A portrait of Mary Anning
with her dog Tray, once
owned by her brother,
hangs in the Natural
At last, a Tracy Chevalier novel that I enjoyed! As a rule I like the idea of her books far more than I like the books themselves – for some reason I always fail to connect with them. But Remarkable Creatures was brilliant. It’s about fossil hunters Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot, who were friends in real life, just as they are in the novel. And here is a picture of an ammonite my elder daughter found on a Somerset beach – she cracked open a stone, found the fossil within, and gave it to me, and it is one of the nicest and most specialpresents I have ever had.
Anyway, Chevalier’s tale alternates between the two women, with each one narrating events from different viewpoint: where their stories overlap you gain a rounder and fuller picture of what happens, and how they think and feel.
Each has a very clearly defined character and ‘voice’. Mary’s chapters, as befits a poor, working class girl, are in less educated language, very different to Elizabeth’s sections, where the language and vocabulary are those of an educated, middle class woman. And they are both as remarkable as the creatures they seek: they are curious to know what fossils are, and where they came from, and are dismissive about the explanations in vogue at the time – they realise, for example, that ammonites cannot possibly be snakes that curl up when they die. They study their fossils in a scientific way, making notes on their observations; questioning accepted beliefs, and applying their knowledge as they try to draw conclusions and make their own deductions.
The wonder of finding a fossil – the remains of a creature so old it has never, ever been seen by mankind, even when it was alive – comes across very clearly, as does the actual process of hunting for ‘curies’, or curiosities, which was cold, dirty, wet and, on occasions, very dangerous. Chevalier also highlights the hardship of Mary’s life. For some reason I had always imagined her as the daughter of a learned clergyman, but that is very far from the truth. Her father was a not terribly successful cabinet maker (apparently, on a visit to Lyme, Jane Austen visited his workshop, but refused to buy anything because he charged too much) and the family eked out a living selling fossils to tourists.
In the book we see how Mary found the first complete ichthyosaur, which she initially thought was some kind of crocodile, and the first plesiosaur, and there’s an added resonance because we know that her findings and observations helped change people’s understanding of prehistoric times, even if her work wasn’t always fully acknowledged during her life.
Mary and Elizabeth, and their obsessive interest in fossils, really came to life, and the other characters were equally well depicted – Mary’s mother and brother, Elizabeth’s sisters, and the various ‘gentlemen scholars’ who visit Lyme all spring off the pages. The action is slow moving, but in a novel where fossils take centre stage that’s hardly surprising, and there were some lovely, gentle touches of humour, as well as a meticulously detailed account of everyday life in the early 18th century.
Somehow, I feel as if I haven’t done justice to this novel, but I really enjoyed it, and was sorry when it came to an end. It sent me off finding out more about Mary, Elizabeth and fossils in general, which was fascinating. Perhaps The Man of the House would like to take us to Lyme in the Campervan, so I could search for ‘curies’, walk on the Cobb, and re-read Remarkable Creatures, Persuasion, and The French Lieutenant’s Woman.