The real history behind Ammonite
New historical film Ammonite, starring Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan, explores the life of pioneering fossil hunter Mary Anning, and centres around her relationship with another woman. But how much of the storyline is drawn from reality? Rachel Dinning separates fact from fiction…
Fossil hunter, anatomist, scientific pioneer – these are the things we can say about Mary Anning for certain. Her contributions to palaeontology during the Victorian period are what she is remembered for today, and are even said to have partly influenced the theory of evolution put forward by English naturalist Charles Darwin.
Excavating the finer details about her life is a somewhat more difficult task. As Rebecca Wragg Sykes put it in an article for BBC History Revealed magazine: “Like palaeontologists struggling to reconstruct entire vanished worlds from stony scraps, sketching Anning’s life relies on historical fragments.”
Into this vacuum steps film director Francis Lee, whose new film Ammonite is released on 26 March 2021 and speculates on what we know about the historic figure. Set in 1840s England, a middle-aged Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) is acclaimed for her work, but frequently overlooked within the scientific community. She lives a modest life on the Jurassic Coast, spending most of her days searching for fossils to sell to tourists and collectors in order to support herself and her mother. The mundane routine of her life is disrupted by the arrival of a young, middle-class woman, Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan), who has been instructed to convalesce by the sea by her husband, Roderick. The pair quickly develop an intense relationship that changes both of their lives forever.
But exactly how historically accurate is Ammonite? We separate fact from fiction…
Warning, spoilers ahead
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Mary Anning was a lesbian? – UNKNOWN
Selling itself as a ‘romantic drama’, the central plot line in the film Ammonite focusses on the romantic and sexual relationship between Mary Anning and Charlotte Murchison. And this is where we get to the crux of the criticism thus far levied at the film, because historically speaking, there is no indication at all about whether Anning had a preference for women. We have no confirmation that Anning was heterosexual either, of course, and some might argue that to assume she was either a lesbian or bisexual is no different than assuming she might have been straight. She certainly never married, and there is no indication in any surviving sources that she ever considered taking a husband.
Nonetheless, Anning’s real descendants have questioned the decision to portray her as queer, with Barbara Anning – Mary’s distant niece – being reported as saying: “The lesbian storyline is pure Hollywood as far as I know and there was no suggestion that she was a lesbian at all.” In an online forum, she goes on to comment: “Mary Anning was abused because she was poor, uneducated and a woman. Is that not enough?”
Defending his choice to create a fictionalised relationship, director Francis Lee states that he wanted to give Anning a relationship that elevated her: “There is absolutely no evidence Mary ever had a relationship with anyone, whether that be heterosexual or same sex, but I knew I wanted to give her a relationship that felt worthy of her. It is well documented that she had close friendships with women and in the society of the time, where women were the subjects of men and where Mary had been virtually written out of history because of her gender and social status, it didn’t feel right to give her a relationship with a man.”
Sexuality is nonetheless a fascinating subject within Ammonite; the film doesn’t shy away from showing the fierce passion between Anning and Murchison, lifting a lid on any notions we may have about Victorian prudishness. In one particularly interesting scene, Murchison – who is married – kisses Anning full on the mouth in front of one of her servants. Anning pushes her away, presumably fearful that the servant has just seen her mistress betray her husband (and with a woman, to boot). Murchison is quick to reassure Mary that she needn’t worry. It’s “just the maid”, she says. While the sexual element of their relationship can be considered historically speculative, it is details such as this that hint at a real truth: class differences were paramount in the lives of those living in Victorian England. The casual disregard Murchison has for her servant’s opinion – even in the face of an act of infidelity – shows her place in the household.
Despite their differing social spheres and personalities, in many ways Anning and Murchison are portrayed as two lonely women united by the constraints of their gender within a thoroughly patriarchal society; while Anning lives isolated from the scientific community she deserves to be a part of, Murchison is restricted in opportunity by her controlling albeit wealthy husband Roderick Murchison (in one notable scene, he instructs a waiter to order her “plain fish” while he enjoys a lavish beef dinner).
Charlotte Murchison was a real person – FACT
Although her sexual relationship with Mary Anning is a fictional choice made by Lee, Charlotte Murchison was a real person and has been described as “the impetus behind her famous husband Roderick’s geological career”. Much like in Ammonite, Mary Anning taught the real Charlotte how to hunt fossils.
Interestingly, the real Charlotte Murchison was actually about a decade older than Mary Anning. In the film, the age difference is switched so that Anning is the senior of the pair. However it's possible that Lee’s version of Murchison is inspired by another historical figure: the 14-year-old Frances Augusta Bell, who came to Lyme Regis for health reasons and also assisted Anning with her collection of fossil curiosities.
Mary Anning was a lonely outsider – FICTION
Lesbian or not, the real Mary Anning maintained a number of close female friendships and professional relationships throughout her life (an image that is perhaps at odds with the somewhat misanthropic fossil hunter depicted in Ammonite). One notable companion of the real Anning was Elizabeth Philpot, who built on Anning’s work involving belemnite fossils (while Anning discovered that these remnants of extinct squid-like creatures still contained ink sacks, it was Philpot who learned that the ink could be rejuvenated with water and used for letters and illustrations, with many local artists in Lyme Regis adopting the practice).
Elizabeth Philpot appears in Lee’s Ammonite too, played by actor Fiona Shaw, however she here takes the form of a local villager whose relationship with Anning is somewhat strained. Ammonite’s Philpot is set in diametric opposition to Anning, with her charm and warmth equalling Anning’s aloof coldness. It is suggested that this fictional version of Philpot is a former lover of Anning, although this potential storyline isn’t expanded on in any great detail and we are not privy to the exact reasons why their relationship soured.
Ammonite’s Philpot is, as she was in real life, Anning’s senior by some years, however the film largely skirts over her palaeontological interests. Instead, she serves as foil for Anning and Murchison’s budding relationship; in one scene, we witness Murchison cosying up to Philpot at a pretentious musical evening – an incident that sparks jealousy on Anning’s part and serves to highlight how uncomfortable the latter feels in situations outside of her social station. Philpot frequently offers olive-branches to the emotionally-distant Anning (in one scene, she gently refuses Anning’s payment for a healing salve – although the latter somewhat rudely forces the coins into her hand). All of these details are fictional; in fact, we have no indication that there was ever any tension between the two historical figures.
Anning’s guarded personality in the film perhaps has some element of truth in it, although it’s difficult to ascertain what the real Anning was like. We do know, however, that she once said: “The world has used me so unkindly, I fear it has made me suspicious of all mankind.”
THE EXPERT VIEW: What was the real Mary Anning like?
Archaeologist Rebecca Wragg Sykes says…
“Mary Anning is often presented as a rare creature, emerging from dingy circumstances to shine bright, but alone. This is far from the truth. She was part of an informal network of women geologists and palaeontologists, which went far beyond her friend Elizabeth Philpot.”
Mary Anning was a religious dissenter – FACT
It’s not clear what religious denomination Mary Anning belongs to in Ammonite, however it is strongly hinted that Anning has grown disillusioned with the church. In one scene, Elizabeth Philpott asks her if she will be attending service church anytime soon, to which Anning replies that she will not.
The real Mary Anning also set herself apart from the religious norms of the time. Her parents were religious dissenters who believed in education first and foremost; they attended a Dissenter chapel on Coombe Street in Lyme Regis, whose worshippers called themselves Independents (and later Congregationalists), long before Mary was born. Anning herself was a dissenter, and is known to have read an essay by her pastor urging the study of geology.
How did Mary Anning learn about fossils?
Mary Anning was born to carpenter Richard Anning and Mary Moore. She did not receive any formal scientific training, although her father encouraged her interest in fossil hunting from an early age. From thereon she was instead largely self-taught, educating herself on various aspects of geology, anatomy, palaeontology and scientific illustration.
Mary Anning was an only child – FICTION
In Ammonite, Mary’s fossil hunting supports her humble lifestyle on the Jurassic Coast. She lives with her ailing mother, Molly, and owns a shop in which she sells an assortment of discoveries to passing tourists and collectors. This latter point is grounded in fact – the real Mary Anning really did run a fossil shop from which she made a modest living. But it’s perhaps not quite the full picture: both Anning’s mother, and her brother Joseph (unmentioned in the film), were keen fossil hunters too, although their discoveries did not make anywhere near the same waves as Mary’s.
The real Mary Anning was actually one of ten children, although eight of them died in infancy. This high childhood mortality rate was not unusual: around half of the children born in the UK in the 19th century died before the age of five. While these losses are not explicitly mentioned in the film, they are hinted at: Mary’s mother is shown caring for eight animal figurines, which she calls her “babies”. The metaphor may bring to mind the portrayal of Queen Anne’s multiple miscarriages in Oscar-winning film The Favourite (2019), in which the ageing queen populates her bed chamber with a number of pet rabbits that are intended to represent her lost children.
Mary Anning, quick-fire facts: what’s not included in Ammonite?
- Anning’s beloved dog Tray, who was killed in a landslide that almost took the fossil hunter’s life too.
- Anning’s father, Richard, who taught a young Anning the art of fossil hunting (and who died in 1810 after falling from a cliff and subsequently contracting tuberculosis)
- Anning’s habit of vivisected live creatures so as to better understand their bodies
- The fact that Mary Anning was named for her deceased sister, who died in infancy
- Her death; Mary Anning died of breast cancer in 1847, aged 47
Her paleontological finds were appropriated by a predominantly male scientific establishment – FACT
One particularly poignant scene in Ammonite occurs when Anning visits the Murchison household and stumbles across one of her discoveries exhibited in a case. It is unattributed on its official label; however someone, presumably Charlotte, has scrawled a note on it crediting Mary. This tallies with the historical record – in a scientific paper announcing Anning’s plesiosaur find of 1823, her role is significantly underplayed; the skeleton, it was said, had been “discovered at Lyme”. According to Wragg Sykes, Mary was consistently “aware that she was getting a raw deal in professional terms”.
Another aspect the film does portray rather accurately is Anning’s working-class roots. Her world is portrayed as being a rather grey one – both in terms of the colour palette of the film, as well as Anning’s mundane routine of ‘work, eat, sleep, repeat’. Her homelife is at odds with the refined luxury of Charlotte Murchison’s world, although both women seem comparably unfulfilled.
Mary Anning discovered an almost-intact ichthyosaur skeleton at the age of 12 – FACT
A key turning point in Ammonite takes place when Charlotte Murchison helps Anning uncover an ichthyosaurus head. The discovery coincides with the beginning of their romantic relationship, but it also alludes to Anning’s greatest discovery of all: an almost-intact ichthyosaur fossil that she discovered at the age of 12 with her father. In the film, Anning tells Murchison about the discovery, explaining how they had to sell the fossil to a museum because her family needed money.
The real Mary Anning is credited with discovering the first known ichthyosaur skeleton, although technically it was her brother, Joseph, who found the specimen (Mary did, however, excavate it – and she was, indeed, 12 years old at the time).
What is an ammonite?
Ammonite fossils come from a type of creature that perhaps most resemble squid or octopus, although they additionally had a hard shell to protect their tissue and organs. These creatures existed around 240 million years ago, but the word ‘Ammonite’ itself dates to the Egyptian god Ammon/Amun/Amon, who lived in c2008–1957 BCE.
Anning’s most famous find, however, was an intact Plesiosaurus skeleton in 1823, which propelled her to celebrity status and prompted palaeontologists, collectors and tourists to descend on Lyme Regis to buy from her. Five years later she discovered a pterosaur – the first to be discovered outside of Germany – and one year after that she found the skeleton of a Squaloraja fossil fish (thought to be a transitionary stage between sharks and rays).
“Mary was quite extraordinary,” writes Rebecca Wragg-Sykes. “At a time when women’s acceptance by the scientific community was minimal at best, she was a pioneer in the science of palaeontology. Her discoveries were breath-taking, and her approach to understanding the fossils she found was brilliant.”
In terms of the fossil excavation shown in Ammonite, it is thought that these representations are fairly true to life. "The way that [Anning] excavates the fossils and looks for them [in Ammonite] is super accurate”, said Caitlin Syme, a palaeontologist who works at the Office of the Queensland Chief Scientist in Australia, who wrote about the movie for The Conversation.
Rachel Dinning is digital section editor at HistoryExtra