by Tracy Chevalier
A gentle, easy read bringing much neglected historical figures into the spotlight. Tracy Chevalier is very good at mining history for narrative framework and in the case of Remarkable Creatures she has done just that, bringing a spotlight onto some neglected women of science. The novel is a fictionalised account of the lives, work and friendship of Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot, 19th century fossil hunters who with their fossil discoveries revolutionised early paleontology.
Set in Lyme Regis during the early half of the 19th century the novel explores the conventions and mores that restrict the ability of women to achieve in a very patriarchal world. A world not only male dominated but with serious constraints based on class and economics. Mary is a working class girl whose family is struggling to survive financially. Fossil hunting for her is as a much an economic imperative as an intellectual one. The fossils she finds, the 'curies' or curiosities are a product she can sell to feed herself, her mother and brother, her father a cabinet maker dies early, leaving behind a mountain of debt and a struggling family with no bread winner. It is Mary's remarkable eye and talent for recognising fossils in the cliffs of Lyme Regis that brings in much needed income. As Mary progresses with fossil hunting she becomes expert in fossil anatomy and is able to impress the more wealthy and educated men she sells her fossils to, the very men who largely overlook and obscure her contribution:
"Mary had been so generous for so long, to so little gain - apart from Colonel Birch's sudden, madcap auction - while others took what she found and made their names from it as natural philosophers. William Buckland lectured on the creatures at Oxford, Charles Konig brought them into the British Museum to acclaim, Reverend Conybeare and even our dear Henry De La Beche addressed the Geological Society and published papers about them. Konig had had the privilege of naming of naming the icthyosaurus, and Conybeare the plesiosaurus. Neither would have had anything to name without Mary. I could not stand by and watch suspicion grow about her skills when the men knew she outstripped them all in her abilities. (p.285).
Chevalier tells her story through the dual and alternating narration of her two main characters, Elizabeth Philpot is the other figure in this tale. An impoverished middle class spinster, Elizabeth Philpot has at least a class advantage that Mary lacks, but like Mary she is at a disadvantage due to her gender. There is a distinctly Austenesque note in Elizabeth's story, having failed to locate husbands, she and her sisters come to Lyme Regis in search of a suitable home for impoverished spinsters. The inherent misogyny of the age is one theme of the novel. There is within the story a direct if minor reference to Austen herself:
"Margaret was in her element. This was the sort of situation that she read about in the novels she favoured by authors such as Miss Jane Austen, Whom Margaret was sure she'd met long ago at the Assembly Rooms the first time we visited Lyme. One of Miss Austen's books had even featured Lyme Regis, but I did not read fiction and could not be persuaded to try it. Life itself was far messier, and didn't end so tidily, the heroine making the right match. We Philpot sisters were the embodiment of that frayed life." (p.208).
The religious questioning which the fossils and the obvious extinction they represent is touched on in the novel but it is not explored to any great degree: "It is too frightening for many, for it challenges our belief in an all-knowing, all powerful God, and raises questions about his intentions." (p.294). That such discoveries caused religious questioning is largely where Chevailier leaves the issue.
Chevailier does, by her own admission take some liberties with the known history of these women but in the process she does bring their story to life. This is an easy and interesting read which has the power to inspire further reading, usefully Chevailier has included a suggested list for further reading at the end of the book. Given the upcoming Victorian reading challenge, perhaps I should have saved this title for that challenge, since it tells the story to two great and generally little known Victorian women. Just by way of a final observation, and in light of my last work contract which was in an all girls high school, this would make an interesting read for such students. It highlights the struggles women faced in the past, celebrates their achievements in the face of quite overwhelming adversity, tells the story of scientific discovery and celebrates such a story. It is not a demanding or literary read but it is a good read.
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