Remarkable Creatures” by Tracy Chevalier is every bit as brilliant as her erlier “The Girl With the Pearl Earring.”
This time the author has based her novel on the true life of a poor, uneducated girl, Mary Anning, from the seaside town of Lyme Regis, on the southern coast of England. She was born in 1799 and by the 1820s she made some remarkable finds of dinosaur fossils. She and her brother Joe scouted the beaches for fossils as a means of earning a living after their father died. Although she was the younger child, she had a quick mind and an accurate eye for fossils. Her family sold the fossils or “curries” as she called them to the visitors to their seaside, resort town.
Mary Anning had little formal education and became a self-taught scientist. Over the course of her lifetime, she made major contributions to paleontology. Mary discovered the first plesiosaur (an aquatic reptile) at the age of 21. When three
“spinster” ladies moved to the area, one
of them, Elizabeth Philpot, became interested in fossil collecting, too. Miss Elizabeth was middle-class, while Mary Anning was considered of a lower class; Elizabeth was 20 years older than Mary, and yet they became friends. The story alternates between Mary’s voice and that of her friend, Elizabeth.
When Mary’s creatures started becoming known there was much discussion about whether there were animals just like them living elsewhere, or whether they were animals that had become extinct, a subject that upset many during the early 19th century. Mary wondered too but mostly she just loved her fossils and was eager to share what she found. Some collectors took advantage of her: At first Mary’s discoveries were listed as the finds of the “gentlemen” who had acquired them from her. With the help of Elizabeth, Mary’s name eventually became known. There are now museums in memory of both Elizabeth Philpot and Mary Anning in Lyme Regis. (www.lymeregismuseum.co.uk)
Because of a lack of careful documentation of her special skills, she was not recognized during her lifetime for her contributions. Her social stature and her gender and the social restrictions placed on her as a woman in the 19th century. She experienced great frustration with male paleontologists and their dismissive attitudes toward her research in geology and fossils.
Most of the fossils she collected were sold to private collectors or natural history museums. In 1838, the last decade of her life, Mary received an annuity from the British Association for the Advancement of Science.
One aspect of this story that is so remarkable is that these two women, who had nothing in common except their curiosity about fossils, were able to overcome the class barriers of the day. It was not an easy friendship. The author has done an interesting job of assuming the attitudes of women of this era and explaining the risks women had to take to create such a friendship. Men took credit for their finds, looked down upon them as inferiors. In
the end each of these women found a way to live a fulfilled and independent life. Mary Anning’s finds contributed significantly to what is known in geology and paleontology, yet to this day few know
her name. The reader will enjoy learning about this woman’s scientific contributions to paleontology.