Ammonite (Francis Lee, 2020)

Women are often written out of science.

In the nineteenth century, Charlotte Murchison (1788–1869) collected fossils and was somewhat overshadowed by her husband, Roderick Impey Murchison, who used many of her ideas and illustrations in his books. On one journey, to Rome in 1816, she contracted malaria and this would impact on her health for the rest of her life.

In the mid-1820s, she met Mary Anning (1799-1847), and they went fossil hunting together, becoming friends.

Anning is of course one of the most famous scientists you’ve never heard of, finding many key specimens on the so-called Jurassic coast. Like Murchison, she was unable to make much headway in the male-dominated world of science. She had to sell specimens to tourists and palaeontologists to make ends meet.

Lee’s biopic disinters Anning, but in the process buries Murchison. This, I think, is a bigger sin than imagining a lesbian relationship between the two – or perhaps bisexual on Murchison’s part. It may or may not be true – but casting Kate Winslet (b. 1975) and Saoirse Ronan (b. 1994) not only reverses the age gap but puts a generation between them. Anning/Winslet is put in the mentor role, both for fossils and for sex, whilst Murchison already had considerable knowledge.

When the Murchisons arrive, she is just a step above catatonic and I assumed there was some implication of miscarriage, childhood death or sexual trauma underlying it, rather than an understandable reaction to being made to behave like a dumb blonde. We might even read the male Geological Society as the real fossils.

And in all this we never learn that botanist James De Carle Sowerby named the Ammonites Murchisonae after her.


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