzling why Chevalier never lets us really see that aspect of Anning’s maturation through her own eyes; only very briefly does it arise, particularly when Philpot stumbles upon some of the scientific literature Anning has copied. Perhaps inevitably this choice to add a voice shifts the focus of the novel from Anning and fossils, to the friendship between two women who fell outside of respectable society because of their independence, unmarried status, and fascination with fossils.

As for real violence in the novel, it’s what Chevalier does to retired Lieutenant Colonel Thomas James Birch. Birch, a real person, is made out to be the quintessential cad, exaggerating his rank, toying with Anning’s mother, flirting with the young woman to enlist her efforts in building his own fine collection of fossils, and then abandoning her and her family as soon as she leads him to a prime ichthyosaur specimen (which out of her misguided infatuation with him she carefully allows him to think he has actually found). All of this done, according to Chevalier, without any recompense to the Annings for whom fossil finds were their economic lifeline. Only later, when confronted and threatened with exposure by Philpot, does Birch do the right thing, auctioning off his collection and giving the Annings the proceeds.

This is character assassination plain and simple. I have to presume Chevalier thought a particularly villainous male would add some kind of dramatic fillip to the story. Birch did not deserve this. I think Emling’s biography provides the truer portrait of the man. She writes, “Often [Birch] went to Lyme Regis, where he took to visiting with Mary and her mother in their home, buying many fine specimens from them. . . . Shortly after their first encounter, Mary discovered a nearly complete ichthyosaur, and Birch purchased it.” (p. 70, emphasis added) So much for Birch’s using the family to his own ends and driving it into poverty. He then returned to Lyme Regis a year later to discover the Annings in dire straits because Mary’s finds had been scant. At this point, according Emling, Birch decided to auction his collection in order to raise funds for the Annings. I would note that Birch emerges from Thomas W. Goodhue’s 2002 biography of Anning (Curious Bones: Mary Anning and the Birth of Paleontology) the same way – generous and supportive.

Emling does note that “Birch’s act of generosity sparked some fantastic rumors” (p. 72) Unfortunately, Chevalier has stitched those rumors into her novel. I do not see how she can square that with what, as she noted in the NPR interview, she perceives as her obligation in historical fiction to “get it right as best I can.”

New Biography

There is, of course, the recent biography about Mary Anning, The Fossil Hunter, that one could read, and, as a matter of fact, I think that would be the better choice. This is the source to learn something about Mary Anning’s contributions to paleontology and the social, economic, and scientific contexts within which Anning lived, worked, and died.

Emling’s biography is a solid effort (yes, this is a bit of damning with faint praise). The author is clearly judicious in her treatment of available sources of information on Mary Anning, resisting the temptation to give contemporary rumors a free ride. Yet, as Emling strives to build a sense of immediacy, she becomes too concerned about alerting the reader to what is actually known and what is supposition. I would have preferred her to tell me that Mary was feeling something (and trust me to know that it’s the author’s well-grounded understanding), rather than subject me to “Mary must have marveled . . . .” or “Mary was probably feeling in fine form . . . .” Perhaps a surer editing hand was needed, one that would have decided that the reader does not need to learn 3 different times in 20 pages that the cliffs in the area of Lyme Regis are “unstable,” or that would have kept the author from describing fossils fragments as possibly coming from “giant critters.”

The book does offer some fascinating insight into the period. Her brief discussion of the Industrial Revolution and its impact on geology and paleontology is well done. This was a revolution marked by digging – transportation needs led to cutting through hills and mountains to lay railroad tracks, construction needs were met by quarrying limestone to make cement, and fuel for the engines of the revolution came from coal mining. All of these exposed fossils and revealed discrete layers of rock. Inquisitive minds took it from there. Parenthetically, people sought to escape the grit and grime of industrialized urban areas by vacationing at a place like Lyme Regis, creating a market for “curiosities.”

Geology of Lyme Regis

The geology of Lyme Regis is a major character in both books, though it comes out a bit short changed. That geology made all the difference for Anning is clear, had she been born elsewhere we likely wouldn't be telling her story. Either book would have been enhanced immeasurably by a map of the coastline (as endpapers perhaps for Chevalier’s novel). Such a simple thing.

The Lyme Regis coastline is marked by high, crumbly cliffs along the shore which, as they extend east and west from Lyme Regis, expose nearly the full array of rock formations of the Mesozoic Era, the some 200 million years of the Age of the Dinosaurs, beginning about 251 million years ago. This area was a sea at this juncture. Some of the names of the formations laid down at the time and now exposed here are delightful. Anning spent a significant amount of time searching material from the Jurassic Period’s Blue Lias Formation, a mix of limestone and shale which, apparently, was named for the bluish color of the rock and, either the pronunciation of “layers” in the local dialect or, as Emling would have it, the Gaelic word for “flat stone”. The Charmouth Mudstone Formation is another key Jurassic formation, subdivided into various layers including the Shales-with-Beef Member made of mudstone and given its named because it includes a series of thin beds with the appearance of sliced beef. The 150 foot high cliffs to the east of town are known as Black Ven. (Discovering Fossils, on the web, provides a great introduction to the geological formations in the area.)

Both authors do catch the reality of hunting fossils along a shoreline with abutting cliffs that frequently give voice to their fragility with loud landslips. It is a precarious business, I know, searching for that shape or glint that shouts fossil while staying alert to where one is and what might be towering overhead. The areas along the Chesapeake Bay that I hunt offer those same challenges, without, of course, the (legal) opportunity or risk of actually scrambling up or digging into the cliff sides, or the possibility of discovering remains of those Mesozoic monsters in the Chesapeake’s Cenozoic setting.

Agassiz Redeems Himself

Emling in the biography provided a very different perspective on Swiss naturalist Louis Agassiz, who interacted with both Anning and Philpot, from the one I have had. I would have fully expected him to behave toward Anning as he had toward some of the young scientists who worked with him, leading a few to claim he had taken credit for work they’d done. A man who would leave his family behind in Europe when he left for America would be expected to play the same role that other male scientists had with the two women. Instead, surprisingly, he didn’t. In fact, in his magnum opus on fossil fish, Recherches Sur Les Poissons Fossiles, he acknowledged the signal contributions of both Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot to his understanding of these fossils. He took the bold step of naming two species of fish after Anning – Acrodus anningiae and Belenostomus anningiae – and one after Philpot as well – Eugnathus philpotae. Emling writes, “Such acts of respect for women were unheard of among Mary’s British colleagues. Every one of her own finds had been named after men.” (p. 169)

I was disappointed that Chevalier did not include the naturalist in her novel because I wanted to see if her characterization of him would come close to my own in previous posts on this blog. Perhaps Agassiz’s failure to play true to form in this case explains his absence from the novel. [A later thought: Of course, he could have suffered Birch's fate.]

The first picture above shows an ichthyosaur from Lyme Regis. It appears at The photographer is listed as "User:Ballista from Dinosaurland, Lyme Regis, England." The file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.

The second picture is of a cast of a plesiosaur found by Mary Anning and currently at the Muséum National d'histoire Naturelle, Paris. It appears at It was uploaded by FunkMonk. The file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.


  1. Hi, I am just finishing the Chevalier novel and have to agree with your assessment very much. I am about to read the Emling biography of Mary Anning. I became aware of Mary Anning through another historical fiction work (written about the same time as Chevalier's) by Canadian author Joan Thomas, "Curiosity". While she also takes some fictional liberties with Mary's life, it appears that she comes closer to the real Mary Anning than Chevalier and, e.g. Birch is given the character and role that he apparently had in real life... I find her book to reflect more realistically also the social circumstances in which Mary had to operate as well as her intellectual development over the years. In case you are interested, the Thomas book has been reviewed on by me.

  2. Thanks for the comment. I didn't know about Joan Thomas' book and will certainly read your Amazon review of it. I don't think writers of historical fiction have to adhere strictly to the facts and are certainly free to depict the larger truths. But there is a limit to the playing with the facts and Chevalier exceeded it in my mind.

  3. F Knabe:
    Just read your Amazon review. Very nicely done. Fascinating that Thomas and Chevalier both felt the need to divide the narrative. Thomas' may have been the better choice.

  4. Thanks Tony.
    Well, Thomas stays with one narrator and thereby avoids the somewhat artifically sounding first person voices - one too naive and the other too patronizing, I found. And Thomas builds a more believable romance... I agree with your comment on the limits of artistic licence. What is a good balance between fact and fiction? that is always the question. I have corresponded with Thomas on her book for a bit. She wanted to stay, deliberately, as close to the real person as possible. There was enough drama in her life...


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