I enjoyed all five shorts in this Outspoken Authors collection by Karen Joy Fowler, but the title story reintroduced me to a fascinating woman from history. Combining Jane Austen, dinosaur bones, Nonconformist religion, and dissenting politics, The Science of Herself is an “almost true”, gently fictionalized mini-biography of Mary Anning (1799-1847), who grew up in poverty, taught herself (and helped create) paleontology, and was sought out by some of the most esteemed scientists of the day, including Louis Agassiz and Charles Lyell, but almost never given credit for her work.
Young Mary Anning would have spent her days combing the dangerous crumbling cliffs of Lyme Regis collecting fossils to sell for food during the time that Jane Austen visited the area–Austen even mentions Anning’s father, a cabinetmaker, in her diary. While Austen was on that trip she must have walked beside Cobb wall, where Louisa Musgrove will fall giving Anne Elliot a second chance at love, and she may have noticed Mary peddling her ancient stone curiosities, an idea Fowler uses in her story.
Karen Joy Fowler’s written work ranges widely, from The Jane Austen Book Club, about a group of people who gather to discuss novels, to We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, about a family with three children–two human and (spoiler alert!) one chimp. That variety is evident in this collection as well, which includes a transcribed interview with Fowler at her outspoken, whip smart best, an essay by Fowler challenging smug gender role assumptions made by authors and literary critics from all shades of the political spectrum, and two other short stories–one somewhat funny, about a boy whose father may or may not have been abducted by aliens, and the other quite disturbing, about an abusive, reality based overseas detention facility for wayward American teens.
Mary Anning as an adult with her dog, Tray, painted before 1842, the Golden Cap outcrop can be seen in the background