Remarkable Creatures * Tracy Chevalier Book Review

Who can resist its feminine charms? Not I, ladies and gentlemen, not I. Indeed, I am going to do something highly unusual and start the bidding myself, at two guineas. For what is two guineas if I can give my wife and myself such a fine example of the beauty of nature? Will anyone deprive me of my beauty? What? You will, sir? How dare you! It will have to be for two pounds ten shillings, sir. It is? And yours is three pounds, sir? So be it. I cannot compete for such beauty as these gentlemen can. I can only hope my wife forgives me. At least we know it is for a worthy cause. Let us not forget why we are here.

I stumbled upon Tracy Chevalier’s ‘Remarkable Creatures’ while going through a now-closed Charity Shop, presenting a fictionalized account of the lives of Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot.

Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot are two amateur scientists whose work helped reshape our entire understanding of life on Earth.  Their fossil collecting in Southern England proved the existince of pre-historic life.  Both were instrumental in setting the stage for modern evolutionary theories and re-evaluating the role of religion in science.

“Remarkable Creatures” by Tracy Chevalier takes us into the 19th century world of a middle-aged spinster (Elizabeth Philpot) who moves to the seashore community of Lyme Regis and fills her days wandering the beach.  On these walks she begins to find the “curiosities” we call fossils, but which for her were hidden treasures waiting to be discovered.  As her character tells us on pages 18-19:

We had not long been installed in Morley cottage before I grew certain that fossils were to be my passion. For I had to find a passion: I was twenty-five years old, unlikely ever to marry, and in need of a hobby to fill my days. It is so tedious being a lady sometimes…For myself, it took only the early discovery of a golden ammonites, glittering on the beach between Lyme and Charmouth, for me to succumb to the seductive thrill of finding unexpected treasure. I began frequenting the beaches more and more, though at the time few women took an interest in fossils. It was seen as an unladylike pursuit, dirty and mysterious. I didn’t mind. There was no one I wanted to impress with my femininity.

It is during these walks she meets young Mary Anning, daughter of a poor family who searches for “curies” her family can sell to pay off their mounting debts.  When her father passes away it is her Mother’s sewing and Mary’s fossil-hunting that pay the bills.  Mary is a special girl, who after being struck by lightning as a baby always finds a way to survive.  She also has a keen eye for fossils rivaling even the best-trained male scientists of the day.  She was so talented that by age 12 she had discovered the first complete skeleton of what we now know as an Icthyosaurus.  To Mary it started out as just a wierd-looking crocodile that she could sell to keep food on the table.  But soon collecting fossils turned into a lifelong passsion as shown in this exchange between Mary and her mother on page 293:

Mam sighed and straightened her cap as she prepared to go back out to customers at the table. ‘All a mother wants is for her children to settle into their lives. I seen you worried about recognition for your work these many years. But you’d be better off worrying about the pay. That’s what really matters, isn’t it? Curies is business.’

Though I knew she meant it kindly, her words cut. Yes, I needed to be paid for what I did. But fossils were more than money to me now–they had become a kind of life, a whole stone world that I were a part of. Sometimes I even thought about my own body after my death, and it turning to stone thousands of years later. What would someone make of me if they dug me up?

But Mam were right: I had become part not just of the hunting and finding, but of the buying and selling too, and it was no longer so clear what I did.

Although they hunted fossils for different reasons, Mary and Elizabeth became quick friends and spent countless hours together toiling along the beach.  Which is where we find them on pages 96-97:

Hunters spend hour after hour, day after day out in all weather, our faces sunburnt, our hair tangled by the wind, our eyes in a permanent squint, our nails tagged and our fingertips torn, our hands chapped. Our boots are trimmed with mud and stained with seawater. Our clothes are filthy by the end of the day. Often we find nothing, but we are patent and hardworking and not out off by coming back empty-handed. We may have our special interest — an intact brittle star, a belemnite with it’s sac attached, a fossil fish with every scale in place –but we pick up other things too and are open to what the cliffs and beach offer us. [Some], like Mary, sell what they find. Others, like me, keep our finds. We label the specimens, recording where and when we found them, and we draw cocludions. The men write up their theories and publish them to journals, which I may not contribute myself.

As their discoveries pile up the surrounding world gradually begins to take notice.  Strange men come into town for Mary’s help finding fossils for their own collections.  This inevitably leads to town gossip and even jealousies between the two as Mary grows into a young women and looks increasingly, if not successfully, for love.  The relationship between the women pulls further apart as Mary’s romantic life struggles and the men who visit take the fossils they want and leave.  Although the women eventually fade away from each other, their loyalty stays constant as they fight to be fairly recognized for all their work.   So when false questions arise on the authenticity of Mary’s finds, we get to watch on page 248 as Elizabeth travels to a meeting of the Geographic Society in London to set things right.

… I was consumed with anger. Mary had been so generous for so long, so little gain … while others took what she found and made their names from it as natural philosphers. William Buckland lectured on the creatures at Oxford, Charles Konig brought them into the British Museum to acclaim, Revered 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 the icthyosaurus, and Conybeare the plesiosaurus. Neither would have had anything to name without Mary. I could not stand by to watch suspicions grow about her skills when the men knew she outstripped them all in her abilities. I was also making amends to Mary. I was at last asking her to forgive me my jealousy and disdain.

This constant subtext runs throughout the book.  Women of the day are not expected to be intellectuals or have anything remarkable to say in scientific circles.  And our two characters don’t necessarily expect acclaim.  They just look for a recognition of their talents and have their ideas taken seriously. But we are all victims of our times, and even some of the more well-meaning gentleman in the book still need a push before doing the right thing.  And so we leave with an auction held by Colonel Birch, a man who acquired an immense collection of fossils almost entirely with Mary Anning’s skill yet did not sense the need to repay or recognize her for the favor.  It is not until the Anning’s are about to lose their home and Elizabeth informs him of their family’s plight that he auction off the entire collection with the proceeds fully benefitting the Anning family.  He concludes the auction with the following words (on page 203).

‘You have kindly responded in a most generous fashion.’  Colonel Birch kept his eyes on my face, as if to calm me.  ‘What I did not tell you before, ladies and gentlemen, is that it was the daughter of this family–Mary Anning–who discovered the majority of the specimens that make up my collection, including the fine Icthyosaurus just sold.  She is’ –he paused– ‘possibly the most remarkable young woman I have had the privilege to meet in the fossil world.  She has helped me, and she may well help you in future.  When you admire the specimens you have bought today, remember it was she who found them.  Thank you.’

And so we wrap up the fictionalized tale of Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot.  But there is still so much more to learn about these two fascinating women. I suppose sadly, as it is a historical fiction, one knows all along that there will be no romantic happily ever afters for either of them. And I think in a way I loved the book all the more for that. It wasn’t about romantic happily ever afters. It was about a friendship and about fulfilment in a passion for fossils and discovery. In some ways I think I found it more empowering because of that. It closes with the image of Mary and Elizabeth hunting fossils together on the beaches by Lyme.

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