Friday, April 8, 2011

Remarkable Creatures, by Tracy Chevalier

Remarkable Creatures, by Tracy Chevalier.  Penguin Books, 2009.  312 pp.  978-0-452-29672-5.

... in which two women in 19th century England hunt for fossils and change the course of paleontology as a science.

Remarkable Creatures is the fictionalized account of the lives and friendship of two real women, Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot, who lived in Lyme Regis, a small town on the southern coast of England.  The story begins when Elizabeth Philpot moves to Lyme with her two sisters.  The Philpot sisters are members of the respectable upper class of English society, but when it became clear that all three sisters were destined for spinsterhood, their brother sent them from London to live modestly in a cottage in Lyme.  Upon arriving in Lyme, Elizabeth discovers a fondness for walking along the beach and finding fossils hidden in the cliffs exposed by the ocean.  Mary Anning, the daughter of a cabinetmaker in Lyme, soon begins to accompany Elizabeth on her fossil-hunting walks.  Although twenty years younger than Elizabeth, Mary soon proves to be a more talented fossil hunter and eventually Mary and Elizabeth form an unlikely friendship, despite being separated by England's rigid social strata.  The story follows Mary and Elizabeth through decades of friendship, as their discoveries of fossilized dinosaurs and marine reptiles begin to make their way to museums and are studies by the greatest scientists of the day.

This novel is certainly not an action-packed story.  Instead, the primary focus is on the unlikely friendship between the two women, and their continuous battle against the restraints imposed on them by their rigid society.  As a reference point, Elizabeth Philpot is a contemporary of Jane Austen, so all of the rules that applied in Austen's work are also present here.  The story alternates between Elizabeth's perspective and Mary's perspective, offering us glimpses into their lives in the respectable upper class and in the working class, respectively. 

Probably the most fascinating part of this book is the novelized glimpse it gives us into events which turn out to be historically significant.  When Elizabeth and Mary were finding their fantastic fossils of plesiosaurs and ichthyosaurs, the scientific and religious communities of Europe were first beginning to address issues like extinction, age of the earth, and geologic change.  Scientists were tentatively suggesting that the earth was not created in seven days, and that at some point in the earth's history, animals had lived and gone extinct.  These ideas were challenged by the more literal-minded members of society, who insisted that the earth was 10,000 years old and that the concept of extinction challenged the supposition that God's creation was perfect and unchanging.  Mary Anning, considered to be one of the most significant women in the history of science, contributed greatly to this debate with her discovery of her fossils, and Elizabeth Philpot taught Mary about all of the ideas being presented by the great minds of geology.  Unfortunately, neither woman received much recognition for their contributions, though Mary Anning did achieve some fame for being a good specimen hunter.

The book is also peppered with appearances by some of the most significant scientists in modern times.  William Buckland, a prominent geologist who spent his life trying to bridge the gap between geologic evidence and Biblical literalism, is an important character in Mary and Elizabeth's lives, and is one of the first to publicly recognize Mary's contributions.  Georges Cuvier, the famous anatomist, makes a brief appearance.  At the end of the novel, a young Charles Lyell even drops by to pay a visit to Mary.  For those of you not well versed in the history of science, Charles Lyell is to geology as Isaac Newton is to physics.  Charles Lyell would go on to write his famous Principles of Geology, which went on to inspire ideas in people like Charles Darwin.  I wish I had read this book when I was a junior in college writing a term paper on the role of religion and geology in the 1800s!

But I digress.  The strength of this book is in the voice it gives to two extraordinary women who have been passed over by history.  As a fictionalized account of real events, I know the author had to have taken some artistic liberties, but nevertheless we are presented with two fully realized, three dimensional characters who defy the standards of their time to make their mark on the world.  My only complaint is that I wish the book had been longer, because the ending feels a bit rushed and crammed and story ends decades before either Mary or Elizabeth pass away.

Recommended reading for anyone with an interest in historical fiction, fossils and paleontology, or geology.
5/5 stars

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