PERSUASION AND PLESIOSAURS:
JANE AUSTEN AND MARY ANNING IN LYME REGIS
Saturday, June 11, 2022
at California State University, Fullerton
Our first in-person meeting since the pandemic examined the experience of two Regency women—Jane Austen and Mary Anning—who discovered in Lyme Regis rich material for inspiration in their lives. Austen selected the dramatic locale for pivotal events in her novel Persuasion. Anning, a lifelong resident of the ancient village, discovered in its limestone cliffs the fossilized remains of extinct marine creatures, materially advancing paleontological knowledge. The meeting was held at at California State University, Fullerton.
Peter Graham, professor emeritus at Virginia Tech and the author of Charles Darwin and Jane Austen, analyzed for the meeting the importance of Lyme Regis to Persuasion. Jane Austen had stayed at Lyme Regis with her family, and was inspired by its “green chasms between romantic rocks” and found “the happiest spot for watching the flow of the tide, for sitting in unwearied contemplation.” In Austen’s time, Lyme Regis was filled with local working class, visiting gentry, vacationing aristocrats, retired sailors, and eager “fossil hunters.” Lyme Regis was one place along the English coastline where varied classes of the Regency could encounter the seashore and one another. In such “mixed” society, Jane Austen enjoyed informal dinners, casual walks, local balls, and the gaze of one interesting man across the room who eventually invited her to dance. Austen never forgot her encounters with Lyme Regis and incorporated her experiences into her memorable narrative.
Jan Fahey, a JASNA Southwest board member with a science and engineering doctorate from UCLA, and a master’s degree in Biology emphasizing ichthyology, explained the stunning paleontological discoveries of Mary Anning, which were analyzed by Charles Darwin and confirmed by Louis Agassiz. Anning, the discoverer of the famous Ichthyosaurus and Plesiosaurus fossils (as well as Pterodactylus and scores of other extinct marine creatures she unearthed, preserved, and classified) was a working-class, self-educated “fossil hunter” of Lyme Regis. Anning’s insights were published over the years by scores of paleontologists (usually without recognition or credit for her “groundbreaking” finds). Eventually, the Geological Society of London and British Association for the Advancement of Science officially acknowledged Anning’s scientific achievements and sponsored a lifetime pension to Anning for contributions to paleontology. She lived most of her life in poverty. In May 2022, a statue of Anning was erected at Lyme Regis, and the UK recently has issued coinage celebrating her brilliant discoveries.
Both Austen and Anning were women of the Regency with fathers who tutored them as children but who died while their talented daughters were still young. Neither woman found secure financial or professional encouragement for their pursuits. Both remained unmarried. These women achieved extraordinary things in the literary and scientific worlds of the Regency, obtaining recognition primarily after death. At Lyme Regis—still a popular resort—they are celebrated 200 years later as the greatest thing to visit the town since the Ichthyosaurus and Plesiosaurus. Local museums proudly feature both Regency women.
Finally, Lia Poyatos, JASNA Southwest secretary and Austen enthusiast, explained the importance of Lyme Regis as a coastal community in western England from the days of William the Conqueror to the Monmouth Rebellion (where residents successfully defeated a siege with pitchforks) to the 19th century railroads that brought tourists to the resort. Now, a collection of small tourist shops and cafes line the village’s picturesque streets. Its ancient stone cobb protecting the harbor from erosion and medieval stone pier are surrounded by Lyme Regis’ steadily eroding limestone cliffs. The old town’s stunning location and vivid scenery represent a Regency locale that, in the words of Austen, remains worth “visiting and visiting again.” It is the unique place where Anning discovered her sea creatures and where Austen found poignant personal experiences and wonderful literary material.