by Tracy Chevalier
Release Date: October 26, 2010
2010 Plume Books
Softcover Edition; 312 Pages
Genre: Historical Fiction
Source: Review Copy from Publisher
3.5 / 5 Stars
From the moment she's struck by lightning as a baby, it is clear Mary Anning is different. Though poor and uneducated, she learns on the windswept, fossil-strewn beaches of the English coast that she has a unique gift: "the eye" to spot fossils no one else can see. When she uncovers an unusual fossilized skeleton in the cliffs near her home, she sets the religious community on edge, the townspeople to gossip - and the scientific world alight with both admiration and controversy. Prickly Elizabeth Philpot, a middle-class spinster and also a fossil hunter, becomes Mary Anning's unlikely champion and friend, and together they forge a path to some of the most important discoveries of the nineteenth century.
Remarkable Creatures is an amazing accounting of the lives of two women, Elizabeth Philpot and Mary Anning, and their remarkable friendship as they fought against a strict social structure, one to pursue her love of fossils, and the other to survive in a brutal world, and together discovered some of the most important discoveries of the nineteenth century.
Elizabeth Philpot and her sisters arrived in their early twenties in Lyme Regis to live their lives sequestered away from London and their brother and his new wife, with an annual stipend. To everyone's shock, Elizabeth developed a friendship with a local poor girl, Mary Anning, as they discovered in themselves a love for fossils and fossil-hunting. Mary had the 'eye', and had an uncanny ability to discern the different types of fossils on the beach, as well as spot them in rocks and other difficult-to-see areas. Mary came to the attention of 'real scientists' when she first unearthed an ichthyosaurus, and soon many of these learned men swarmed the beaches and wanted Mary to help them find their own specimens. Little credit was given to Mary at first, except as a fossil-hunter.
What amazed me over and over again is how much Mary knew with the little education she had, and how brilliant a person she must have been. What she could have done with an education behind her is truly remarkable. And even more, how little the people around her didn't appreciate her knowledge. Elizabeth Philpot, a middle-class woman, who normally wouldn't look or speak to someone like Mary, must have been a remarkable lady to notice the brilliance that was contained in Mary and to take the time to cultivate a friendship with her. But Elizabeth also struggled again societal norms and strictures and was not always looked upon favourably for her actions. There was a lot of gossip about the two of them and their fossil-hunting ways as it was seen as not being normal. And many of Mary's earlier finds were not given credit to Mary, but given credit to those who purchased the specimens, and it took years to sort out the issue. Again, the differences between men and women and their credibility and how much women have to fight for everything is incredible.
I have been to the British Museum and have seen some of these specimens, but was not fully aware of the story until I read the novel, so it was enlightening to me to discover some of the arguments about the nature of extinction and how it was something that was denied during this time. Or that people really believed the earth had only been in existence for 6 000 years. I think in our age of discoveries, we often forget how narrow-thinking some of the ideas during this century really were, and how people believed that the nature of extinction went against the Bible and God. I wish that Ms. Chevalier had gone into more depth over the controversy these issues would have caused however, as the new scientific evidence that was presented during this time certainly challenged many preconceived notions held at the time and many arguments and debates occurred in many an association.
While I found the fossil-hunting and the finding of the specimens to be absolute fascinating, I did find the plot to be somewhat weak, and I didn't feel like there was a lot of drama and suspense added to the story. With little to work on, the author uses their creativity to fill in the gaps between historical facts to re-create a person with whom we can identify, but I didn't necessarily feel that way with Mary and Elizabeth. I often felt like Elizabeth was patronizing towards Mary, or that Mary was brash and arrogant, with little feeling towards others.
Remarkable Creatures was a fascinating and interesting read on some remarkable discoveries from two women who had a great influence on paleontology and helped influence some very important scientific theories during this century. While the author's writing is flawless, lyrical, and beautiful, I found the plot to be weak and I couldn't connect to the characters themselves. As usual though, the expectations of nineteenth century women, the conventions and ideas of the time, the scientific arguments, and the fossils themselves held a fascination for me that kept the novel interesting and entertaining.