Monday, April 19, 2010

The Fossil Hunter

Dinosaurs, Evolution, and the Woman Whose Discoveries Changed the World
By Shelley Emling

This is a book about Mary Anning. What?!? You’ve never heard of her? But she discovered the first ichthyosaur; the first plesiosaur, too. She was well-known throughout Europe in the early 1800’s. In fact, Charles Dickens himself wrote an article about her. The tongue-twister, “She sells sea-shells by the sea-shore” was inspired by her.

Still doesn’t ring a bell? Well, no surprise there. I’d never heard of her, and I’m into this sort of stuff. It’s a pity that the woman who made so many great discoveries should be so forgotten. I was thrilled to stumble upon a book that might help rescue Mary Anning from obscurity.

Unfortunately, the circumstances that allowed Mary to sink into oblivion are the very reasons that this book is largely unsuccessful. Mary Anning was poor, had little formal education and adhered to a Dissenter faith. Worst of all, she was a woman, she was plain, and she was an old maid.

It’s a miracle that she overcame all of this to become a relatively well-known paleontologist in her day. She had to work harder than anyone else to do so, though, and that didn’t leave her any time to write journals or autobiographies. Few others felt motivated to write about her either (Dickens being one of the notable exceptions, but of course, he of all people would appreciate a Dickensian story of beating the odds).

Perhaps most detrimental of all, because she wasn’t even allowed to be a member of the Geological Society of London (women weren’t admitted until 1904), her discoveries had to be presented to that body by men, men that would, more often than not, be given credit for her discoveries. Occasionally, one of these famous (male) geologists would kindly mention Mary Anning in his writings, but it always had a subtle hint of condescension.

All of this leaves very little in the way of records about Mary, which, over time, has allowed her to fade into anonymity. Sadly, this has also left little for author Shelley Emling to draw upon, forcing her to resort all too often to supposition. Mary likely did this, and probably felt that. She might have done this, but she might have done that. All Emling can give us is a shadowy reflection of who Mary Anning might have been. After reading the book, all 213 pages of it, I felt like I hardly knew Mary Anning at all. And that is a real shame. Mary Anning deserves better.


Aimee said...

There's a fairly recent novel by Tracy Chevalier called 'Remarkable Creatures', which is from the perspective of Mary Anning, which I found to be quite interesting.

I don't know if it will be satisfying for you though, as much of the account had to be guessed at and fictionalised to create the story.

Stephanie said...

Ooooh...that sounds good! I don't mind fictionalisations, really I don't. In fact, with Anning, that's probably the better choice since we apparently don't know much about her. But I do like my non-fiction as factual as possible. Thanks for the recommendation!

TheBlackSheep said...

What a sad story. I hope she's getting her own back on the theives and old boys networks now.

Stephanie said...

Amen, TheBlackSheep! And I should clarify: the book's not bad. I'd say the author did her best with what was available. It's just a shame that so little documentation of Anning exists. Compare what we know of her to what we know of her male contemporaries (many of whom appear in this book). Sigh.

Lula O said...

Excellent review Stephanie! What's it been, like six weeks? I think I muttered - grrrr about 10 times while reading your review. I've heard Remarkable Creatures is good. Hope she kicks a little butt in that one. Probably not. grrr..

JaneGS said...

I've got both this book and the Chevalier novel on my TBR list for this year. I am really interested in Anning, and it's too bad that there's not much of a record from which a non-fiction writer can draw. That is a sad story.

Great review, btw. I'm going to go ahead and read Fossil Hunter, but you've laid the stage for me to be a bit disappointed in it.

Stephanie said...

I've added the Chevalier book to my to-read list, too! There seems to be some evidence that Anning had a feisty side, so hopefully Chevalier ran with that.

As Leslie can attest, I can be kind of cantankerous when I think women are being walked on. Also, the supposition probably won't bother most. I'm quirky. Weird. Eccentric. Persnickety. All that.

Thanks for all the comments! I'm having fun!

Anonymous said...

I didn't know Remarkable Creatures was based on this. I might have to read that and this book now.