'I hope she is an inspiration to girls and boys alike': Anthea Simmons on Lightning Mary

Published on: 11 April 2019 Author: Anthea Simmons

Anthea Simmons' new book Lightning Mary tells the incredible story of Victorian palaentologist Mary Anning - here, she reveals how she began to channel her when she was writing the book...

Anthea Simmons and the cover of her book Lightning Mary

I must start with an admission: I am neither a historian nor a fossil hunter, and to be brutally honest, I'm not much interested in either subject... but Mary Anning caught my imagination!

It all began when the Lyme Regis bookshop Serendip asked me to consider writing a book for the age group who actually study her at school, so I bought Patricia Pearce's Jurassic Mary: Mary Anning and the Primeval Monsters and deliberately avoided Tracey Chevalier's novel Remarkable Creatures in case it influenced me.

Reading between the lines, I began to get a picture of a very singular woman and I wondered what sort of child she must have been. I taught English for three years, and I had some very talented pupils whose ability did not always come in the form the 'system' recognises. I thought Mary might be like that - a bit different, a bit difficult, but with a single-mindedness that would allow her to carve her own path through life.

Finding connections with Mary

I was also very struck by Mary's relationship with her father. Having just lost my own in pretty tragic circumstances, I felt we connected across the decades and that between us, we could explore the pain of loss.

I say 'between us', because as soon as I started to write her story, in her voice, she came through incredibly strongly so that I really felt as if I was channelling her.

She took over. If I wrote anything she didn't much like or wouldn't have said, it was almost as if she stuck a pin in me and kept sticking a pin in me until I changed the text.

Like her, I had a mum who had a lot of babies - 13 pregnancies, in fact, of which only six survived. I am the eldest. For many years, I wanted nothing whatsoever to do with babies at all having had quite enough as a deputy mum. So Mary and I got along just fine with her strong views on being expected to get married and have children pretty much as soon as she could!

As I wrote her story every detail of her life - from her home to the landscape, her family to Henry (who shares the same name as my lovely son!) - was as clear to me in my mind's eye as if I were there myself.

It's a very weird sensation to be wholly absorbed in an imagined world, and I had to be careful to write down everything I saw and not to forget that the reader could not see the movie playing in my head. I hope I have managed to recreate her world so that the reader will be able to escape into it, too!

She's a real character, isn't she? She doesn't suffer fools. She doesn't mince her words. She's an introvert. She could memorise the position of every little fragment and recreate it. She taught herself so much. She was intent, focused, obsessive.

I've tried to convey what it is like for an extreme introvert if they have too much external input or distraction or a sudden surge of inspiration or insight. When Mary's brain goes into overload, it feels to her as if she has several Marys in her head, all trying to have their say.

I have also tried to explore her difficulties with processing intense emotion. She is very logical and finds it baffling to be overcome by grief and to be unable to rationalise it away.

How Mary can help us all

I hope that Mary is an inspiration to girls and boys alike. It may be hard for many young people to imagine just how profoundly disadvantaged she was by her class, her lack of education and her gender, but I hope they will appreciate what guts and determination she had.

Mary did not let anything stand in her way. If this gives young readers the confidence to apply the same approach in their own lives, then that would be wonderful.

They may not face her challenges but we still as a society expect people to conform. We expect talent to come in a certain package. We need to identify and draw out talent wherever it is to be found and in whatever package it comes.

Actually, I hope Henry is a positive role model, too, though I certainly did not set out to write any of the characters as role models for anyone or anything. They are what they are. But Henry happens to be a sensitive and caring young man.

There is documentary evidence of his kindness to Mary throughout her life and I found his tribute to her at the Royal Geological Society very moving. It reflects very well on him that he championed someone so far beneath him in social status and a woman, too, because the peer pressure and convention might have suggested that he patronise her rather than act as her patron - an important difference.

I rather miss Mary. She was a scratchy little person to have around but good fun, too, and funny... though usually unintentionally, bless her!

Read our review of Lightning Mary

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