Kaite Welsh reviews a fictionalised biography of early paleontologist Mary Anning
The Fossil Hunter, journalist Shelley Emling’s first book, is a fictionalised biography of Mary Anning, a woman whose fossil discoveries helped found paleontology and – although she didn’t know it at the time – would come to back up Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory.
Charles Dickens was fascinated by her, modern scientists revere her, and it was Mary’s lengthy career that inspired the nursery rhyme “She sells sea-shells on the sea shore”, but it was not until recently that this oddly-dressed woman from Lyme Regis has been given her due.
The child of “adventure-seeking cabinet maker Richard Anning and his brooding bride, Molly”, Anning stumbled across the fossil of a strange monster with “flippers like a dolphin, a mouth like a crocodile, and a pointed snout like a swordfish.” This was the first Icthyosaur discovered, and the find supported the family for six months.
Following that first discovery, it was a common occurrence to see the 11-year old girl with a pick-axe selling her odd finds to the gentry despite her “tangled dark hair, dowdy muslin skirt and worn clogs”. Following the death of her father and with the threat of the workhouse hanging over the entire family, Mary returned to the beach and it was the incredible discoveries she made that helped her family through freezing winters, floods, and the perils of living on one of the frontlines of the Napoleonic War.
Anning’s economic reliance on her trade in long-dead creatures was matched by both her passion and her achievements. Although she was constantly marginalised and short-changed by men who would doubtless not consider her among their colleagues, Emling’s book places her back at the epicentre of the earthquake that the discovery of dinosaurs sent through the scientific community.
Her contributions to scientific journals and museums were so great that it is shocking that it has taken until now for a comprehensive biography to appear in print.
Fortunately the book itself is a worthy tribute to Anning, as Emling draws a vivid portrait of Georgian Britain and covers everything from science to fashion, via religion, military history and the weather without saturating her prose with digression and speculation.
This has its downsides: whilst her adherence to fact is commendable, the reader is left with the sense that the author failed to take that imaginative leap that turns a good biography into a great one, and repeated use of ‘might have’ and ‘would have’ preserve the book’s impressive historical accuracy, but prevent the reader from getting lost in the narrative. Despite these flaws, the book is beautifully written, and Emling’s haunting, poetic language captures the atmosphere perfectly.
At a time when scientists are having to defend evolutionary theory more vociferously than they have since the 19th Century and skeptical politicians try to downplay global warming, The Fossil Hunter is a powerful pean to acquiring knowledge even – or perhaps especially – if it scares us.