Remarkable Creatures – Tracy Chevalier (Book Review)
Mary Anning is nowadays acknowledged as one of the founders of paleontology. Born in 1799 in Lyme Regis, Anning was responsible for many important discoveries which included finding the first fossilised skeletons of creatures such as the ichthyosaurusus and plesiosaur. Her finds forced changes in scientific thinking; up until this time nobody had known that animals became extinct. Anning herself was shown to have been thinking along the same lines as Darwin, many years before he published ‘On The Origin of Species’. What makes her story even more remarkable is that many of her discoveries were made during a childhood steeped in poverty. Her father died when she was still a child and the family made money from selling ‘curies’ or curiosities, (fossils), to tourists. This poor background didn’t stop Mary from ultimately becoming a famous and respected figure in the scientific community, although it took a lot of work for her to be given credit for both her finds and her intellect. Elizabeth Philpot was another respected fossil hunter who also lived in Lyme Regis at the time, although she was from a different social class to Mary. It is the unlikely friendship between these two women that forms the basis of the storyline in Tracy Chevalier’s sixth novel, Remarkable Creatures.
Chevalier has taken what could sound like a dry and worthy subject and turned it into an entertaining, dramatic and at times, fascinating novel. I wasn’t sure what to expect as I’ve found her previous five books to range from exquisite, (The Virgin Blue, Girl with a Pearl Earring), through enjoyable enough but easily forgotten, (Falling Angels, The Lady and the Unicorn), to really quite dreadful, (Burning Bright). With this one she is back on top form and I enjoyed it more than anything I’ve read in a while.
The story is told in the first person, between the two female protagonists. It begins with Mary Anning telling how, as a baby, she survived a lightning strike that killed three people. This may sound just the sort of thing a novelist would invent, but apparently it is fact. It makes a striking start, (sorry), to a life in which Mary refuses to conform to societal expectations. In the second chapter Elizabeth Philpot explains the reduced circumstances which result in her move to Lyme Regis with her sisters. This second chapter introduces a feel of Jane Austen, although this is probably more due to the characters circumstances and the way they interact, than the style of writing. The novel is set during the same time period in which Austen was first publishing her novels, one of the Philpot sisters is a fan of hers and is sure that she once met the famous author at the Assembly Rooms in Lyme Regis. It made me wonder whether Chevalier studied Austen as a guide to the ‘proper behaviour’ of the time.
The chapters narrated by Elizabeth tend toward a genteel, somewhat restrained style, they are more subtle, philosophical and descriptive than Mary’s chapters which concentrate more on her interactions with he people around her in an active, dynamic way. It’s almost as though Mary is chatting to the reader, whereas Elizabeth is reflecting on events in a diary. The characters of the women are very well drawn, each with their own idiosyncrasies, although very occasionally I did feel aspects of their characters were over emphasised to the point where the author seemed to be reminding me of something I already knew. The other people in the book feel real too and I was interested to find out more about them in the postscript which gives details of what happened in the rest of the real lives of the characters. I thought this was a nice touch, although slightly odd because it makes everything seem true, even though it is a work of fiction. Chevalier also explains how she fictionalised the story by changing aspects of the timeline of events and making rumours into fact.
Themes explored throughout the book include class issues and women’s position in society, with the struggle for acknowledgement from the male scientists of the day providing some of the narrative tension. Mary was sought out by male geologists who she would help to find fossils, they would seek her opinion, then receive the credit for writing down what they had learned from her. At one point the celebrated French anatomist, Georges Cuvier, accuses the Anning family of being fraudsters who combine different animal bones to make strange creatures – it was the discovery of the plesiosaurus and it’s unfeasibly long neck which prompted this accusation, but Cuvier later admitted he was mistaken. Elizabeth notes that when she donates a fossil fish to the Natural History Museum, the label names the collector as ‘Philpot’ in order to sidestep the issue of gender. Of Mary she says, “Her name will never be recorded in scientific journals or books, but will be forgotten,” and indeed for many years after her death it was, as she slipped into obscurity only to be rediscovered in more recent years. On the Natural History Museum website today she is described as ‘the greatest fossil hunter ever known.’
Remarkable Creatures isn’t the only book to be written about Mary Anning and I’m surprised there has never been a film made about her life. Chevalier has sold the film rights to this book though, so that may be remedied in the next few years. It stirred my interest in finding out more about the real Mary Anning and other fossil hunters of the time. As a measure of my interest – I even began looking at Lyme Regis websites with the idea of visiting sometime and hunting for fossils.
Despite the subject matter, it’s actually a light read, which both entertains and informs. There is an occasional swerve towards melodrama, but the main criticism I would make is that the timing of events isn’t always clear; several years are covered and what appear to be weeks passing sometimes turn out to be years.
Although I wouldn’t call Remarkable Creatures a masterpiece, it is an enjoyable and interesting piece of escapist historical ‘faction’, which also raises awareness of the role of early women geologists and the work of fossil hunters. It had me engrossed.