I’m on a roll with splendid historical fiction featuring strong female characters. What I didn’t know until I was about half-way through this novel is that Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures is based on real women in science about whom I’d never heard.
I suppose I should say “real women on the outskirts of science” because, as females, they were barred from having a meaningful place in scientific discussions in 19th century England. Mary Anning, now recognized as the finder of the first known ichthyosaur skeleton and the first two nearly complete plesiosaur skeletons, was not permitted to join the Geological Society of London, even though her fossils comprised the most exciting discoveries in geological science up to that point.
The story focuses on the relationship between Mary Anning, a working-class girl who collects fossils along the beach in the coastal town of Lyme Regis in England, and Elizabeth Philpot, one of a trio of unmarried (read, spinster), middle-class sisters who move to Lyme from London. Although Mary is uneducated, she has the “eye” for spotting fossils, and Chevalier depicts her as having a curious and scientific mind, even if she doesn’t always understand the implications of her finds. In describing her friend Fanny, Mary disparages her friend’s fear of the unknown: “I told her what Pa taught me: that ammos were snakes that had lost their heads, that bellies were thunderbolts God had thrown down, that gryphies were the Devil’s own toenails. . . .I knew they were just stories. If the Devil really shed that many toenails, he would have to have had thousands of feet. And if lightning was to create that many bellies, it would be striking all day long. But Fanny couldn’t think like that and would hold on to her fear. I’ve met plenty of others the same–frightened of what they don’t understand.”
Elizabeth, educated and interested in paleontology, soon becomes Mary’s friend and champion, and it frustrates her to see wealthy collectors benefiting from Mary’s finds without any appreciation for their significance or the work that the fossil hunters expend to find the treasures. Of collectors, she bemoans, “They find little more than a few bits of broken ammonite and belemnite and call themselves experts. Then they buy from the hunters what they need to make up their list. They have little true understanding of what they collect or even that much interest. They know it is fashionable, and that is enough for them.”
When Mary and her brother uncover an unusual skeleton, which they initially assume to be a crocodile, it shakes up the scientific community. It’s hard to imagine how groundbreaking it must have been for scientists to be able to study a fossil of an animal that no longer existed in the world. Common belief (at least, that of most Christians) was that all creatures existed on earth exactly as God had made them. While scientists may have had other ideas, there wasn’t any proof until fossils of extinct animals were discovered. For context, Mary Anning died in 1847, 12 years before Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species. As Elizabeth explains, Mary’s discoveries “. . .made people think that perhaps the world is changing, however slowly, rather than being a constant, as had been previously thought.”
Because this is a novel, there are subplots about romance and heartbreak (which the author admits are speculative). The tension between the two main characters arises from pride and a dash of jealousy which, if I’m honest, is a bit cliché. However, I’m grateful to this book for making me aware of these important contributors to scientific discovery. They rarely received full credit in their lifetimes, and it’s a shame that even I, who fancy myself a zoology aficionado, was ignorant about them. Remarkable Creatures isn’t Chevalier’s best novel, but it’s engaging and well-written, and definitely worth your time.