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Is Ammonite Based on a True Story?

December 3, 2020
4 min read

Kate Winslet starrer ‘Ammonite’ is a period film that follows the love story between 19th-century paleontologist Mary Anning and geologist Charlotte Murchison. In the movie, Anning, a renowned fossil collector, dealer, and paleontologist in Britain in the early 1800s, is living on breadcrumbs that she earns from the sale of fossilized rocks to tourists. She lives with her ailing mother in the Southern English coastal town of Lyme Regis.

Roderick Murchison, a rich geologist, hires Anning to be a companion to his grieving wife, and the two women become quite close as they live together. Soon, they find themselves pursuing a torrid love affair that threatens to alter the course of their lives forever. The movie is a moving tale of love, friendship, support, and all-consuming passion. But is the story of ‘Ammonite’ rooted in reality? Let’s find out.

Is Ammonite Based on a True Story?

Yes, ‘Ammonite’ is based on a true story, but portions of the film have been fictionalized. It is loosely inspired by the life of famed British paleontologist Mary Anning, who is credited with the discovery of Jurassic treasures buried in the marine fossil beds in the cliffs along the English Channel at Lyme Regis, a town in Dorset county in Southwest England. Being a pioneer woman in science, Anning was the victim of patriarchy and was not fully credited for her discoveries.

Image Credit: Natural History Museum

Often, male scientists who purchased fossils from Anning neglected to credit her in their papers. She continued her family’s business of collecting and selling fossils to wealthy tourists and interested academics in the area. Anning’s first official find – the skeleton of a 4-foot ichthyosaur – contributed greatly to the change in scientific perception of the planet’s history, the evidence of extinction, and the theory of evolution.

Her other discoveries in the early 19th-century include the first couple of plesiosaur skeletons, the first pterosaur skeleton, and fish fossils. Anning’s findings and observations led to the discovery that coprolites were, in fact, fossilized feces. It is true that Mary Anning never married, and there was never even a hint of a relationship with any man during her lifetime. However, the love affair that’s shown in the movie between Anning and Charlotte Murchison is pure speculation.

It is a known fact that Charlotte Murchison, the wife of geologist Roderick Impey Murchison and a geologist herself, was a close friend of Anning’s. Still, none can confirm whether or not they were romantically involved. A few distant relatives of Mary Anning expressed disapproval at the invention of a romance in the film, but the makers of ‘Ammonite’ were unfazed by the objections. It is factually accurate that Charlotte stayed at Anning’s for a few weeks, and the two women went fossil-hunting before Charlotte returned to her husband and her own home.

They remained friends for the rest of their lives, exchanging letters on the regular. But no evidence suggests that the two women ever viewed each other as more than friends. In ‘Ammonite,’ Roderick leaves behind a grieving Charlotte with Mary while recuperating from a personal tragedy. However, history says that her husband and Charlotte decided she should stay with the celebrated Mary Anning for a while so that Charlotte may gain the skills to become an excellent practical fossilist.

They lived together only for a few weeks, and then Charlotte returned to her home in London, and Anning stayed with the Murchisons when she traveled to London in 1829. No historical evidence suggests that either of the women was lesbian or bisexual. But there is none to deny it as well. The existence of a love affair between Mary Anning and Charlotte Murchison, or the lack of it, simply cannot be confirmed. But if we strictly go by history, it did not happen.

So while the characters of ‘Ammonite’ are based on real people, the romantic storyline centering on the protagonists is imagined and fictitious but is a wholly welcome addition, creatively-speaking. Interestingly, an unverified and unconfirmed but popular claim states that Mary Anning’s story is the inspiration for the 1908 tongue-twister song by Terry Sullivan “She sells seashells on the seashore.”

Read More: Where was Ammonite Filmed?

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