friend. The Tilgate beds were part of the freshwater iron-sand. And as Mantell had claimed all along, these rocks were indeed Secondary.
Fitton's confirmation that the rocks of the Tilgate Forest were freshwater deposits made sense of the animal data too. Creatures like crocodiles would not be found in the deep seas, as would ichthyosaurs, but would lurk in rivers or flood waters. 'In fact the existence ol dry land at no great distance seems clearly indicated by these remains of vegetables and amphibia; some of the former must have grown on the borders of a river or lake,' Mantell wrote. 'At what period was it and under what circumstances that turtles and gigantic crocodiles lived in our climate and were shaded by forests of palms and arborescent ferns?'
The more that was revealed of this vast buried river delta, the more this helped to confirm Mantell's understanding of the animals that had lived close by. This was not the ocean world of Lyme Regis that Mary Anning was uncovering. What they were beginning to catch glimpses of here was a Cretaceous landscape: 'a mighty river flowing in a tropical climate over sandstone rocks . . . through a country clothed with palms and arborescent ferns . . . inhabited by turtles, crocodiles and other amphibious reptiles'. A scene where the uppermost fronds of a forest of giant tree-ferns emerged above the mists that wreathed the river delta, and tropical plants provided plentiful vegetation for giant herbivores to graze. As Mantell worked in the quarry, occasionally catching glimpses of the English country scene beyond, it was hard to believe that beneath the order of thousands of years of careful cultivation were the long-buried relics of such an alien landscape.
Unravelling the layers of rock that formed the Weald proved so complex that it took Fitton several years before he could confirm his finds, and the results of his investigations were not published in full until 1833. However, ten years before this, Charles Lyell also obtained conclusive proof that the Weald was indeed Secondary rock.
In June 1823, Lyell made an expedition to the Isle of Wight with Professor Buckland and other geologists. Along the southern side of the island between Compton Chine and Brook the strata are clearly exposed. All the Sussex rocks that Mantell was struggling to place in order are present, so it was possible to see at once which beds are above and below the others. Thus on 11 June Lyell wrote excitedly to Mantell: 'we see there, at one view, the whole geology of your part of the world, from the chalk with flints down to the Battle [the Sussex town] beds, all within an hour's walk, and yet neither are any of the beds absent. . . This is so beautiful a key that / should have been at a loss to conceive of how so much blundering could have arisen if I had not witnessed the hurried manner in which Buckland galloped over the ground.'
Lyell stayed a day later than the rest of the party to gather fossils, and wrote disparagingly of the 'confusion which has found its way into the heads of some of our geologists with regard to your Sussex beds'. His beautiful cliffs did indeed prove the position of the Weald rocks in the Secondary series. It restored Mantell's conviction that the fossils he had found could actually belong to an ancient giant reptile.
But who would believe them? Buckland's view that the Tilgate beds of the Weald were recent had become the established view. Charles Lyell, not yet twenty-five, had graduated in geology only three years previously and was still a law student. Gideon Mantell, shoemaker's son, provincial doctor and part-time geologist, scarcely carried more weight. The Royal Society turned down Mantell's first application, in 1823, to become a Fellow. The Geological Society still would not publish their evidence that the Tilgate Forest formed part of the older, Secondary strata. William Fitton, with admirable scientific caution, wanted to be sure of his data before he announced his findings. Charles Lyell's letter to Gideon Mantell setting out the evidence from the Isle of Wight was not published, and did not come to light for some years.
Mantell had one last hope. Lyell was planning to visit Paris, and he offered to take some of Mantell's fossils to leading thinkers in France. Mantell hit upon the bold idea of showing the mysterious herbivorous 'tooth' to Baron Cuvier. He could not bring himself to accept Buckland's view that this belonged to a mere wolf-fish. Surely the legendary Baron would provide the right answer? Mantell, like all the others, held Georges Cuvier in the highest esteem. The Baron's 'powerful mind and enlightened genius could, like the fabled wand of the sorcerer, cause to pass before us the beings of former ages,' he wrote. Such were his feelings of admiration for Cuvier that, when he had an opportunity to meet him in person ten years later, Mantell described himself as 'trembling with excitement' for the entire meeting.
By 1823, Cuvier had recently been granted the title Grand-Master of the University of Paris. He was usually to be found there at the centre of an admiring group of followers, drawn by his learning and reputation. Even his private study, or 'sanctum sanatorium', was imposing. 'It is truly characteristic of the man,' wrote Lyell. 'It displays that extraordinary power of methodising which is the grand secret of the prodigious feats which he performs annually, without appearing to give himself the least trouble ... It is a longish room furnished with eleven desks to stand to . . . like a public office for so many clerks. But it is all for the one man, who multiplies himself as author, and admitting no one into this room, moves as the fancy inclines him, from one occupation to another.'
Any visitor hoping to meet Georges Cuvier would try to obtain an invitation to his Saturday evening soirees. These soirees, wrote Lyell, were attended
[by] the learned, and the talented of every nation, of every age and of each sex. All opinions were received; the more numerous the circle the more delighted was the master of the house to mingle in it, encouraging, amusing, welcoming everybody, paying the utmost respect to those really worthy of distinction. It was at once to see intellect in all its splendour; and the stranger was astonished to find himself conversing, without restraint, without ceremony, in the presence of the leading stars of Europe: princes, peers, diplomatists, and the worthy savant himself.
It was in this brilliant company that Gideon Mantell's herbivorous tooth was duly unwrapped and presented to the great Baron on Saturday 28 June 1823. According to Sidney Spokes, Mantell's biographer,
Cuvier pronounced his opinion without hesitation. The worn-down 'tooth' was merely the upper incisor of a rhinoceros. When Lyell persisted and presented some metacarpal bones — small bones forming part of the hand of the forclimb — these too were dismissed as from a species of hippopotamus.
Whether Georges Cuvier was correctly informed at this meeting about the uncertainties over the Sussex strata has been a matter of conjecture for science historians. It seems most likely that he had been told by William Buckland that the Sussex rock was recent, and armed with this erroneous information had arrived at the logical conclusion, given the very worn state of the tooth, that it belonged to a herbivorous mammal. There is also some evidence that Cuvier may have modified his opinion the next day, for Lyell later recorded that although he pronounced it to be the incisor ot a rhinoceros, 'this was however at an evening party. The next morning he told me he was satisfied it was something quite different.' Strangely, this all-important qualification does not appear to have reached Gideon Mantell. In England, correspondence between Buckland and other scientists reveals that it was now widely accepted that Mantell had merely found a rhinoceros.
On receiving the letter from Paris informing him of Cuvier's verdict, Mantell finally had to accept that it seemed he had been wrong. Quietly reading and rereading it for any sign of encouragement, he could not escape the fact that the letter pronounced a crushing blow, and one from which he could not easily recover. It was clear he had been wasting his time; perhaps he had even made a fool of himself. Far from making a discovery that would turn the scientific world upside down, he had uncovered nothing more than an ordinary modern mammal. He had to accept that his strenuous efforts to understand the former worlds of Sussex were leading nowhere.
His wife, too, felt the burden of his continual disappointments. For seven years, now, she had been accustomed to him returning late after visiting quarries when his medical duties were done, and waking alone in the mornings, knowing he had left before dawn. Hard-won funds were used to pay the quarrymen for new fossils — a sacrifice she was expected to share willingly with him. Even his book was published at a loss, incurring a debt of over £300 largely underwritten by her successful elder brother, George Woodhouse.
For Mary Mantell all that seemed to emerge from this expensive hobby were yet more bones. They were everywhere — row upon row of neatly labelled bones that must not be moved, must not be touched, each proclaiming undisputed ownership of the front room where she should have held sway, perhaps entertaining guests for afternoon tea. Her drawing-room was furnished with dreams, but they were no longer her dreams.
So Gideon Mantell found he could no longer always count on the support of his wife. The combination of his domestic circumstances, the endless commitments he faced as a doctor and his failure to gain recognition for his ideas, finally pushed him into a deep depression. His huge energies and boundless ambition became ensnared by an overwhelming sense of frustration and loss. He faced tremendous conflict between his appetite for success, fuelled by the conviction that he had discovered something of tremendous significance, and the apathy with which his discoveries had been received. 'My incessant engagements and occupations [as a doctor] have so constantly engrossed my time that even this journal has been wholly neglected,' he wrote in his diary. 'So unhappily have my days been spent that I had not the resolution to record mementos of wretchedness . . .
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