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Curiosity, A Love Story
by Joan Thomas, McClelland &
Stewart, hardcover, 409 pages, $32.99 ISBN 978-07710-8417-1
Curiosity, A Love Story by Joan Thomas, McClelland & Stewart, hardcover, 409 pages, $32.99 ISBN 978-07710-8417-1
By Alidė Kohlhaas
There is a host of interesting personalities from the past about whom we would love to know more. Sadly, many remain obscure because they either failed to leave records, such as diaries or letters, or no one wrote about them. One of these is the first woman, who can be described as a paleontologist. Mary Anning, whom her contemporaries more often than not called a fossil hunter and dealer, is an amazing phenomenon, who deserves our attention.
In her novel Curiosity, Joan Thomas reaches back in time to the early 19th century, before Charles Darwin's journey on the Beagle and his book, Origins of the Species. Thomas' story is how she imagined Anning's early life transpired, how she rose above her very humble beginnings, mainly taught herself to read and write, managed to gentrify her Dorset accent, and most of all learned to identify and put together disparate pieces of fossils to create a whole. The author weaves in many known facts among her fancy so that everything she writes rings true, even if it sprang only from a writer's imagination.
Thomas' tale is beautifully told, full of the smell of the sea, the poor cottages of Anning's surroundings, and of the gentler air of the upper class folk who patronized or supported her. It all depends on how one likes to interpret the latter. That Anning ended up fitting into neither social class is not hard to understand. The 19th century had its rules that one broke at one's peril. The pain and the hurt that she must have felt when the men, who bought her large fossils, failed to give her recognition are part of the sensitive portrayal of the young woman's struggle to reach beyond the fate that should have been hers because of her class.
The novelist subtitled her tale A Love Story. That is the reason she set the story in the years of Anning's early life. It concluded in 1824, after her friend and aspiring geologist, Henry T. De la Beche, left Lyme Regis for his plantation in Jamaica.
Anning was born in Lyme Regis on May 21, 1799 to cabinetmaker Richard Anning and his wife, Mary (Molly). Her father died after a long illness when Anning was 10 years old. He died, most likely from tuberculosis that began after he fell on the very cliffs that made his daughter famous. There had been numerous children in the family, but only Mary and her brother Joseph reached adulthood. After Richard's death Mary became her family's main breadwinner. Although her older brother joined her in the search for small and large fossils, commonly called curiosities by the fine ladies and gents who bought them, once he entered an apprenticeship as an upholsterer, he appears to have contributed little to the support of his mother and two sisters. The younger of the two girls, Lizzy, eventually also died.
By age 12 Anning had such skills at finding fossils in the limestone cliffs in Lyme Regis, she managed to unearth a giant Icthyosaur. Her brother had found the head of the 'beast' a year earlier. Mary and her mother sold small fossils of long extinct snails and other marine animals at a stall in the center of town that aroused the attention of the well-off who came to take the waters in Lyme Regis. Eventually Mary managed to obtain enough funds to buy a small shop for this purpose. By the time she died of breast cancer in 1847, just a month short of 48 years, she had become one of the most celebrated yet never officially recognized paleontologists in Europe. Visitors to her little shop included King Frederick Augustus II of Saxony, who purchased fossils from her for his royal collection, and many scientists came to her from across Europe, the USA and Britain.
Many of these scientists were educated amateurs. The description, Paleontology, had not yet been coined and only after Darwin did it establish itself as a recognized science. There is no doubt that the men who practiced paleontology in the first half of the 19th century owe Anning gratitude, though only one openly supported her in her lifetime, namely De la Beche. Others did also, but more behind the scenes. Anning, after all, might have been seen by the townsfolk and those interested in her finds as much of a curiosity as the fossils.
Anning had three strikes against her in the 19th century. She was female, she was "low-born" and for most of her life she belonged to one of the British Protestant dissenter churches until she joined the Anglican Church in 1830 after most of her family had died. She remained religious to the end, though it is understood that she came to the conclusion, as had her friend De la Beche that there had to have been life on earth before the biblical account began.
Thomas' choice of the subtitle for the book, A Love Story, relates to her assumption that there may have been more than friendship between the low-born Anning and the upper-class De la Beche. The two were close in age and shared a passion for fossils and even geology so it seems a natural assumption. After he returned to England, he turned into Anning's greatest supporter. When she became destitute in 1830 De la Beche sold prints of one of his watercolors, Duria Antiquior, for her benefit.
Interestingly, De la Beche, after his divorce in 1826 from a very frivolous young woman who cared little about his pursuits, never remarried. For Anning and De la Beche, living in a small town, any kind of affair would have been impossible. A working relationship, however, was possible; there their different stations in life could easily be bridged.
After Anning's death, De la Beche, by then president of the Royal Society of London, gave a eulogy for her that started:
"I cannot close this notice of our losses by death without advertising to that of one, who though not placed among even the easier classes of society, but one who had to earn her daily bread by her labour, yet contributed by her talents and untiring researches in no small degree to our knowledge of the great Enalio-Saurians, and other forms of organic life entombed in the vicinity of Lyme Regis . . ." The eulogy was also published in its quarterly transactions. It was the first time ever that a woman was accorded such an honor.
Interestingly for us today is that the Royal Society did not allow women members until 1904. Anning, however, became an honorary member of this oldest scientific society in the world thanks to efforts of several benefactors. Also, in 1835 another old friends, William Buckland, made sure that the British Association for the Advancement of Science awarded Anning an annuity of £20 annually. This helped somewhat to ease her financial problems at a time when many of her class had to emigrate to survive because of the financial slump and the poor had no jobs.
All these facts are extraneous to the novel. Thomas concentrates with tact, sensitivity and candor on how life must have been for Anning as a child and as a young woman reaching out beyond her station. She describes the jealousies felt by those who could not understand the attention she received from the gentlemen who came from London, Oxford and other places. And then there are the fears that arose from ignorance about the fossils. Were they the Devil's work, or were they the work of fairies?
In the end, this is a most satisfying book about the life of a woman, who achieved much and yet, so little. It must have been lonely to be on the outside of daily life of her neighbors, rich and poor. Anyone who reads this novel expecting a happy ending knows little about life in the early 19th century. Sad that Jane Austen never took up the cause of the poor. Some insight into such lives during that period can be found in the novels of Mrs. Gaskell, and of course, from Charles Dickens. He wrote a story about Mary Anning's life in his literary magazine, All the Year Round. He told of the difficulties she had to overcome, especially that of her fellow townspeople, and stated, "the carpenter's daughter has won a name for herself and has deserved to win it."
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