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Ammonite: A Missed Opportunity

Mary Anning’s story is fascinating in its own right - so why make it up?
This article appeared in Vol. 18, No. 6 - 2022

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Ammonite: A Missed Opportunity

© Lionsgate Films. The film ‘Ammonite’, described as ‘loosely inspired by the life of British palaeontologist Mary Anning’ and written and directed by Francis Lee, had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2020. It is beautifully shot and highly atmospheric, with the cold winds coming off the sea on the south coast of England almost felt by the viewer. It also features fantastic performances from the two female leads, Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan as Mary Anning and Charlotte Murchison, with support from the veteran actor Gemma Jones as Mary’s mother, quietly mourning the death in infancy of eight of her ten children.

A Romantic Drama

Ammonite, described as a ‘romantic drama’, tells the story of Mary, who spends her life walking under the cliffs of Lyme Regis in all weathers seeking out fossils and other interesting rocks to sell to tourists, and Charlotte, wife of gentleman scientist and aspiring geologist Roderick Murchison. They meet when Charlotte is staying in the town in the hope that sea air will help her recover from depression. Through a number of slightly unlikely circumstances, Charlotte ends up staying with Mary and her mother in their cold and basic cottage on the sea front, where Mary and Charlotte, in between a bit of desultory fossil hunting, embark on a passionate but doomed love affair. 

A film centred on women and their relationships, with very few male actors appearing even fleetingly, is to be celebrated in the modern environment, especially when it is as well acted and produced as this one, and I would recommend viewing it, although with the warning that it does contain some very explicit scenes. My main problem with the film, however, is that Mary Anning is not a fictional character. She is an important, if frequently overlooked, player in the history of geology and there is a much more important true tale to be told here; there is no need to invent a romantic story for Mary Anning’s life to be interesting.

Self-Educated Fossil Expert

As many people reading this will know, Mary was the self-taught, working class woman from Lyme Regis on the south coast of England who, while collecting fossils for a living, became an expert on Jurassic fauna at a time when the science of geology was in its infancy and the significance of fossils was just being recognised. As mentioned in the movie, at the tender age of 11 she discovered (with her brother, a character conveniently wiped from the film’s story) the first known ichthyosaur, which the family sold and which can still be seen in the Natural History Museum in London. Her most famous find was of the first complete plesiosaur, in 1823, and she also made the first discovery of a pterosaur in Britain and a new type of fossil fish, squaloraja, in 1829. There were probably many more that were not attributed to her, with the purchaser often taking the credit.

Mary was well known and respected as an excellent fossil finder, and many aspiring ‘gentleman scientists’ visited her in Lyme to understand her techniques for finding and preserving fossils – including both Roderick Murchison and his wife Charlotte, who she stayed with on her only trip to London (a key point in the film). But despite acknowledging her skill and knowledge and frequently visiting and corresponding with her about the fossils she had found and the geology of the region, with a few exceptions the scientific establishment did not really accept her because of her gender and humble background. She never published any scientific papers, while several learned gentlemen made their name by plagiarising her work and thoughts; she is reputed to have commented that: “these men of learning have sucked my brains and made a great deal by publishing works, while I derived none of the advantages.” Belatedly, a few years before she died of cancer at the age of 48, she received some annuities from the scientific community in recognition of her work, including from the Geological Society of London, which had refused to allow her to become a fellow because she was a woman (a rule they only changed in 1919). 

Surely there is enough in all this for a good film about Mary Anning’s life?

Poorly Served

Anyone viewing this film with no knowledge of geology will leave it knowing little more, except that it seems a hard, cold and rather muddy field of study, as Mary and Charlotte fight the tide, rain and rockfalls as they search for fossils on a windswept beach and then spend hours chipping away at them by candlelight. The importance of the fossils is never discussed, and the non-geologist may only pick up a single geological fact from this film; namely that coprolite is fossilised poo. In fact, Mary Anning was one of the first people to recognise these fossils as such, a point not mentioned.

Charlotte Murchison is also served poorly by this film. Rather than being a shy little mouse much younger than Mary Anning, as she is, at least initially, portrayed in the film, she was a strong, well-educated woman, at least ten years older than Mary, who had encouraged her husband Roderick Murchison to develop an interest in geology and subsequently accompanied him on all his travels, taking part in geological discussions and using her artistic skills to illustrate his writings. She and Mary certainly wrote letters to one another, none of which hinted at any strong affection and most of which were rather business-like, as Charlotte acted as a conduit between her wealthy friends and Mary in the sale of fossils.

It appears Mary had a lot of friends, male and female, and was not the monosyllabic misanthrope Kate Winslet so ably personifies, although the quote above implies she was obviously quite forthright. She shared her knowledge and skill generously with many people. Whether she had any sexual relationships, lesbian or otherwise, is not relevant to her story. Film-makers are at liberty to make things up, but dwelling on this aspect to make an imaginary romance the centre of the narrative loses so many more important aspects of this remarkable woman’s life. Francis Lee is quoted as saying that he gave Mary a romance with a woman because she had been served badly by men throughout her life, without seeing the irony of the fact that he was yet another man pushing aside the things she considered important in her story: her scientific knowledge and contributions to the science of geology. Mary Anning deserves better.

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