American novelist Tracy Chevalier (widely known for the best-selling novel-turned-film Girl with The Pearl Earring) once visited a museum in Dorchester, England. Here she saw a complete fossilised skeleton of an ancient marine reptile known as an ichthyosaur. The caption for the display included an image of the discoverer of the fossil: a woman called Mary Anning. Chevalier became curious about Mary, a barely educated 19th-century working-class woman whose fossil finds upturned evolutionary theory, causing consternation in both religious and scientific circles. The result of Chevalier’s own “digging” into Mary Anning’s life is Remarkable Creatures, the author’s sixth novel, published in 2009.
The story is set in Lyme Regis, England and begins with Mary narrating her early life. As an infant, Mary survived a lightning strike — three women, including the one holding her, were killed. It made her a local legend, but not without a cost. It also turned her into an oddity, an object of curiosity, not unlike the fossils she finds along the rocky cliff edges. Throughout the story, Mary refers to the “lightning” whenever she finds significant “curies” — fossilised shells and skeletal remains of ancient sea creatures — to sell to visitors on holiday in the coastal town. She knows she has the “eye”: the ability to recognise fossil treasures, a skill taught to her by her cabinetmaker father.
Enter Elizabeth Philpott, who, at 26 years of age, is considered a spinster. She, along with her two unmarried sisters, settle in a small cottage by the sea to spend the rest of their lives under the patronage of their solicitor brother John, who has inherited the family estate and is about to marry and start his own family. Elizabeth ponders her fate with resignation; it seems some things were just not meant to be. She develops an interest in fossilised fish and seashells, starting a collection.
It is this common interest that binds Mary and Elizabeth in an unusual, close friendship — unusual because of the disparity in their social standing and education. They teach each other fossil hunting skills: Mary showing Elizabeth how identify fossils from rock, how to use the tools her father had made for digging, chipping and scraping and the proper way to clean the fossils; Elizabeth teaching Mary how to record and catalogue individual finds, how to improve her reading and writing, and how to label her fossils with scientific names by using reference books. While they share this mutual love of fossil-hunting, their motivations diverge: Mary needs the income to support her family, while for Elizabeth, it is a hobby pursued out of sheer pleasure and desire for scientific knowledge. The friendship is broken over Mary’s misguided affair with Colonel Birch, a charming gentleman from London who Elizabeth suspects of exploiting Mary for her ability to find valuable fossils for his collection. Mary accuses Elizabeth of jealousy, wanting the Colonel for herself.
Mary and her brother unearth the first ichthyosaur, which they initially believe to be a prehistoric crocodile. Elizabeth helps the family find buyers among the social set with whom she is acquainted, which includes several academics. The ichthyosaur is bought by the manor lord and local member of Parliament, who claims it as his own find, simply because it was found on his estate. Mary’s discovery especially creates a stir among the clergy, whose 6,000-year-old theory of evolution is debunked by a creature found to date several hundred thousand years earlier. Tourists and hobby collectors seek out Mary as a reliable guide to promising fossil-hunting sites, and her family “curies” shop brings in much-needed income, an even more pressing matter after her father’s death. Mary’s fame spreads further after two more ichthyosaurs are dug up and put to public view. Finally, Mary discovers a plesiosaur: a sea reptile with paddles and a turtle-like casing. This creature, so strange as to stretch one’s imagination, almost spells Mary’s downfall: when she submits her findings to the eminent French palaeontologist, Georges Cuvier, he suspects the fraudulent piecing together of two different creatures. It is Elizabeth, with two scientists who have come to trust Mary, who saves the day. The friendship between Mary and Elizabeth is restored.
I have given the plot away here, but the book is still worth a read for those who have yet to pick it up. Remarkable Creatures is remarkable itself for the way Chevalier weaves a fine portrait of the characters, landscapes, social norms and expectations (particularly with regards to women’s lives) of that period of English history. It is noteworthy that almost all the characters in the book are real, historical people who were alive in that period. Chevalier admits to having stretched her creative imagination, and of compressing time scales of particular events, to produce a good story. It is, after all, historical fiction, rather than history or biography. But the broad strokes used in the narrative depict the real constraints under which women of that period were bound, including the patriarchal norms that determined their fate. For example, that a woman who has not found a man to provide for or “husband” her has no social or economic value. It is a story about female friendship — that despite social differences or life stage, a friendship based on just one elemental bond can endure. It is also a moral tale of triumph over injustice through persistent and fearless resistance — worth remembering for those among us still seeking gender equality.
Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier, 2009, 352pp. Available in paperback from HarperCollins Australia, for $19.99.