Book Review: Remarkable Creatures, by Tracy Chevalier
“Geology is always to be used in the service of religion, to study the wonders of God’s creation and marvel at His genius.”—geologist and clergyman William Buckland in the novel Remarkable Creatures, chapter 5.
Two women of Jane Austen’s England became famous for their scientific discoveries. Caroline Herschel (1750-1848) had the advantage of a famous brother, William Herschel, who taught her and introduced her to others who immediately accepted her discoveries. Mary Anning (1799-1847), however, had no such advantages.
Mary came from a poor family. Her father taught her to hunt for fossils on the beaches and cliffs of Lyme Regis, and her family sold them in front of their house. She probably learned to read and write in Sunday School, where the poor went for a very basic education. For years she was given no credit for her discoveries; the men she sold her fossils to took credit for finding them.
However, eventually she was recognized as the discoverer of one of the first specimens of an ichthyosaur. It initially was identified as a crocodile, though it was quite different. She was only ten or eleven years old at the time!
Mary Anning also discovered the first plesiosaur, which the French geologist Cuvier initially thought was a fake, as such an animal was so unlikely.
Anning read and studied on her own, becoming an expert in finding, identifying, cleaning, and assembling the fossil remains of many ancient creatures. She contributed much to the newly emerging scientific discipline of paleontology.
Tracy Chevalier’s historical novel, Remarkable Creatures, gives fascinating insights into Anning’s life. The novel is compelling reading, as you would expect from the accomplished author of Girl with a Pearl Earring and other popular historical fiction.
Written in the first person, Remarkable Creatures switches between the viewpoints of Mary Anning herself, with her rather colloquial grammar, and her more middle-class, well-educated friend, Elizabeth Philpot. Philpot was a collector of fish fossils whose family later started the Lyme Regis Museum. This fascinating museum is built on the site of the Anning home, and features Mary Anning and her discoveries.
Most of the story takes place in the lovely seaside town of Lyme Regis, a place Jane Austen clearly loved, and one of the settings for the novel Persuasion. Austen stayed in Lyme for a time, and actually met Mary Anning’s father, a cabinetmaker whose charges she thought were too high (letter of Sept. 14, 1804). The Philpots, like the Austen ladies , danced at the assemblies in Lyme. Mary Anning could only watch from the outside, being from a lower social class.
In Remarkable Creatures we see the day-to-day drudgery of walking the beaches with heads bowed, searching for a glimpse of a fossil, and the excitement and beauty of each discovery. Chevalier adds some fictional dramas: a love affair between Mary Anning and one of the collectors; Elizabeth Philpot’s jealousy and a resulting quarrel; and the adventures of Miss Philpot in rescuing Mary’s reputation and her family’s income.
The novel shows geology as very much a gentleman’s occupation. We get a glimpse of a meeting of the Geological Society in London: Elizabeth Philpot listens from outside a door, since women were not allowed! Mary Anning’s name could only be mentioned “off the record.”
Discussions of questions emerging at the time are threaded through the novel: Did creatures exist which are now extinct? Why would God create animals and allow them to die out? How long ago did these creatures live? Is the physical world changing, or static? How does a changing world fit with the biblical account of creation?
The Philpots were Anglican, like Jane Austen. The Annings were Congregationalists, members of a Dissenting, non-Anglican denomination. But both struggled with the same questions about fossils and the Bible. Many townspeople considered hunting fossils an ungodly pursuit, and rejected it.
This book is all that historical fiction should be—a fascinating, exciting read, full of real historical characters and events, elaborated in ways that help us more deeply understand past lives and worlds. Highly recommended!
Like the Herschels, Mary Anning and other early paleontologists stretched peoples’ understanding of the world. Not only was the universe bigger, but the history of the earth itself was more complex and rich than had been believed. For me, the discovery of creatures such as the plesiosaur only add to my amazement at God’s creativity and wisdom. How do such “remarkable creatures” affect your view of God?
Chevalier, Tracy. Remarkable Creatures. NY: Dutton, 2010. Kindle edition.