Christmas edition: Geologizing with Dickens, part III.

Charles Dickens at his desk, by George Herbert Watkins (National Portrait Gallery. From Wikimedia Commons)

It was the best of times. In the nineteenth century England, the Industrial Revolution started a time of important social and political change. London became the financial capital of the world. Several scientific societies were forming, such as the Geological Society of London, while fascinating discoveries revealed part of the history of our planet. But it was also the worst of time. England was ruled by an elite, meanwhile most of the people were poor. Churches provided schools for poor children and infant mortality was high. During these difficult times, Charles Dickens revitalized the tradition of Christmas and to Victorian England, Dickens was Christmas.  He had only 31, when began to write A Christmas Carol. The novella tells the story of  Ebenezer Scrooge, a bitter old man who finds salvation through the visits of the three Ghosts of Christmas (Ghost of Christmas Past, Ghost of Christmas Present, and Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come).

Charles Dickens also contributed to the popularity of geology in the nineteenth century. For him, the ideal science was Geology. In his review of Hunt’s Poetry of Science, he wrote: “Science has gone down into the mines and coal-pits, and before the safety-lamp the Gnomes and Genii of those dark regions have disappeared … Sirens, mermaids, shining cities glittering at the bottom of quiet seas and in deep lakes, exist no longer; but in their place, Science, their destroyer, shows us whole coasts of coral reef constructed by the labours of minute creatures; points to our own chalk cliffs and limestone rocks as made of the dust of myriads of generations of infinitesimal beings that have passed away; reduces the very element of water into its constituent airs, and re-creates it at her pleasure…” (London Examiner, 1848).

Hawkins’ Sydenham Studio. From Wikimedia Commons.

When the Crystal Palace was opening at Sydenham, Dickens addressed the sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkings to ensure that the dinosaurs he had named, including the megalosaurus, and the iguanodon, were accurately recreated. In Bleak House and Dombey and Son, Dickens encourage readers to perceive the scene of the city as a geological fragment of a much broader spatial and temporal vision. In Bleak House the dinosaurs uncovered by the railway in Dombey and Son move centre stage: “Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill.” 

Among his friends were Richard Owen and Sir Roderick Murchison. Murchinson’s wife, Charlotte, was a very close friend of Mary Anning, the most famous fossilist of the time. Mary has been called “the Princess of Palaeontology”  by the German explorer Ludwig Leichhardt and scientists like William Buckland or Henry de la Beche owe their achievements to Mary’s work. She discovered (along with her brother Joseph) the first specimens of what would later be recognized as Ichthyosaurus, the first complete Plesiosaurus, the first pterosaur skeleton outside Germany, and a fossil fish, with characteristics intermediate between sharks and rays, called Squaloraja (unfortunately, the specimen was lost in the destruction of the Bristol Museum by a German bombing raid in November, 1940)

Skull of an ichthyosaur painted with fossil sepia by Elizabeth Philpot.

Mary Anning was born on Lyme Regis on May 21, 1799. Her father was a carpenter and an amateur fossil collector who died when Mary was eleven. By the age of 27, Mary was the owner of a little shop: Anning’s Fossil Depot. Many scientist and fossil collectors from around the globe went to Mary´s shop. She was friend of Henry De la Beche, the first director of the Geological Survey of Great Britain, who knew Mary since they were both children and lived in Lyme Regis. De la Beche was a great supporter of Mary’s work. She also corresponded with Charles Lyell, William Buckland and Mary Morland, Adam Sedgwick and Sir Roderick Murchison. It’s fairly to say that Mary felt secure in the world of men, and a despite her religious beliefs, she was an early feminist. In an essay in her notebook, titled Woman!, Mary writes: “And what is a woman? Was she not made of the same flesh and blood as lordly Man? Yes, and was destined doubtless, to become his friend, his helpmate on his pilgrimage but surely not his slave…”

The article published in All the Year Round in 1865, about the life of Mary Anning. From the Internet Archive

In 1865, Charles Dickens wrote an article about Mary Anning’s life in his literary magazine “All the Year Round”, where emphasised the difficulties she had overcome: “Miss Anning wrote sadly enough to a young girl in London: “I beg your pardon for distrusting your friendship. The world has used me so unkindly, I fear it has made me suspicious of every one.” 

Mary Anning, ‘the greatest fossilist the world ever knew’, died of breast cancer on 9 March, 1847, at the age of 47. She was buried in the cemetery of St. Michaels. In the last decade of her life, Mary received three accolades. The first was an annuity of £25, in return for her many contributions to the science of geology. The second was in 1846, when the geologists of the Geological Society of London organized a further subscription for her. The third accolade was her election, in July 1846, as the first Honorary Member of the new Dorset County Museum in Dorchester. About her life and legacy Dickens wrote: “Her history shows what humble people may do, if they have just purpose and courage enough, toward promoting the cause of science. The inscription under her memorial window commemorates “her usefulness in furthering the science of geology” (it was not a science when she began to discover, and so helped to make it one), “and also her benevolence of heart and integrity of life.” The carpenter’s daughter has won a name for herself, and has deserved to win it.” 

References:

Dickens, Charles, 1812-1870, `Mary Anning, the Fossil-Finder’, All the year round, Volume XIII, Magazine No. 303, 11 February 1865, Pages: 60-63

A. BUCKLAND, ‘“The Poetry of Science”: Charles Dickens, Geology and Visual and Material Culture in Victorian London’, Victorian Literature and Culture, 35 (2007), 679–94 (p. 680).

A. BUCKLAND. Novel Science: Fiction and the Invention of Nineteenth-Century Geology. Chicago, IL and London: University of Chicago Press, 2013. 400 pp. 9 plts. $45.00. ISBN 978-0-226-07968-4

 

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