Tracy Chevalier’s latest novel, Remarkable Creatures, based on the true story of fossil-finders Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot, is a piece of feminist historical fiction that works. Set in the early years of the 19th century, the book is a reminder of how completely women were excluded from the scientific community of the time – regardless of what they might achieve they were unlikely to receive much official credit for their work. It was a time, too, when people still believed that God had created the earth, and human beings, a mere five or six thousand years earlier and any evidence to the contrary was seen as something blasphemous.
Mary Anning’s family was poor and she helped support it by selling “curies” to the tourists who flocked to Lyme Regis every summer. As a child, she learned that she had an eye for spotting the curiosities that littered the beaches near her father’s workshop, and her father encouraged her to spend countless hours there gathering items that could be turned into the cash his family so desperately needed. As a girl, Mary was not quite sure what she was gathering but her unusual talent for spotting the “curies,” combined with her skill in cleaning them up for sale to collectors, brought in enough money to make a real difference for her family.
Elizabeth Philpot moved to Lyme Regis from London with two of her sisters after her brother sold the family home to begin a new life there with his young bride. Elizabeth did not have Mary’s eye for finding them, but she shared her passion for beach fossils and the two, despite their age and class differences, became unlikely friends. They would walk the beaches of Lyme Regis for several years before Mary discovered the fossils that would finally make her somewhat famous within the closed European scientific circle of her day.
Life began to change for Mary after she discovered her first complete “crocodile” fossil. The fossil was so unusual that it attracted the attention of prominent geologists and, when it was suspected that Mary had actually found the remains of a previously unknown species of animal, fossil hunters, wealthy collectors, and scientists began to seek Mary’s help in finding similar fossils of their own to study. Mary never lost her uncanny ability to spot fossils where others walked past them unaware, and she spent the rest of her life adding to science’s understanding of the earth’s past. Some of her discoveries are, in fact, still displayed in London and Paris museums.
Remarkable Creatures, told in chapters alternating the voices of Mary and Elizabeth, focuses on the unusual friendship shared by the two women. As Mary matured, and their age difference became less obvious, their friendship would be tested by jealousy, misunderstanding, and the reluctance of both women to make the simple apology that would have immediately cleared the air between them. Ultimately, though severely threatened, their friendship would survive to the benefit of both women.
This is the best kind of historical fiction, a book in which the reader can lose himself in an interesting (and nicely recreated) period and, at the same time, learn about two women who left their mark on science when it was near impossible for women to do so. Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot, in their own way, were as remarkable as the creatures Mary discovered on the isolated English beaches she knew so well.