Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Remarkable Creatures

Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier
Penguin Group; copyright 2009
Trade Paperback, 320 pages
ISBN-13: 9780452296725


A voyage of discovery, two remarkable women, and an extraordinary time and place enrich bestselling author Tracy Chevalier's new novel.
On the windswept, fossil-strewn beaches of the English coast, poor and uneducated Mary Anning learns 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. After enduring bitter cold, thunderstorms, and landslips, her challenges only grow when she falls in love with an impossible man.
Mary soon finds an unlikely champion in prickly Elizabeth Philpot, a middle-class spinster who shares her passion for scouring the beaches. Their relationship strikes a delicate balance between fierce loyalty, mutual appreciation, and barely suppressed envy, but ultimately turns out to be their greatest asset.

My Thoughts:

Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier is a historical fiction novel based on the life of female fossil hunters Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot. Mary Anning was a working class young girl when she started finding fossils or "curies" (curiosities) with her father on the beaches at Lyme Regis, England, in the 19th century. Her father died and she continued to collect curies in order to sell them to support her family. Elizabeth Philpot, twenty years Mary's senior, was an unmarried gentlewoman who moved to Lyme Regis with two of her sisters. They were to "retire" there and live out their lives as spinsters. Mary and Elizabeth met and became friends because of their love of fossils.

When Mary uncovered the first complete skeleton of an ichthyosaurus she originally thought it was some kind of crocodile - but this error was understandable. At this time most women had few rights and certainly a working class woman would never be educated or given credit for the practical, working knowledge she had - knowledge that surpassed that of many men who claimed to be experts at the time. Elizabeth helped to educate Mary and taught her how to label her fossils using Linnaean classification.

Mary went on to discover another ancient marine reptile called a plesiosaur. All of this was before Darwin, so the idea of finding the remains of creatures that no longer existed in the world was a radical idea and not readily accepted by everyone. 

While fighting to make the male dominated paleontologists of the day recognize Mary's contributions to the field,  Elizabeth says, "So be it. A woman's life is always a compromise. (pg. 26)" And while acknowledging that this is a work of fiction, Chevalier writes: "Remarkable Creatures is a work of fiction, but many of the people existed, and events such as Colonel Birch's auction and the Geological Society meeting where Coneybeare talked about the plesiosaur did take place.( pg 309, postscript)"

Mary Anning was the inspiration for the tongue-twister "She sells seashells by the seashore."

In Remarkable Creatures both characters voice in alternating chapters a first person account of their friendship and how their lives intertwined. Chevalier gives Elizabeth and Mary unique voices so it is immediately apparent who is talking in each chapter. It is a beautifully written account of two remarkable women and made for a compelling novel.

See Tracy Chevalier's website for examples of the fossils.

Highly Recommended


Lightning has struck me all my life. Just once was it real. I shouldn't remember it, for I was little more than a baby. But I do remember. I was in a field, where there were horses and riders performing tricks. Then a storm blew in, and a woman — not Mam — picked me up and brought me under a tree. As she held me tight I looked up and saw the pattern of black leaves against a white sky. opening

I feel an echo of the lightning each time I find a fossil, a little jolt that says, "Yes, Mary Anning, you are different from all the rocks on the beach." That is why I am a hunter: to feel that bolt of lightning, and that difference, every day. pg. 4

Mary Anning leads with her eyes. That was clear even the first time we met, when she was but a girl. Her eyes are button brown and bright, and she has a fossil hunter's tendency always to be looking for something, even when on the street or in a house where there is no possibility of finding anything of interest. It makes her appear vigorous, even when she is still. I have been told by my sisters that I too glance about rather than hold a steady gaze, yet they do not mean it as a compliment as I do with Mary. pg. 7

I met Mary Anning in Lyme Regis, where she has lived all her life. It was certainly not where I expected to live. London was, of course, specifically Red Lion Square, where we Philpots grew up.  pg. 8

Bath and Brighton are beautiful despite their surroundings, the even buildings with their smooth stone creating an artifice that pleases the eye. Lyme is beautiful because of its surroundings, and despite its indifferent houses. It appealed to me immediately. pg. 13

At the end of Monmouth Beach, just before Seven Rocks Point, where the shoreline turned out of sight, we found the Snakes' Graveyard. It was a smooth ledge of limestone in which there were spiral impressions, white lines against the gray stone, of hundreds of creatures like that which I held, except that they were enormous, each the size of a dinner plate. It was such a strange, bleak sight that we all stared in silence.
"Those must be boa constrictors, don't you think?" Margaret said. "They're enormous!"
"But boa constrictors don't live in England," Miss Durham said. "How did they get here?"
"Perhaps they did live here, a few hundred years ago," Mrs. Durham suggested.
"Or even a thousand years ago, or five thousand," Mr. Durham ventured. "They could be that old. Perhaps the boa constrictors then migrated to other parts."
They did not look like snakes to me, or any other animal I knew of. I walked out onto the ledge, stepping with care so as not to tread on the creatures, even if they were clearly long dead and not so much corporeal bodies but sketches in the rock. It was difficult to imagine them as alive once. They looked permanent, as if they'd always been in the stone.
If we lived here, I could come and see this whenever I liked, I thought. And find smaller snakestones, and other fossils as well, on the beach. It was something. It was enough, for me. pg. 15-16

It was fossils that first brought me in contact with Mary Anning and her family. pg. 19

But there was something else about married women that I noticed, their solid smugness at not having to worry about the course of their future. Married women were set like jelly in a mold, whereas spinsters like me were formless and unpredictable. pg. 20

The beach then curves gently around to the right before straightening out towards Charmouth. High above the beach past the curve hangs Black Ven, an enormous landslip that has created a slant layer of mudstone from the cliffs down to the shore. Both Church Cliffs and Black Ven hold many fossils, gradually releasing them over time onto the shoreline below. That was where Mary found many of her finest specimens. It was also where we experienced some of our greatest dramas. pg. 30

No comments: