Sunday, February 12, 2006

Fossils in literature

Maybe I qualify myself (as a fossil in literature, that is). My friend Simon accuses me (well, not in so many words) of having outed myself in this weblog as a fellow whose interests are mind-numbingly tedious. I defiantly hurl into the vast abyss that is the internet another of the little things that happen to catch my attention. I was reading a 17th century book by Richard Brathwaite, The Honest Ghost (1658). In it, he has a satire on lawyers entitled ‘The Judiciall Ape’. A lawyer speaks, and in the course of this, having talked about how his bribes have as a matter of decorum to be delivered via his manservant, remarks next how his clients, when they finally get to see him

finde me in Majestick sort,
Starching my beard, or reading a Report.

While each of these more scurvy Court’sies makes
Then upon Whitby-Strand are shapes of Snakes…

I don’t recall seeing an earlier allusion to ammonites in literature. Brathwaite was brought up on the other side of the country, but eventually had property in Yorkshire, and, I suppose, his out-of-the-way simile comes from some local knowledge. The idea is first of all about number, but also about the curled-up bowings, the 'courtesies', with which the wretched clients greet their lawyer. It is hard to imagine the profusion of Liassic ammonites, back in the centuries when nobody much bothered picking them up. The not unreasonable attempt at reconstructing the creature involved unrolling the ammonite (in your imagination), and finding a snake; you then spun the yarn that St Hilda of Whitby, rather than banishing the snakes like St Patrick did from Ireland, turned them into stone. As part of the substantiation of this, the outer whorl of a dactylioceras would be carved into a snake’s head. I took the image off
where they have them for sale - real fossils, but carved in their labs. These might be thought of, then, as fake-fakes, rather than authentic early fakes. If they could only produce a plaster or resin version, it would be a fake-fake-fake.

Thinking about this made me recall my favourite fossil in English Literature, the trilobite in Thomas Hardy's A Pair of Blue Eyes. In chapters 21 and 22, Henry Knight finds himself precariously positioned over the abyss of a North Cornish cliff. He knows he cannot hold on, the girlish heroine, Elfride Swancourt, has apparently run to get help from a distance that cannot possibly arrive in time to save him. As he hangs there,
By one of those familiar conjunctions of things wherewith the inanimate world baits the mind of man when he pauses in moments of suspense, opposite Knight's eyes was an imbedded fossil, standing forth in low relief from the rock. It was a creature with eyes. The eyes, dead and turned to stone, were even now regarding him. It was one of the early crustaceans called Trilobites. Separated by millions of years in their lives, Knight and this underling seemed to have met in their death. It was the single instance within reach of his vision of anything that had ever been alive and had had a body to save, as he himself had now.
Hardy loved to place his characters against a vast expanse of landscape, or of time, to affront them with the indifference of nature with no God behind it, like the pools on Egdon Heath, full of tiny life, which confront the character dying of heat-stroke (in The Return of the Native). Hardy once went to see the can-can dancers in the Moulin Rouge, and so positioned himself in the audience (or so he claimed) that, through a stage door left open, he could see the graves in Montmartyr cemetery. Henry Knight confronts the extinct, as he faces his equally trivial extinction.

Here's a link to James Abbott Pasquier illustrating the first part of the episode in the 1873 serial text (this is before the plucky Elfride reappears having taken off all her undergarments, she tears them into strips, and twists a rope out of them... sorry about the spoiler there. Henry Knight is amazed at how girlish her figure is when she is reduced to just her topmost layers - she chastely won't walk beside him after the rescue, but he is well placed to size her up).

and here, Richard Fortey kicks off his Trilobite: Witness to Evolution (2000) with an atmospheric pilgrimage to what has to be the same cliff near Bocastle:

In noting Hardy's imaginative licence (no trilobites have been found in these Carboniferous shales), Fortey drops a little stitch himself: Henry Knight almost falls off the cliff, Stephen Smith is the rival lover to Elfride (Knight's name projects class privilege, while Smith's captures the chip on Hardy's shoulder, for Hardy is dealing with his wooing of Emma Gifford).

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