Ammonite: another overlooked Victorian woman
by Jennifer Bryce
Recently I reviewed a concert of women composers from the late nineteenth/ early twentieth century most of whom, at the time of their work, were overlooked. The movie Ammonite, directed and written by Francis Lee looks at the life of Mary Anning, a female paleontologist of the mid nineteenth century who lived with her mother in Lyme Regis, Dorset, England and eeked out an existence mainly selling fossil trinkets to tourists. Mary’s substantial discoveries were overlooked or, more often than not, credited to someone else — inevitably a man.
Mary must have been largely self educated, with some help from her father, who had died long before the time conveyed in this movie. A girl from a poor family, it is unlikely she even completed the equivalent of primary school education, but she trained herself to be a knowledgeable and keenly observant scientist. The Mary we meet at the beginning of the movie (superbly played by Kate Winslet) is gruff and terse, crunching over the pebbly beach in her simple check dress — her eye ever alert for an interesting specimen.
Presumably to help the box office, Francis Lee has added a lesbian love story to his depiction of Mary’s life. This may or may not have taken place. Certainly it is known that she did establish a close friendship with Charlotte Murchison (played by Saoirse Ronan) left with Mary by her imperious paleontologist husband to recover from the psychological trauma of a miscarriage. At first both women resent this arrangement. Charlotte becomes ill — the effects of a chill after swimming from a bathing machine (supplied by the hotel where she is staying). If Mary wants to swim, or explore the seabed, she plunges in in her undergarments. (A Guardian review of this movie accurately describes women of this time as ‘bodiced and bonneted’.)
Charoltte collapses on Mary’s doorstep and there seems to be no other option but for Mary to care for her. And gradually a tenderness develops.
Tension develops between the two women when the local doctor invites them to a musical soirée. We can see how much more relaxed the upper middle class Charlotte is in this kind of company — also, she gets on rather well with a woman who may have been Mary’s former lover — one can only speculate. But the relationship between Mary and Charlotte becomes passionate. Even Mary’s mother (for whom the couple has had to quieten nocturnal love-making) seems to understand Mary’s sadness when a carriage is sent for Charlotte to return to her husband in London.
Some time later Charlotte invites Mary to visit her in London. At what to her is great expense, Mary takes a boat and arrives at Charlotte’s London residence. In a bit of cliché, the maid directs her to the servants’ door and Mary has to explain that she is a friend of the mistress of the house. Charlotte has secretly set up a room for Mary, assuming that she would want to come and live with her and her husband — the room is right next to Charlotte’s room, perfectly situated for dalliance. I did think that an intelligent and sensitive woman such as Charlotte would realise that Mary would be unable to abandon her life’s work and particularly that she would be quite out of place and uncomfortable in the palatial surroundings. Such a gesture would have suited Charlotte well but shows no empathy for Mary. Mary cannot bring herself to stay and instead goes to the British Museum where she sees one of her discoveries on display (it wasn’t clear to me whether this was labelled as a discovery of Mary Anning or attributed to someone else).
I had not known of Mary Anning before seeing this movie. It is good to be reminded of the gruelling hard work and abysmal lack of recognition of women such as her. Mary died in her forties of breast cancer.