An interview with Anthea Simmons, author of Lightning Mary
With a Hollywood film on Mary Anning in the making, the Mary Anning Rocks campaign to build a statue in Lyme Regis and the nomination to see her face on the £50 note, the pioneering palaeontologist and fossil collector could be about to get the recognition she deserves.
Local author Anthea Simmons’ new novel Lightning Mary is perfectly timed. It channels the voice of a young woman who at the age of just 12, along with her brother, made her first big discovery – the fossilised skull of an ichthyosaur. Feisty, plain-speaking and unconventional, Simmons’ Mary is a very modern heroine and as it turns out, an unexpected role model for diversity.
“I think that she is capturing the public imagination,” said Simmons, a former City high-flyer turned teacher, now a writer and artist. “There are a whole range of things that are coming into play: emphasis on STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths), getting more girls involved, empowering girls. Mary is a great role model because she had everything against her and she basically said, ‘I’m going to carry on and do what I want anyway.’ I wanted to send a message that if you’re passionate about something then you should just go for it and don’t let people hold you back.“
“I’ve always felt that she was almost asexual,” said Simmons in relation to the new film, Ammonite, that depicts a romance between Mary Anning and another woman. “And so focussed, maybe even Asperger’s or on the (autism) spectrum. A lot of the reports refer to her as being very blunt and not wrapping anything up. She sounds to me like someone who just tells it like it is. She saw things very clearly.
One thing we know about her is that she had an enormous photographic memory, for example, let’s say she found something – she could see all the little pieces and she’d be able to recreate it. Children on the spectrum can also be very matter-of-fact. If you ask them anything with a logical flaw in it, they will find that logical flaw and answer it the way they want to. I think Mary would have been like that, which is rare and challenges all of us to be much more careful about our language: to be less ambiguous and to respect that moment of insight where you think, ‘I never looked at it like that.’”
Challenging Conventional Wisdom
For Simmons writing was a way of bringing Mary’s time right up to the present day. “It must have been a very odd period to live through. The beliefs and goalposts were shifting all the time. It was almost heretical to want to challenge the received wisdom on how time works and how long things have been there. The whole idea about God making mistakes is quite a dangerous a thing to say. Imagine if we were – there’s the rise of the Flat Earthers now – imagine if we were all to be like, ‘Actually, they could be right.’ Imagine how messed up we’d be! Our whole perception would suddenly change, it would be destroyed.”
Famously struck by lightning as a baby, people thought it made Mary brighter. Rather, thinks Simmons, it made her aware of the randomness of life. “Seeing babies born and dying, I think it made her feel you can be her one minute and gone the next. There’s an impermanence to life but there’s permanence to the rocks. I think she drew comfort from finding things that had been there for millions of years and that helped her deal with her own transience.
I think most artist and creators would say that deep down they’re dealing with life and death, even if they’re painting a landscape. Mary was one of those people who are born with a mission. It was creation through revelation for her. I don’t think she could have done anything else.”
“Mary was definitely held back and written off because of her class. I think everybody was held back or advanced by class (back) then. I mean you can see it in Austen’s novels, you can’t marry below your class. It’s so deeply entrenched. I think what would have been interesting for her with that friendship (with Henry de la Beche) was that there’s more that unites us than divides us. That recognition. She has that moment too with the French, where she thinks we’re taught to hate the French as an enemy but maybe they suffer too, the way we do. So maybe there’s that feeling of kindred spirits and the level playing field of pain, in a way.
”There’s a scene in Lightning Mary in which Jane Austen refuses to pay Mary’s father the going rate for his work. Based on a true story, it puts Austen in a whole new light.“If you look at the way she treats people, like in Emma, she manages to… the authorial voice is ‘It’s really not nice to be unkind to people who are poor.’ That’s a very patronising position to be in, isn’t it? It’s that old adage: privilege is invisible to those who have it. And so Austen wouldn’t have seen that as being a privileged stance. But you know, you see people throughout her novels doing good works and being good to the poor and everything, but that is a way of keeping the poor where they are.
There’s also an element of self-interest. I think people often think that they’re doing good things but often a lot of it is that it’s making them feel better about it. That’s the thing that Mary would have seen through straight away – being patronised in any way would have annoyed her a lot.”
Asked if it was easier to be a feminist if you’re rich, Simmons responded, “It’s easier to be anything if you’re rich!”
“I’ve been involved in projects to increase access to opportunity for girls and people from deprived backgrounds. Sometimes you have a seriously bright child who doesn’t fit the mould and they will be written off by the system when they are actually super talented. The identification and development of talent regardless of the package it comes in is absolutely key to people fulfilling themselves and to a society that values everything, and values difference. That’s really important.
I don’t think we value difference enough. I don’t think we understand, that’s why we need diversity programmes because people don’t realise that diversity enriches. One of the things I’ve been involved in is trying to get more diversity around the boardroom, because if you employ people who think like you and you get on with them as a result, who’s going to say, “Hang on a minute, why do we do that, why don’t we do this?” Where’s the challenge going to come from? Sometimes those people are annoying, but they’ll make you question things that you just assume, and things that you’ve done because you’ve always done them, and that’s how you get progress. That’s why Mary Anning was interesting, she thought differently. She didn’t accept the received wisdom, she thought, ‘You know I don’t think it is that, I think it’s something else. It made her a genius.’”
Visit our shop to pick up a copy of Lightning Mary (£6.99).