Did Kelly Clarkson’s Ring Make Austen a Fossil Hunter?

Did Kelly Clarkson’s Ring Make Austen a Fossil Hunter?

Of Jane Austen’s known jewelry, her topaz cross came from her younger brother, Charles, who bought one each for his sisters with his first navy prize in 1801. Her turquoise bracelet probably came from another brother, Edward, as a memento relating to the death of his beloved wife Elizabeth in 1808.

But what is the provenance of the turquoise ring, the one that American singer Kelly Clarkson sought to buy at auction in 2013? And could that ring have drawn Jane Austen into a search for fossils along the cliffs of Lyme Regis?

The possible loss of the Austen ring—to an American!—a rock star!—set off a controversy unlike any since Lord Elgin spirited the Parthenon marbles out of Greece and into England during Austen’s day. Pooling their farthings in 2013, England’s Janeites raised £152,450 ($232,836) to secure the ring for posterity.

But whence the ring originally? The only reference I have been able to find to a Jane Austen ring during her lifetime is her Stoneleigh Abbey inheritance of a “Single Brilliant Centre Ring.” Paula Byrne mentions this ring in her book “The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things.” The inheritance came when her aunt and uncle Leigh-Perrott accepted a financial settlement in exchange for any claim to the Stoneleigh estate when the last of the direct Leigh line died in 1806.

That settlement, even with a ring or other trinkets, was a bitter disappointment to the Austens. In a letter, Jane called it a “vile compromise.” If the Leigh-Perrots had pressed their claim—and won—the oldest Austen brother, James, would have eventually inherited the magnificent estate from the childless Leigh-Perrots.

Could this brilliant centre ring from Stoneleigh be the same brilliant turquoise that now rests, safe from marauding Americans, at Jane Austen’s House Museum in Hampshire? (Replicas of which are for sale!)

Even if the ring originated elsewhere, its composition raises fascinating questions in itself, for it could provide a new perspective on a paleontological family in Lyme Regis whom Austen knew. The blue stone is odontolite: fluorophosphate infiltrated by hydrous ferrous phosphate. In plain language, it is an ancient tooth that has been stained blue by the soil.

Mary Anning was one of the most important paleontologists of her age, but as a woman received little recognition
Mary Anning was one of the most important paleontologists of her age, but as a woman received little recognition

 

In plainer language still, a fossil.

Fossils were contentious science in the early 1800s and for long after because they contravened the officially accepted age of the Earth. Bishop Ussher in 1650 had set Creation at precisely 6 p.m. on October 22, 4004 B.C.—5,779 B.J. (Before Jane). Though only one-sixth of his sources were biblical, the Church adopted his estimate as fact.

Yet here were these cliffs, composed of layers and layers of soil, deposited slowly over time, each layer containing its own collection of life as shown in the fossilized remains. A calculation based on God’s rocks rather than on Man’s generations would put the age of the Earth—and its lifeforms—at many, many millions of years (185 million years is today’s estimate of the age of the Lyme deposits.).

Fossil exploration in the Regency era was part of a drumbeat of discoveries pouring out of studies in astronomy, chemistry, and geology that put the literalness of Scripture—and ecclesiastical authority—at risk. Though this was half a century before the theory of evolution, Erasmus Darwin, Charles’ grandfather, had already postulated the existence of a mechanism by which one species might turn into another. Fossils supported that view.

Consider then that Austen knew a cabinetmaker named Richard Anning, who came to the family quarters in Lyme Regis at least once, to provide a bid for a furniture repair in 1804. Anning also sold fossils, dug from the nearby cliffs, to tourists. He used the proceeds to supplement his meager wages and to fund more serious excavations.

Because the Anning family sold the more common fossils at the small village market, Austen must have seen Anning from time to time. If she had the ring then, he might have recognized the stone as a fossil and perhaps discussed its origins with her. A woman who loved to walk the cliffs, Austen would have been fascinated by the natural philosophy involving the ground beneath her feet.

Very likely, Austen met the family’s young daughter, Mary, peddling those same wares at the market. Could Austen have resisted buying a modest fossil from the scruffy but precocious girl? Would Jane’s interactions with the Anning family have led her to scrape out a fossil here and there along her walks?

Mary Anning grew up to become one of the leading paleontologists in the world. Among her finds, mostly at Lyme Regis, were the first complete skeletons of the ichthyosaur and plesiosaur. As a woman and religious dissenter, she seldom received full recognition for her work, was denied membership in the Geological Society of London, and lived most of her life in poverty. She once wrote: “The world has used me so unkindly, I fear it has made me suspicious of everyone.”

Two centuries later, the Royal Society named Anning one of the ten most important British women in the history of science. Lyme Regis now has a fossil festival and celebrates an annual Mary Anning day.

One supposes that, years later, Austen might have slipped away from Chawton to travel back to her beloved Dorset coast—to refresh her memory of the Cobb, perhaps, for Persuasion?—and have come upon Mary Anning once again. In 1815, Mary would have been sixteen and as mature in her science as Jane had been in her writing at the same age.

It is tantalizing to imagine that there could have been a day along the cliffs when one of the greats of English literature joined with one of the greats of English science—both largely unrecognized in their time—to dirty their petticoats in a hunt for the elusive pterosaur hidden within the Blue Lias.

(Photo of the Blue Lias at the beginning of this blog is by Michael Maggs, Wikimedia Commons)

(This article was originally published in Jane Austen’s Regency World.)

The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen: Volume II

14 Responses to Did Kelly Clarkson’s Ring Make Austen a Fossil Hunter?

  1. I have to admit that, though an American, if I had Kelly Clarkson’s money, I might be tempted to abscond with the ring myself. And yet, I do think those treasures should remain on the soil where they originated, so, fine, it’s safe for now 🙂 This was a fascinating post, and I plan to check out the book you mentioned, The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things. It sounds like it will be great for research!

  2. What a fun read. I had no idea the ring could be considered a fossil. I assumed it was a semi precious stone. I suppose there’s no way to know what happened, really, but it’s an entertaining theory.

  3. This is so fascinating! Of all the articles written regarding “the ring” with the hoopla attached, I’ve never seen any discuss the ring itself from a historical aspect. A fossil! Wow! That is very interesting to consider! Thanks so much, Collins.

  4. I think if they did meet it would surely have made it’s way into one of Jane’s many letters that she wrote. Fossil hunting would probably have intrigued her and she wouldn’t have been able to keep something like that to herself. I always think the age of discoveries must have been a marvelous time to live. I know we make discoveries about everything and anything today but we have fantastic equipment to help us. In those times everything was so basic it must have been thrilling when something new appeared. Just a thought.

    • Teresa, you make an excellent point. However, most of Jane’s letters are missing, including almost all of those from her period on the coast. Only about 160 of her estimated 3,000 letters survive, and some of those were heavily edited by Cassandra. For example, there are no extant letters from Jane between May 1801, when she mentions the topaz crosses Charles bought, and Sept 1804, when she mentions the visit by Mr. Anning, whose estimate for repairing furniture appeared to be greater than the value of said furniture. There were eight letters in the first half of 1805, then nothing until July 1806. Similar huge gaps continue until late 1808. These “missing years” of Austen’s late twenties are what inspired me to write a trilogy that delves seriously into what life for a woman in that period would actually have been like. Collins

    • You’re welcome. You can imagine my excitement when I connected the passing reference to a Mr. Anning the carpenter in Jane’s letter of Sept. 1804 with the Mr. Anning, fossil hunter and father of THE Mary Anning. …

  5. Anji, thanks for your thoughts. Mary Anning received some support from male scientists, though not a lot. She was handicapped by her gender, her religion, and her poverty. Not being from the Church of England–whose clerics were often scientists of the day–and being a woman, she had a great deal against her. And there was her poverty, too. She and her brother got out and grubbed the dirt to find fossils. How very unladylike! She did not fit any accepted profile–just brilliant and hard working. Collins

  6. What a fascinating article you’ve written here. I’ve seen the ring on display at Jane Austen’s House in Chawton, along with the cross and bracelet. They’re all beautiful in their own ways. I had no idea about the origin of the blue stone though. I have heard of Mary Anning previously though and she was indeed very hard done by in her own time but that tended to happen to women in those days, didn’t it? We weren’t supposed to have anything even approaching a mind capable of logical or scientific thought! Thank goodness things have changed.

    Thanks again for the information, Collins.

Your thoughts are precious!