Pride and Prometheus
When she was nineteen, Miss Mary Bennet had believed three things that were not true. She believed that, despite her awkwardness, she might become interesting through her accomplishments. She believed that, because she paid strict attention to all she had been taught about right and wrong, she was wise in the ways of the world. And she believed that God, who took note of every moment of one’s life, would answer prayers, even foolish ones.
Thirteen years later, below the sea cliffs at Lyme Regis, among the tangled driftwood and broken shale exposed by the retreating tide, Mary found a flat stone plate that, when broken open by a tap of her hammer, revealed four Devil’s Fingers.
“Mr. Woodleigh!” she called.
Three days of rain had softened the cliffs above Pinhay Bay, and a recent avalanche had scattered heaps of shale
across the stony beach. Behind her the early March surf broke continually upon the shingle. Seabirds cried. A cold offshore wind rustled the stunted trees on the verge of the cliff above. Mary’s hair came loose from her bonnet and fell into her eyes; she brushed it away with the back of the gloved hand that held the hammer.
At her call, Charles Woodleigh, bent over the rocks some twenty feet away, raised his head. “What is it, Miss Bennet?”
“See what I’ve found!”
He laid down his hammer and came to stand beside her as she crouched over her discovery. In the face of the stone plate were four slender conical shells, the shortest an inch or so, the largest, completely intact, at least four inches. It looked not so much like a finger as the point of a spear. She rubbed her thumb over the hard, smooth surface, whose color ranged from rusty brown to dark gray.
“Lovely,” Woodleigh said. “I believe you have discovered something, Miss Bennet.”
“I have!” Mary said.
The rock containing the fossils was roughly a foot across. Together they pulled it from beneath the rubble and placed it into her canvas satchel. It was not so heavy, but Mr. Woodleigh carried it toward the dogcart they had left at the foot of the road, where his man Daniel and Alice, Mrs. Bennet’s maid, waited. As they approached, Daniel saw them, hurried over, and took the satchel, carrying it the rest of the way.
Woodleigh had him set it on the floor of the cart. The gravity with which Alice had taken her duties as chaperone was evidenced by her staying with Daniel rather than braving the blustery seashore. Now she was all concern. She tucked the
lap robe around Mary while Mr. Woodleigh told Daniel to take them to the inn.
“A very lucky find, indeed,” Woodleigh told Mary as they rode back to town, his feet resting on her discovery.
The rear seat of the cart faced backward, and as it bumped up the rutted path, their view of the bay expanded. The tide would soon cover the beach where they had spent the last hours. The sinuous masonry of the Cobb, the famous seawall, embraced Lyme’s small harbor and its fishing boats. Below the Promenade the beach lay devoid of the bathing machines of summer. The high street pitched steeply up from the harbor, not half so busy as it would be in that season. Daniel maneuvered their cart around a man waiting anxiously with a groom alongside a chaise and four. Under the overcast sky the town lay steeped in twilight. Some servants could be seen at the fish market and butcher’s shop, while men in work clothes came out of the ironmonger’s. Outside the Assembly Rooms, a boy was lighting the lamps at each side of the entrance.
At the King’s Crown Inn they dismounted. Woodleigh sent Daniel to stable the horse and cart; Mary allowed the shivering Alice to hurry indoors while she stopped at a table set up outside the inn. On the table were displayed baskets full of Dudley Locusts, verteberries, and several such Devil’s Fingers as Mary had discovered. A large, flat stone leaning against a table leg showed the skeleton of some ancient fish. A girl of perhaps fifteen years of age, wearing a well-worn dark green wool dress and an unadorned bonnet, minded the table. Her ungloved hands, which she kept crossed before her, were rough, her knuckles red. This was the celebrated Mary Anning, the girl the locals said had survived being struck by
lightning as an infant, and who had acquired such a reputation for her ability to find fossils that enthusiasts from as far away as Edinburgh frequented her stall.
Mary had made her acquaintance earlier. Mary Anning was shy around her betters, but at moments her intelligence broke through their difference in station. Mary wanted to tell the girl what she had found, but hesitated, and in a moment Woodleigh arrived. A basket on the table contained a dozen Devil’s Fingers. Woodleigh selected one. Mary Anning’s hopeful eyes watched his every move. He addressed the girl.
“You ask a shilling for one of these? Yet this lady has found several herself this very day.”
Mary Anning’s eyes met Mary’s, a glimmer of excitement in her gaze. “Did you go where—”
“Excuse me?” Woodleigh interrupted. “I believe I asked you a question.”
“Beg pardon, sir. The lady asked me how she might look for such as these and I told her.”
Woodleigh nodded. “Yes, indeed. It’s remarkable that there are any left to find, since you deprive this beach of antiquities the moment that they appear. Those of us who study fossils can only travel here at great trouble, on certain occasions, while you have the Blue Lias cliffs at your disposal every day of the year.”
Mary set her satchel on the edge of the table, opened it, and showed the girl her find. “I think this must have been exposed by the recent fall.”
Mary Anning studied the plate. “These is very fine.”
“They are not really fingers, are they?” Mary asked.
Woodleigh said, “No, Miss Bennet. These are the horns of some ancient sea creature.”
Miss Anning said, “They comes from some sort of cuttlefish.”
“I doubt that very much,” Woodleigh said.
The girl did not argue the point.
Woodleigh surveyed the fossils laid out, including one very fine example of what the locals called a “snake stone,” a spiral shell rather like that of a nautilus. Woodleigh haggled with the girl until she agreed to sell it for two shillings.
Mary Anning wrapped the snake stone in brown paper while Woodleigh pulled the pittance he had offered from his purse. From their conversations, Mary knew that the girl’s family depended on the meager earnings from such sales for their living. Upon entering the inn, she ventured to speak to Woodleigh about it.
He shook his head. “Your kind heart speaks well of you, Mary. The girl has no learning, yet she presumes to correct her betters. She is unwilling to do work more fitting to someone of her station, and lucky to get what we give her.”
“But Mr. Woodleigh, you know this is the girl who discovered the fossilized crocodile that was the talk of the Geological Society.”
“It was no crocodile. It was an ichthyosaurus.”
“Which she discovered. Doesn’t she deserve some credit for that?”
“Would we say the beggar who finds a sovereign in the gutter earned it? She could not pronounce ‘ichthyosaur’ if her life depended on it.”
Mary wished he would not be so uncharitable. In areas
unrelated to his enthusiasm he seemed an amiable man, but at these moments he presented himself in the worst light.
“I believe I will retire until dinner,” she said.
He looked worried. “Shall I carry your fossil up for you?”
“I will carry it myself.”
Mary returned to her room in an ill humor. From her first conversation with Mary Anning, she had felt that her kinship with the odd girl went beyond their given names. Mary Anning was half her age, a Dissenter, and desperately poor, yet they shared an interest in these unwomanly studies. Such affinities were not visible to Woodleigh. He was right, she supposed: friendships outside one’s class were ill-advised, and when Mary was younger, she would never have considered otherwise.
Charles Woodleigh was forty-three, the middle son of a prominent family of Devonshire, who had read the law at Lincoln’s Inn. In London he had dabbled in Tory politics, made a success in some Irish enterprise, and retired to Exeter to pursue his interests. One of those interests was the study of fossils, which he had commenced in his youth as a member of the Askesian Society. He was a regular visitor to Lyme and its famous fossil cliffs. There, at the Assembly Rooms, Mary had been introduced to him. It soon became apparent that unlike anyone she had ever met, and certainly no one in her family, Woodleigh was delighted by her interest in fossils.
Mary was flattered by his attentions. He was a pious man, and had asked her to sit with him at the local service last Sunday. She had noted how well he sang the hymn. Above all he loved talking about his collection, and she was a ready listener. When they discovered their mutual enthusiasm, Mary
dared to think that, if it were possible for a man and woman to spend all of their days speaking of fossils, their acquaintance might lead to some more permanent connection.
Mrs. Bennet and Kitty awaited Mary in their rooms.
“There you are,” said Mrs. Bennet. “My Lord, your dress is nothing but mud! You must get out of those clothes immediately. We are to dine this evening with Mr. Woodleigh.”
“I know, Mother. I just left Mr. Woodleigh.”
Mary hoisted her satchel onto the table. She removed her cloak and undid the ribbons of her bonnet, took it off, and set it beside her discovery.
Kitty was already dressed in the gown she had bought the day before. “What is that?” she asked.
Mary began to open the bag. “I found this on the shore. It’s—”
“Oh, dear, it is wet!” Mrs. Bennet exclaimed. “See, you have soiled the tablecloth already.”
Mary took the bag from the table and set it on the hearthstone, her enthusiasm only slightly dampened. She opened it to display the stone plate and her fossils. The faint light of the coal fire flickered over its surface. “See! Four of these creatures trapped in this single stone. They have been called Devil’s Fingers. Mr. Woodleigh maintains that these are horns of some sea creature, but I believe, and my belief is seconded by the young woman who sells fossils in the street, that they are the remains of some form of cuttlefish.”
“You have spoken with some girl in the street?” Mrs. Bennet said.
Kitty bent over the slab. “Cuttlefish?”
“They have also been called thunderstones: some people
believe that they are created when lightning strikes the earth.” Mary warmed to her subject. “But that is not likely. In fact—”
“And you found these yourself!” Kitty brightened.
Mary was pleased. “I did. I—”
“How wonderful! I am certain that Mr. Woodleigh was properly impressed. Perhaps now that you have accomplished what you set out to do in Lyme, we could move on to London?”
“But we were to be here for another week,” Mary said.
“Mother, must we remain?” Kitty said. “One might attend a hundred balls in Lyme in March and not meet one person of consequence.”
Mrs. Bennet had not spared a glance for Mary’s fossils. “Now, my dear, you know that I share your opinion of the society of Lyme, but we don’t want to harm Mary’s chances with Mr. Woodleigh. Patience. We’ll be in London soon enough.”
As if struck by lightning herself, Kitty fell into a chair near the hearth. “Mary, is this proper? You’ve always spoken of the risks women take by associating with men.” Kitty turned to Mrs. Bennet. “Yet she spends hours with Mr. Woodleigh on her own, without a chaperone.”
“Alice was with me.”
“Alice no doubt spent her time flirting with Woodleigh’s servant.”
“With men undeserving of our trust, what I’ve told you is true,” Mary said. “Mr. Woodleigh is not such a man.”
“No, Mr. Woodleigh is too interested in your thunderstones to present any danger, I suppose. So I shall wilt here in this dank town until he departs.” Kitty coughed theatrically, caught her breath, and continued, “Maybe we can get you to
sing for Mr. Woodleigh. If anything might drive him back to Devonshire, that would.”
Mary colored. She tried to speak, but nothing would come.
Mrs. Bennet did not seem to have understood Kitty’s thrust. “Kitty! You should be half so accomplished as Mary.”
Kitty would not meet Mary’s eyes. Mary picked up her satchel.
“I must dress,” she said. “Perhaps you should send for Alice, Mother—to clean up after me.”
Mary retreated to her room, closed the door, and leaned against it. She searched for some witty rejoinder she might have made to Kitty. Over the years she had come to understand how much she served as a source of amusement to her sisters, and had thought herself well defended. How cruel of Kitty to remind Mary of Netherfield Park. Thirteen years, yet it seemed the pain lay ready to be reawakened at the least notice.
Mary was neither a beauty, like her older and happily married sister Jane, nor witty, like her older and happily married sister Elizabeth, nor flirtatious, like her younger and less happily married sister Lydia. Awkward and nearsighted, she had never cut an attractive figure, and as she had aged, she had come to see herself as others saw her. There was no air of grace or mystery about Mary, and no man—not even Charles Woodleigh—ever looked upon her with that sort of admiration.
So she had applied herself to the pianoforte from early youth, had taught herself to sing, and had studied harmony. She became by far the most accomplished of the Bennet sisters, quite vain in her regard for her own abilities.
Until that evening at Netherfield. All of Meryton was gathered at a ball thrown by Mr. Charles Bingley, a newcomer to town on whom Jane had set her sights. At the ball Elizabeth was asked to play, and after she had done so, Mary, eager to demonstrate her skills—she had studied much harder than Lizzy, and was far more adept, everybody said—had sat down to the instrument, played, and sang. Quite well, she thought. She took the silence with which she was greeted as a sign of the revelers’ rapt attention. Lizzy caught her eye and shook her head slightly, but Mary could not imagine what she intended.
Mary sang a second song, and was about to assay a third when Mr. Bennet stepped to her side, put his hand gently on her shoulder, and said, “That will do extremely well, child. You have delighted us long enough. Let the other young ladies have time to exhibit.”
At that, Mary looked up to see—to actually see, for the first time in her life—the faces of the gathered people, and a veil was lifted. Written on these faces was amusement, indifference, even annoyance. Lizzy’s expression was one of agonized embarrassment. Mary realized that she was at best a figure of fun, and the closer the relation of the observers to her, the more a cause of shame.
She rose from the pianoforte, her hands trembling, and spent the rest of the ball sitting in a corner. The evening ran on past midnight, and the candles burned down to stubs, and Lizzy spoke with Mr. Darcy, whom she would eventually marry, and Jane danced with Mr. Bingley, whom she would marry—while Mary felt as if she had fallen into a pit that had opened up in the beeswax-polished floor of Netherfield Hall.
Mary had never played again in public. She had managed to hide her shame to the point where, she was sure, no one in the family understood how great a blow she had suffered. To them it was a minor incident, no different from a dozen other purblind things Mary had done that illustrated how poorly she understood the world.
From that day on she began to notice how nobody in the family listened to the things she said. When she discoursed on morality, the likely response was silence or a hasty move to some other subject. Even Lizzy and Jane, the kindest of her sisters, never engaged with her. Lydia, who never listened to anyone longer than half a minute anyway, did not bother to hide her indifference, and Kitty had always followed Lydia’s lead.
Looking back on those moments, Mary felt the justice of their indifference. Any person of sense would discount her store of shopworn quotations and banal advice. To think of how smugly she had pronounced on any number of matters that she in truth knew nothing about filled her with shame. Mary discovered herself to be a great ungainly goose, putting herself forward too much, unaware of how other people took her. In reaction she withdrew into her books, her piety, and lately her fossils. Better to hide one’s thoughts than risk making a fool of oneself. At home, after Lydia, Jane, and Lizzy were gone with husbands and families of their own, she had only Kitty to depend on.
Over the last ten years Mary had imagined that she and Kitty had found some bond in their approaching spinsterhood, but here, at the least sign of advantage, Kitty had cut her to the quick. As Mary dressed for dinner, all she could
think about was that she was alone, had always been alone, and unless Mr. Woodleigh made her an offer, always would be.
When they descended to meet Woodleigh, they found the inn in some turmoil. A young woman who had stopped there the day before with a party of visitors from Uppercross had fallen from the Cobb. Witnesses of the accident said she had lain as if dead. She was being attended to in the home of Captain Harville, only recently settled in Lyme. Rumor had it she was engaged to be married; now, if she were to survive, she would likely be an invalid for the rest of her life.
At supper, Mrs. Bennet expounded upon the risks taken by young women who moved outside their proper sphere.
“Mother,” Kitty said, “this girl hurt herself because her fiancé failed to catch her when she jumped from the Cobb.”
“No well-bred young lady should trust a man to catch her if she goes leaping from public landmarks. Such pastimes, my dear, are inappropriate. I hope you will not be jumping off things anytime soon.”
“Until I have a fiancé, Mother,” Kitty said morosely, “I will avoid every instance of jumping.”
Kitty saw no prospects on the horizon. At twenty-two she had been proposed to by Mr. Jonathan Clarke, the prosperous owner of a butcher’s shop and rendering works in Matlock, not far from Pemberley, Darcy’s estate. But Mr. Clarke, though personable, was a tradesman, and he took snuff. Kitty had declined his offer. She’d never gotten another. Mr. Clarke’s business had prospered: he was now a man of considerable import in Derbyshire. Every spring, when she invariably encountered Clarke and his wife in London, and then again every summer
at Pemberley, Kitty was reminded of her mistake.
“Mr. Woodleigh, are there dangers to your fossil hunting?” asked Mrs. Bennet.
“There are rock slides. The Undercliff itself is the result of a collapse all along the line between Lyme and Axmouth. And of course we must beware of the tides; people have been washed away to sea.”
“Washed to sea!” Mrs. Bennet exclaimed. “Mary, I forbid you to go back there. I had rather see you with your nose in a book than out in this foul weather waiting for a landslide, with me unable to think for fear that I shall never see you again.”
Mary said, “I am a cautious person, Mother.”
Mrs. Bennet sailed on regardless. “Of course, Mr. Woodleigh, this does not mean that you and Mary may not study your bones together in some proper drawing room. Mary is an accomplished performer, you know.”
“Is that so?” Woodleigh said brightly. “Delightful. In her modesty she has said nothing of it. I confess, I have never met a young lady who takes such an interest in natural philosophy. Has Mr. Bennet schooled all his daughters in the sciences?”
“Mr. Bennet spends his days among his books,” said Mrs. Bennet. “He has left the education of the girls to me.”
“Mary is the queen of the library,” said Kitty.
“Father lets me read from his collection,” Mary said. “And when we are in London, I buy many books.”
“Yet it is more common, I believe,” Woodleigh said, “for young ladies to study the foibles of their neighbors than natural philosophy.”
Mary found herself unable to hold her tongue. “Miss Wollstonecraft wrote that it is only because women are allowed
no scientific study that they concern themselves with rules of behavior. In my youth I was one such, intent on propriety. I find I can better spend my time studying nature. Perhaps someday, through science, we shall understand the first causes of our behavior.”
“Yes,” Kitty said. “I am sure that the soul lies hidden inside some rock.”
“Miss Wollstonecraft?” Woodleigh said. “Wasn’t she married to that Jacobin, Godwin? When I worked in Mr. Pitt’s government, Godwin’s traitorous pamphlets caused us no end of trouble. Propriety is not something she, with her natural children, ever took account of. Miss Bennet, I hope you have not taken anything that atheist wrote to heart.”
“I am no atheist,” Mary said. “I find the hand of God everywhere in nature. Do you not?”
Mrs. Bennet, out of her depth, nonetheless understood a challenge to her domestic authority. “We have no atheists in the Bennet family, Mr. Woodleigh.”
“I beg your pardon.”
“And Mary, that’s enough talk of women radicals.”
“I’m sorry, Mother.”
Mrs. Bennet smoothed her napkin. “I forgive you, my dear. And you as well, Mr. Woodleigh. Now where is that servant? We called for a pudding, and have seen no sign of it.”
The rest of the dinner proceeded in subdued spirits. Woodleigh, as if abashed that he had scolded her, attempted to conciliate Mary. Mary appreciated his effort, but as she sat there, she considered how a day that had dawned so auspiciously, her mind engaged and her heart light, off to explore the Blue Lias cliffs with a man who seemed to appreciate her,
had since the moment she had discovered her fossils become a series of blows to her heart.
At the end of the meal Woodleigh excused himself, saying that he needed to make an early night of it in preparation for his return to Exeter. He insisted that they allow him to pay for the dinner. He thanked them for their excellent company and promised Mary, if she might allow it, to write her. And with that he was gone.
The three women retreated to their rooms.
Mary felt confused by the contradictions between Woodleigh’s thoughtfulness and his callousness. Life was a mystery, and the content of another’s heart a riddle. She wished Kitty were right, and the soul might be discovered by breaking open some rock.
Erasmus Darwin, in The Temple of Nature, asserted that life arose spontaneously all the time, and rather than an affront to God, this was a tribute to him as the Cause of all Causes. Every day dead matter gave birth to living things, and every day living creatures surrendered the spirit that animated them to again become dull matter. The border between life and death was permeable in both directions.
Mary was alive. She had been alive since the moment her father and mother had animated her substance and God charged it with a soul. But one day her soul would depart and her body decay. Her flesh would fall away, and her bones would harden into stone. Perhaps someone might crack open a mass of shale a thousand years hence to find her and explain the meaning of her existence.
Back in the room that Mary and Kitty shared, as they let down their hair and brushed it out, Kitty apologized to
Mary for calling back the contretemps at Netherfield. “The moment I said it I could see that I had hurt you deeply. I have been so cross lately, and you do not deserve such treatment. Please forgive me, Mary. I hope you will forgive me.”
Mary said that it would be unchristian for her not to forgive.
Kitty embraced her. “You are the best of sisters. I am sorry that Woodleigh is leaving so soon.”
Mary said that men would do as they pleased.
“Do you wish to continue here in Lyme without him? Aunt Gardiner would be so happy to see us in London, even if we were to come sooner than planned. If you think it is right, we might ask Mother about it tomorrow.”
“Why wait for tomorrow?” said Mary. “Mother is not yet asleep. You should go to her now.”
“Oh, do you think so? I shall!”
The look of joy that crossed Kitty’s face raised such contradictory emotions in Mary’s breast that she was glad Kitty rushed from the room before her expression betrayed them. Assuming that Kitty would notice at all.