Wednesday, February 24, 2010


I had been waiting to read Tracy Chevalier's new book, "Remarkable Creatures", and I was not disappointed. I have read everything Chevalier has written and I don't think she can write a bad book. (Her previous works are "Girl With A Pearl Earring", "Burning Bright", "The Virgin Blue", "The Lady and the Unicorn" and "Falling Angels".)

The title "Remarkable Creatures" could refer to Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot, or it could mean the creatures they hunted - the fossilized remains of prehistoric animals. I knew little about the book except that it featured two women friends who were fossil hunters. I visualized them as being scientists in the Victorian Era (the book actually begins earlier, in 1805). I did not realize that they would come from two different social classes and that they were untrained and, in the case of Mary, virtually unschooled (though self-taught and very knowledgeable in their fields).

Elizabeth Philpot and her two sisters, all spinsters, are forced to move to Lyme Regis from their comfortable home in London after their brother inherits the house and takes a wife. In this seaside town in southwest England, sister Louise takes up gardening and sister Margaret joins the social life of the town. Elizabeth, well-educated and curious about the natural world, determines that she must have some pastime of her own and takes up fossil hunting, concentrating on fish fossils.

While the Philpot sisters are able to get by on their 150 pounds a year allowance, Mary and her family live in poverty. They are shunned because of their low economic status and for being religious Dissenters. Father Richard is a cabinet maker and also hunts fossils, which the family sells at their tiny shop. Mary often goes with her father to hunt fossils. After his death, Mary, only 11 years old, is soon out alone on the beaches and cliffs in all weathers, looking for ammonites, belemnites, bezoar stones, vertebrates (which she calls verteberries) and other ancient remains to sell to tourists. Her cheeks are whipped by the wind, her fingernails are full of the blue clay of the region and her hands are raw and chapped, but Mary is compelled by more than the need to make money for her family. She has a true passion for her "curies" (curiosities).

As a small child, Mary was struck by lightning. For years afterward members of her community would attribute the child's curiosity, intelligence, and lively personality to the incident. Although only 15-months old, Mary remembers being struck, and it makes her feel special. "I feel an echo of that 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."

Mary and Elizabeth meet each other while they are out hunting for fossils. Although separated in age by almost 20 years, they form a deep bond as they scour the sands and cliffs. While Elizabeth is a keen observer in her own right, it is Mary who has the true gift for making rare finds.

Everything changes when Mary's brother finds the giant head of what they and the townspeople call a crocodile. Mary later finds the rest of the body, causing the eyes of fossil collectors everywhere to be focused on Lyme Regis. Eventually, Mary will uncover several other splendid specimens of the "crocs" (which will come to be called ichthyosaurs) and she also finds the skeletons of giant "turtles" (plesiosaurs).

"Finding that crocodile changed everything", says Mary. "Sometimes I try to imagine my life without those big bold beasts hidden in the cliffs and ledges. If all I ever found were ammos and bellies and lilies and gryphies, my life would have been as piddling as those curies, with no lightning to turn me inside out and give me joy and pain at the same time.

"It weren't just the money from selling the croc that changed things. It was knowing there was something to hunt for and I was better at finding it than most - this was what was different. I could look ahead now and see - not random rocks thrown togeter, but a pattern forming of what my life could be."

As young, poor FEMALE, Mary's important scientific finds are claimed by others, her family is underpaid or totally ripped off financially, and her skills are discredited. Mary, they say, is a mere finder of fossils for the learned professors and geologists, nothing more. It's as if the world cannot believe that a mere working class girl could be capable of such achievements, that she could never be entitled to call herself a paleontologist.

"Remarkable Creatures" is based on the true stories of Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot.  Later in life, the real Mary does finally receive due credit and recognition for her immense knowledge of fossils. (Although it's not mentioned in the book, Mary was also the first person in Britain to find the fossilized remains of a pterosaur, or dimorphodon, of the Early Jurassic Period).

Chevalier has often taken famous historical figures and woven them into her novels, such as Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer in "Girl With A Pearl Earring" and English poet William Blake in "Burning Bright". In these books, the renowned figures have had major or minor roles. This time, Chevalier has basically written what I will call a "fictionalized biography" of Mary and, to some extent, Elizabeth. Events in the book closely parallel those in their real lives.

Having known nothing about Anning or Philpot, I did some research and was fascinated to learn about their contributions to science. (In actuality, all three Philpot sisters were fossil collectors, but it was Elizabeth who corresponded with leading scientists. Their extensive and meticulously-labeled fossil collection was used for research by many geologists.) I learned that the hanging cliffs surrounding Lyme Regis - part of a geological formation called the Blue Lias - are among the richest fossil locations in Britain. This formation consists of alternating layers of limestone and shale, laid down as sediment on a shallow marine bed early in what would come to be called the Jurassic Period (about 210-195 million years ago).

Chevalier turns what might have been a dry story of interest only to palentologists into a highly-readable book that has at its heart the development of a great friendship between a genteel lady and a working class girl. This friendship is sorely tested and a years-long rift develops between the two. But despite this, Elizabeth helps Mary receive the recognition she so richly deserves.

Mary has many other crosses to bear, including ongoing, grinding poverty, the sullying of her reputation, falling in love with a dishonest man and nearly dying in a landslip (landslide). Indeed, fossil hunting on the notoriously unstable cliffs and rising tides at Lyme Regis was extremely dangerous. But landslips were also a godsend to collectors, because they uncovered new fossils.

In addition to compelling characters, a vivid slice of life of coastal Dorset, well-described passages on fossil hunting and preservation, Chevalier provides a lot of food for thought in her characters' discussions of religion versus science. People of that time were told that the earth was only 6,000 years old. Hadn't famed cleric Bishop James Ussher decreed that God had created Heaven and Earth precisely on the night preceding Oct. 23, 4004 BC? Preachers were decrying the theory of evolution, and the concept of extinction, arguing that the almighty God could not have eliminated a creature of his own creation.

Imagine then, a young, unstudied, poor, rural girl like Mary trying to wrap her head around the fact that the 17-foot "monster" and other creatures she had found were not giant crocodiles or turtles but different species entirely, ones that no longer walked earth but rather existed millions of years ago. In Mary, Elizabeth and the scientists who flocked to Lyme Regis, Chevalier has created a microcosm of a fascinating time in the 19th century when fossil hunting evolved from mere hobby to the science of paleontology.

1 comment:

gemma said...

Great review.
Another one to add to my list.
Think I'd like this.