Paleontologist to the Regency – Part Three

“Really, my love, I’m not at all feeling the thing.”

William stepped close to Mary, cupping her heart-shaped face in his hand. “Adam is with Willie and Eva, Sweetheart. He’s at peace.”

Dr. Buckland and his wife had just laid their nine-year-old son’s body in the Christ Church crypt, alongside those of their two older children.

“Darling,” he pleaded. “I’ve news to cheer you. Miss Anning has found a possible explanation for the bezoar stones–”

“Which are nothing more to me than the other dead things in my life.”

Mary gestured to the side table, groaning beneath the weight of fossils stacked upon each other in layers like they had lain in the earth before being dug up. The whole was lit by candles stuck in various vertebrae. “They are all wretched, reminding me of my beloved son.”

A beach near Lyme - licensed under GNU Free Documentation 1.2

A beach near Lyme – licensed for use under GNU Free Documentation 1.2

“Then let us begone from here,” her husband declared. “Let’s go to Lyme.”

“To see more dead things?”

“To see Miss Anning. She always cheers you.”

But once arrived at Lyme, Mary could only sit on a little rise, above the beach that was a “vast charnel house of the bones of the monsters that had once lived.”

Far below, she could see her husband picking through the sand. With him was a fellow geologist and well-known Lyme resident, Sir Henry de la Beche. He was a former military man whose illustrations made Miss Anning’s fossil collection famous.

“Mrs. Buckland, are you just going to sit up here, useless to us all?”

Mary looked up at Miss Anning’s approach. She was not troubled in the least by the other’s brusque manner. Indeed, she expected it from a woman who had struggled all her life. After all, Miss Anning had the distinction of being struck by lightning at the age of fifteen.

“I daresay I have been useless,” Mary answered. “You are fortunate, Miss Anning, in that you’ve no children of your own.”

The other shrugged and settled herself on the ground nearby, her thick walking boots sticking out unceremoniously from beneath her skirt.

Mary looked away once more to the beach below. “Sir Henry is devoted to you. Why do you not marry him?”

Miss Anning snorted. “I’m the daughter of a carpenter and a Dissenter, Mrs. Buckland. Our union would ruin us both and that would never do. Besides, we deal very well together without being married. He brings credit to my work that would otherwise go unnoticed.” Henry de la Beche - Awful Changes

Nevertheless, Mary saw how Miss Anning looked down at her skirt, at hands unfashionably browned from the weather. Hands that twisted against each other and them fumbled for something concealed within the folds of the drab fabric.

Miss Anning drew out three brown rocks and handed them to Mary. “My bezoar stones.”

“More dead things?” Mary asked.

“Oh, my dear, have you not been attending? Your husband believes these are actually fossilized feces.” Miss Anning paused, her face beaming. “Those are not dead things. They are the leftovers of the living!”

“Upon my word,” Mary said, turning the stones over in her hands.

It was a new discovery. In its joy, Mary found reason to laugh again.

Paleontologists to the Regency – Part Two

Sometimes we have to look past the Regency to see the grandeur of its achievements. This post takes us to Christmas, 1839 and England’s Jurassic coast, a catalogue of the island’s past:

About midnight of December 25th the inhabitants of two cottages in the undercliff were awakened by loud sounds produced by the grinding of slowly moving masses of the adjacent rocks; they found the floors of their houses rising upwards toward the ceiling, and with difficulty escaped. In a few hours one cottage was thrown down. — The Life and Correspondence of William Buckland 

George Pulman reported in his Book of the Ax (1875) that the cottagers had just finished celebrating Christmas Eve “in old jovial style at Bindon Farm, with a burning of an ashen faggot and its accompanying merrymaking.” One of the cottagers, William Critchard, was dismayed to find the footpath he normally trod to get to his landlord’s place had fallen seven feet. He scrambled along its descent to waken his landlord and “with the master’s help” was able to get his household goods out of his cottage before the whole thing disappeared.

Christmas Day a rabbit shooting party was nearly swallowed up by fissures opening in the fields.

The great Dr. Buckland and his wife, the former Mary Morland, were summoned to diagnose the situation.

They proceeded immediately to the location and observed the tremendous chasm with “crags, knolls and mounds confusedly hurl’d” where there had previously been a flat plain suitable for grazing sheep. Fossils and exposed strata had to be noted, as well as drawn by Mary’s “clever pencil.”

she drew that, too!

she drew that, too!

An earthquake? No, indeed. The Regent’s favorite geologist and his intrepid wife, in the course of their search for fossils, could properly interpret the layers of earth that were now exposed by the violent sinking. Chalk sat upon fox-mould, a peculiar strata of soil, which when soaked with water (it had been an unusually wet year) causes the whole to slide.

Having laid to rest the fear of earthquakes, the area prepared for the inevitable tourists who came in droves. The summer culminated in a harvest celebration, with booths erected and young women hired as “nymphs of Ceres.”

“If the world were to be destroyed and any Englishmen survived, they would celebrate the events upon the fragments with a dinner.” — Douglas Jerrold

Paleontologists to the Regency – Part one of three

Miss Mary Moreland (1797 – 1857) had a lovely white Spanish donkey. He would pull her small carriage around the countryside, stopping occasionally for her to disembark and collect shells. Miss Moreland’s love of natural history had been cultivated by the Oxford community in which she was raised after her mother died. The donkey was patient, waiting in between the buggy traces without being tied, while his mistress peered at objects half-buried in the ground. Sometimes she would take her sketchbook and draw the fossil as she found it in the earth.

These drawings were much admired among her academic neighbors. Even in far away revolutionary France, they came to the notice of Napoleon’s favorite naturalist, Georges Cuvier. He was instrumental in establishing the science of paleontology and proved that extinction was indeed a fact. Cuvier was to publish a new work comparing the anatomy of those things living to that which has long been dead.An advance copy of the book was sent to William Buckland, fellow of the Royal Society and the Regent’s favorite geologist. Buckland had garnered recent fame when he presented the first documented dinosaur, Megalosaurus, to an astonished ton.

oh, yes--she drew that!

oh, yes–she drew that!

What happened next might have come out of a Regency romance:

“Dr. Buckland was traveling somewhere in Dorsetshire, and reading a weighty book of Cuvier’s which he had just received from the publisher; a lady was also in the coach, and amongst her books was this identical one, which Cuvier had sent her. They got into conversation, the drift of which was so peculiar that Dr. Buckland at last exclaimed, ‘You must be Miss Morland..’ “

Miss Morland had created the illustrations of Cuvier’s paleontological tome, displaying an uncanny ability in understanding ancient fossils which Dr. Buckland had been pursuing his entire life.

She was twenty-eight and he was forty-one. Yet Miss Morland did not hesitate to accept Mr. Buckland’s proposal of marriage. They planned to depart right after the wedding on a honeymoon abroad. New fossils awaited their discovery and Cuvier, taciturn as he was, wished to meet Miss Morland in person.

The beloved Spanish donkey? As living things do, he had become old and infirm. He made his own departure, just as the wedding bells were ringing.