The rock star trampled on by old dinosaurs: She unearthed some of the most important fossils ever, yet Mary Anning was disdained by male scientists of her age, as a new Kate Winslet film shows . But WHY did it have to dig up a fictional lesbian affair?
To get in the mood for their love scene together, actresses Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan drank Prosecco.
It was Little Women star Saoirse’s birthday and the two had deliberately asked the director that filming the lesbian tryst — which she and Kate had choreographed themselves — should take place on this day as a special gift for her.
‘It was the greatest present I could have asked for,’ Saoirse, 26, has said of the sapphic scene.
‘I had a wonderful time. I’ve never done a sex scene so intense and full-on before. But to be able to do that with her; I did feel very safe, like we could go anywhere with it.
‘We really felt like we were steering the ship. We felt empowered by it.’
Kate, 45, was equally as effusive about this scene in the film Ammonite, about real-life self-taught geologist Mary Anning and her romance with fellow would-be scientist Charlotte Murchison.
Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan in a scene from Ammonite – a female love story about self-taught geologist Mary Anning and her romance with would-be scientist Charlotte Murchison
‘This is a female love story and it was a privilege to be part of it,’ said the actress who first found fame in Titanic.
‘Women know what women want and we felt empowered to create the scenes together and to speak to the sincerity of the love these two women had for each other.’
Ammonite brings into focus the utterly fascinating but almost forgotten Anning and Murchison, who were excluded from academia by male scientists who passed off much of their work as their own.
But there’s one screaming issue with the story — the affair between the two women is pure fiction. All the letters between them show they were just good friends.
The fabrication is a shame, as their stories are dramatic enough without the need for A-list actresses getting their kit off.
If she’d been born today, Anning might be running the palaeontology department at a university or museum.
But as she was born poor in 1799 in Lyme Regis, on the Jurassic Coast which she roamed her entire life, she was to remain poor and virtually unheralded, despite her incredible pioneering work which helped change the way we understand our planet.
The daughter of a cabinet maker and amateur fossil collector, Mary was named after an older sister who had died in a fire aged four.
She herself was caught in a lightning strike at 15 months — three neighbours were killed when a bolt knocked down a tree they were sitting under — and Mary, who’d been sickly, is said to have blossomed after her brush with death.
Her parents Richard and Peggy had ten children but only two grew to adulthood — Mary and her elder brother Joseph.
The romance between the women in the film which is based on a true story is pure fiction. All the letters between them show they were just good friends and they were not in a relationship
She received a rudimentary education in reading and writing at her local church.
From the age of five, she was accompanying her father as he collected fossils — learning how to spot and clean them.
The Jurassic Coast is one of the richest fossil locations in Britain. Stormy weather, in particular, caused landslides which unveiled the remains of a prehistoric past.
It drew collectors such as Richard and Mary, despite the frequent danger.
Their findings were then sold to wealthy tourists who flocked to the Dorset coast as the Napoleonic wars meant travelling abroad was too dangerous.
This was the time of George III and Jane Austen and shows the flipside to the glamour and wild excess of the aristocrats in TV series Bridgerton.
Richard died aged 44, when Mary was just 11, from a combination of injuries sustained from falling off a cliff and tuberculosis.
The family was plunged into poverty and had to apply for parish relief.
While Joseph got an apprenticeship as an upholsterer, Mary increasingly depended on what she could find on the coast to keep her family fed; she and her mother sold fossils at a stall set up outside a nearby inn where many coaches stopped.
Mary was 12 when she and Joseph made their first big find, a strange-looking fossilised skull.
Pictured: Mary Anning was born the daughter of a cabinet maker and amateur fossil collector
For months, Mary then searched for, and painstakingly dug, the outline of its 17ft long skeleton.
By the time she was finished, the whole town was talking about how she had discovered a monster.
This was nearly 50 years before Darwin unveiled his theory of evolution but Georges Cuvier, known as the father of palaeontology, had introduced the theory of extinction.
While some people assumed Mary had unveiled a crocodile, others argued that the bones came from an unknown animal from a different time.
It was sold to an aristocrat for £23 and, in 1819, sold on to the British Museum where it was named Ichthyosaurus, or fish lizard — although we know now that it was neither fish nor lizard but a marine reptile which lived around 200 million years ago.
With money to keep them going, Mary continued unearthing treasures — particularly invertebrates such as ammonite and belemnite shells which were common in the area and sold for a few shillings.
In 1823, Mary caused another sensation when she uncovered the first intact skeleton of an incredible 9ft long reptile-like creature which was later named a Plesiosaur, meaning ‘near to reptile’.
The find attracted huge publicity, particularly when Cuvier disputed the find and insisted it must be a fake.
A special meeting was scheduled at the Geological Society of London to discuss it but, of course, Mary wasn’t invited to this male bastion.
Mary did meet Saiorse Ronan’s Charlotte Muchison, the other woman in Ammonite, in 1825 when she visited Lyme Regis with her husband but Charlotte was actually several years older
After a lengthy debate, Cuvier admitted to his mistake. The fossil drew record crowds to the British Museum with Cuvier marvelling that it was, ‘the most amazing creature ever discovered’.
Even so, Mary was often forced to stand in the shadows, away from the spotlight given to the fossils.
As a woman, she was not readily accepted into the male-dominated scientific community. Additionally, because so many of her findings were ultimately sold to collectors, she missed out on the kudos.
But thanks in part to her work, the science community, already slowly moving away from the idea of the biblical creation, now had evidence that species did not live forever and even evolved over time.
And she received some interest: after spending time with her, The Bristol Mirror wrote: ‘This persevering female has for years gone daily in search of fossil remains of importance at every tide, for many miles under the hanging cliffs at Lyme, whose fallen masses are her immediate object, as they alone contain these valuable relics of a former world, which must be snatched at the moment of their fall, at the continual risk of being crushed by the half suspended fragments they leave behind, or be left to be destroyed by the returning tide: to her exertions we owe nearly all the fine specimens of Ichthyosauri of the great collections.’
Mary now had enough money to open her own shop for her finds. It became a destination for science lovers who bought her wares, mined her knowledge and often wrote their own papers without giving her any credit.
She once said: ‘The world has used me ill… these men of learning have sucked my brains, and made a great deal of publishing works, of which I furnished the contents, while I derived none of the advantages.’
Diarist Lady Harriet Silvester visited Lyme in 1824 and wrote of Mary: ‘The extraordinary thing in this young woman is that she has made herself so thoroughly acquainted with the science that the moment she finds any bones she knows to what tribe they belong.
‘She fixes the bones on a frame with cement and then makes drawings and has them engraved… it is certainly a wonderful instance of divine favour that this poor, ignorant girl should be so blessed, for by reading and application she has arrived to that degree of knowledge as to be in the habit of writing and talking with professors and other clever men on the subject, and they all acknowledge that she understands more of the science than anyone else in this kingdom.’
Mary did meet Saiorse Ronan’s Charlotte, the other woman in Ammonite, in 1825 when she visited Lyme Regis with her husband Roderick.
But while the film depicts Charlotte as a much younger woman, she was actually several years older than Mary.
Pictured: Pliosaur Dinosaur Fossil discovered by Anning on display at Natural History Museum
And instead of being a nervous ingenue, she was a scientist in her own right — albeit one who also had to circumvent the rules due to her gender.
Her passion was geology, which she had taught herself. When she married Roderick, his main pursuits were fox-hunting and army life but she introduced him to geology and he in turn introduced her to leading geologists.
Sir Roderick became known for his ground-breaking work identifying sequences of rocks and he was the president of the Geological Society for several years.
At least some of his work is, according to his biographers, the result of joint work with his wife, although she was never given credit.
Like Mary, Charlotte is also considered to be a champion of women in science. In 1831, when the geologist Charles Lyell refused to allow women to attend his lectures at King’s College — saying it was ‘unacademical’ — she protested outside.
As she had got to know him through her husband, he was forced — after much debate — to concede and women were permitted.
After meeting Mary and fossil hunting with her, she also started her own collection which was studied by experts.
She and Mary became friends and wrote to each other, but there’s no hint that these were love letters. In 1833, Mary revealed the danger she faced: ‘Perhaps you will laugh when I say that the death of my old faithful dog quite upset me, the cliff fell upon him and killed him in a moment before my eyes, and close to my feet, it was but a moment between me and the same fate.’
Instead of being lovers, they were simply two women exploring the wonders of science at a thrillingly exciting time, but also a time when their gender meant they were excluded from the major scientific institutions.
In 1828, Mary made yet another major discovery — a strange jumble of bones with what appeared to be a long tail and wings — which we now known as a pterodactyl.
Mary never married and her finances were always precarious.
In the 1830s, geologist and childhood friend Henry De La Beche painted Duria Antiquior — the first pictorial representation of prehistoric life based on Mary’s fossils — and he ordered up prints with all the proceeds going to Mary.
Towards the end of her life, as she became increasingly infirm due to the breast cancer which was to kill her, Mary was awarded a small income from the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the Geological Society of London, given in recognition of her achievements.
She died in 1847 aged 47 and afterwards the president of the Geological Society, her old friend De La Beche, spoke of her in his annual address — a rare honour for a woman (it was another 57 years before women were admitted to the organisation).
Her friend Charlotte lived another 22 years and died aged 80 in 1869.
Today, the Natural History Museum in London showcases several of Mary Anning’s spectacular finds, including her ichthyosaur, plesiosaur and pterosaur in a wing which is named after her.
Just as they did 200 years ago, the extraordinary fossils collected by this incredible self-educated scientist continue to captivate visitors from around the world.
Ammonite is due for release on April 16.
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