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.