The woman who spawned the famous tongue twister 'She sells sea shells on the sea shore' is again immortalised in words in this latest novel by Tracy Chevalier.
You can find a short biography of Mary Anning at the Natural History Museum website, but what this novel does in fill in the gaps (with some imaginative license, of course). For example, while history records a Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas James Birch as a patron of the family, this novel puts a different spin on his relationship with Mary Anning. The interplay of fact and fiction makes for really interesting reading.
Mary Anning is not the only heroine of this novel, her close friend Elizabeth Philpott, an older woman, recently relocated to Lyme Regis from London. She is educated and knowledgeable about earth sciences; she has a passion for finding fossils, while for Mary Anning it was a harsh necessity. Were the novel just written from Mary's point of view, I believe it would have suffered. Having a more mature voice adds balance and depth - especially in the sections where Elizabeth starts to question the Church's unscientific explanation of fossils of now extinct creatures.
For those who have an interest in geology, ecology or women scientists, this novel will hold extra special appeal, but the story is compelling enough, and the writing skilled enough that it's really an enjoyable novel for all. However if you are looking for a strict biography of Mary Anning, this would not fit the bill - artistic license has been applied.
on 23 August 2009
I was really excited about this new novel from Tracy Chevalier because I've read a biography of Mary Anning (which Chevalier cites in the back of her book as reading for further research) and I wasn't disappointed. This is a really lovely novel. It is set in such an interesting period of scientific discovery and history, and being published to coincide with the 150th anniversary of Darwin's Origin of Species, it ties in very topically with the debates at the moment.
It's a gentle type novel which charts the friendship between Mary Anning, a working-class fossil hunter in Lyme Regis, and Elizabeth Philpot, a gentlewoman fallen on hard times who becomes a fossil hunter in her own right. It also highlights the difficulties that women in the scientific community must have faced in the fight to be taken seriously.
At times I was frustrated with the novel switching between the two first person viewpoints (of Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot) and I think it might have worked better as a third person narrative, as at times Mary Anning was slightly unconvincing and I feel that the invention of a love affair for Anning was unecessary and somehow detracted from her achievements.
Really though, these are small criticisms of a very enjoyable novel and I would recommend you read this novel and then read some of the books which Chevalier suggests in the back of the book to find out more about the remarkable Mary Anning!
I thoroughly enjoyed Tracy Chevalier's earlier books until the last one, `Burning Bright' which I found so disappointing that I stopped reading half way through and so approached this next one with far less anticipation than the others. I was pleasantly surprised therefore to find `Remarkable Creatures' a very readable tale.
The story revolves around the life of Mary Anning , the now renowned fossil collector, and her friendship with a lesser known collector, Elizabeth Philpot. We become aware of the impossible difficulties facing a woman trying to have her work and views recognised by the scientific establishment in the early 19th century and also begin to appreciate the problem that Mary Anning and her contemporaries had in reconciling the evidence of the fossils with the Biblical account of life on earth.
I am only giving this novel three stars because although it made an interesting read, rekindled my interest in fossils and has made me keen to revisit the Jurassic coast, I found it very unsettling that I was never sure what was fact and what was fiction. I am not a reader of historical novels so maybe this is a common problem but I really wanted to know if the background story of love and friendship was made up purely as a ruse to bind the recorded facts together. I think that this is a novel which can rouse one to an interest in fossils, can hold one's attention throughout but, having roused your interest, is ultimately unsatisfying because it leaves too many questions about the lives of the main characters unanswered.
on 24 August 2009
Tracy Chevalier has a talent for visualising the lives of people she has never met. Girl With a Pearl Earring was an excellent example and now Remarkable Creatures brings to life the character of Mary Anning, just as Mary brought to life in her mind the fossils she discovered on the beaches around Lyme Regis. Mary Anning really existed and was an incredible person - clever yet uneducated, working class yet at home with all levels of society, female yet independent - not just of spirit but financially as well.
We see Mary's life not just through her own eyes but those of her friend, Elizabeth Philpot, another historical character who founded a museum in Lyme dedicated to fossils. With references to Jane Austen and the Royal Society where Charles Darwin was to present his own findings, the book is contextualised in an era when enormous changes were happening in society and the scientific and religious communities. The lives of women was tightly controlled and women like Elizabeth and Mary, who stepped out of the mould, were ridiculed and pitied at the same time. Neither married but both made a huge impact on our understanding of the past and the creation of the world. Well told and very readable.
This is the story of two women in the early 1800s - fossil hunters who played an important part in the beginnings of the evolutionary debate. Elizabeth Philpott and her younger sisters have to move after their brother marries; not being able to afford to live in Brighton, they choose Lyme where the youngest sister Margaret can shine in society there - as, in the novels of Jane Austen, marriage is a high priority for them. Already living in Lyme, young Mary Anning earns a living collecting fossils and selling these curiosities, or 'curies' as they are known, to visitors to the town. But when her father dies leaving them in debt, the pressure is on the family to make ends meet.
Elizabeth meets Mary out on the beach, and the two strike up a friendship despite being of different classes and ages, and they collect fossils together. Elizabeth is an educated woman with an interest in natural sciences, and is following new developments in what will become palaeontology, and is really beginning to question the creation myth - surely God can't have put fossils in the rocks as a test of faith as the local vicar believes - the fossils must be creatures that have become extinct. Over the next few years, interest in fossils increases hugely. After Mary discovers the skeleton of a 'crocodile'(actually an ichthyosaurus) more collectors come to Lyme and one in particular, Colonel Birch, takes a big interest in Mary - and she to him. This leads to a falling out between Mary and Elizabeth who thinks he's taking her for a ride...
Once again, Chevalier brings history to life, and this well-researched novel in which most of the characters existed, coming as it does during the 150th anniversary of Darwin's On the Origin of Species, is a treat from start to finish. I enjoyed all the explanations of the fossils - as Mary and Elizabeth self-educate on the subject, we benefit from that too. Told mostly in alternating voices between Mary and Elizabeth, it is a gentle tale, but not without its moments of drama. Although it considers all the Austenish concerns of friendship, marriage, manners and social mobility, the main thrust is that of women trying to be accepted in the man's world. Some of the men may be dinosaurs, there were enough to recognise the womens' contributions and ultimately this story celebrates their success. I think it's my favourite of her novels so far (4 1/2 stars).
on 13 September 2009
Tracy Chevalier's previous novel, Burning Bright, received a savaging by Amazon reviewers, and rightly so. But now she has shown her mettle by writing what may be her best book yet, and I congratulate her for bouncing back with such confidence and skill. Remarkable Creatures tackles serious themes - how women were kept on the periphery of scientific progress by dismissive men; how they were constrained in their expectations of marriage by class and 'reputation'; how individuals responded to advances in knowledge that challenged their faith - but it's never laboured. The language is plain, but elegant and fluid.
The chapters alternate narrations by poverty-stricken Mary Anning and genteel Elizabeth Philpot, and I enjoyed both equally. Mary's voice must have been hard to get right, and it's generally convincing (though I'm not sure about the idiom she uses, which I heard as Yorkshire in my head, though it may well be authentically old-Dorset). Elizabeth, too, is a winning creation: principled, compassionate and kind, and made rounder by flaws in her character. Her part of the story owes a debt to Pride and Prejudice, but is too persuasive and powerful to feel like a cheap crib, and anyway the ending of the novel severed such connections (and was immensely moving).
Chevalier is a beacon of hope in these times of literary mediocrity, and this is a wise, gentle, thought-provoking novel, beautifully crafted, and with a grip that never falters for a moment. A wonderful read, and highly recommended.
on 12 October 2011
This book provides a fictional account of two important real-life historical characters - Mary Anning and her friend Elizabeth Philpot - who between them contributed substantially to the scientific revolution that culminated in Darwin's On The Origin Of Species. Anning's finds of fossils of long-extinct `remarkable creatures' in the cliffs and beaches between Lyme Regis and Charmouth (now known as the Jurassic Coast) were a very important contribution to the then newly emerging science of evolution, and to the associated questioning of the Biblical creation story as real historical truth.
I hadn't previously read anything by Chevalier, but was attracted to this book because of my interest in its subject matter. I have visited Lyme Regis many times, and as a result have become familiar with the history of Anning and Philpot. I felt that this book did a good job in bringing them to life. I don't agree with the complaints of some reviewers that it's hard to tell where fact ends and fiction begins. It is quite clear that the book's basic outlines of their lives are factually based. It is historical fact that Anning was a poor working-class girl living at the bottom of Lyme Regis's imposing hills, near to the entrance to The Cobb, and that Philpot was an older middle-class spinster living near the top of the much more prosperous West Cliff. (These distinctions are largely unchanged two hundred years later: West Cliff remains the most exclusive part of Lyme, with fine houses which offer breath-taking views across Lyme Bay; the area at the bottom of the hill remains generally less prosperous.) Their fossil-hunting is also clearly a matter of historical record, as are some of their contacts with leading scientists from London and Oxford. The romantic relationships that each of them forms in the book are equally clearly fictional. I agree with some critical reviewers that these relationships aren't particularly interesting or well developed, but I felt that this wasn't the main point of the book: it is the two principal characters, and their impact on the scientific community, that provide the real meat of the novel, and on these central topics the book is full of information and interest.
Although it is a more minor feature of the book, I felt that Chevalier also did a good job in her descriptions of Lyme Regis, one of my favourite places. I am familiar with all the places in the town and surrounding countryside that are mentioned in the book, and I couldn't have bettered her account of them. She provides a good feel for a small sea-side town which has more than its fair share of noteworthy historical associations - not only its Anning-inspired role in the Darwinian scientific revolution, but also substantial literary associations, especially with Jane Austen (nicely worked into Chevalier's novel) and more recently with John Fowles.
I would also like to applaud the novel's construction. It is organised as a double narrative, with Anning and Philpot each narrating one chapter and then giving way to the other. This is a clever way of linking the basic fossil-finding activity to the ongoing London-based scientific debate. Anning lacked the education to be able to take an effective part in this debate, but Philpot was well-educated and well-read. Hence the inclusion of chapters narrated by Philpot allows Chevalier to deal with the scientific history in a way that wouldn't have been credible had Anning been the sole narrator, even though she is clearly the more historically important of the two.
Although Chevalier has done her research on all the major issues in the novel very well, I felt that there were a few minor points that she didn't get quite right. I will give just one example. In chapter 5, page 140, Mary is describing how her mother and Elizabeth were fed up with her moodiness, and she says: "Mam and Miss Elizabeth despaired over me, but they couldn't fix me, for I didn't think I was broke". I fear that Chevalier's American origins have betrayed her here. "If it ain't broke don't fix it" is a relatively modern Americanism. Some sources claim that the phrase was first used as recently as 1977 by a member of President Jimmy Carter's staff, though there are also claims that it has a somewhat longer history; but regardless of the precise details of the saying's American history, it was certainly not known in Britain longer than around two decades or so ago. Thus, no-one in early nineteenth century England would ever have used such a phrase, or anything remotely resembling it. Putting such a thought into Mary's mind is therefore an historical inaccuracy of the sort that often afflicts historical novels, in which the author wrongly attributes some current method of speech, current belief system, etc. to the historical period covered by the novel.
This and a few similar lapses are only minor faults, however: they don't spoil what is essentially a well-researched and well-told story. This book isn't a major literary novel and shouldn't be judged as such, but it does a very good job in bringing to life two `remarkable creatures' who were important figures in scientific history. If, like me, you are interested in these topics you should read it.
I adored this book. I had absolutely no knowledge whatsoever about fossils before this, I was never interested in that sort of thing as a child and it was only when I was half way through the novel that I actually realised that Mary Anning was a real person!
I thought the story was beautifully written, it could have been such a dry subject yet Chevalier made it into a fascinating subject for me. I was left wanting to know so much more about Mary, about Lyme and about fossils as a whole.
The slow-moving growth of the friendship between Mary and Elizabeth was so well done, two women so similar yet worlds apart in class. I loved the fact that Mary 'knew her place' yet still insisted on carrying on in this field - admittedly, it was purely for financial gain at first, but her love for what she did, and what she discovered grew so much. Mary and Elizabeth learned so much from each other throughout the novel - Mary passed on her skills and knowledge and Elizabeth passed on her academic learnings.
There were some parts of the story that I felt were a little rushed and didnt fit so well - Mary's obsession with the drowned woman, and Elizabeth's experiences in London somehow just didnt feel right - but to be honest, they took nothing away from the story for me.
I really enjoyed this.
on 12 April 2011
There's a strong story line here, of how two women in the fist half of the 19th century discovered amazing fossil remains in Lyme Regis - the discoveries are remarkable and no less so are the historical circumstances that led women to make them.
That said, I didn't find this as strong a novel as I might have wished. The opening chapters of Elizabeth Philpott's removal from London to Lyme Regis are slow moving; and a "gentelewoman fallen on harder times" is not a particularly novel line of fiction. The chapters are narrated alterately in the voices of Elizabeth and of Mary Anning the comparatively uneducated main fossil finder. It's hard to figure out in what time frame Mary is supposed to "voice" her chapters. In early chapters she refers to her first find as a "croc"; in later ones as an "ichi". Of course it is named in the meanwhile, but are we really supposed to see the earlier chapters as narrated by a younger Mary and the later ones as by an older Mary?
That said, the novel gathers pace and interest as it goes along; and is highly readable.
on 14 September 2015
In common with many other readers giving this three stars I found it a little dull, the characters quite unsympathetic and the plot rather thin. However, the subject matter - the beginning of the scientific study of fossils - is of interest. This, together with the convincing portrayal of the limits to a 19th century woman's freedoms, makes the book worth reading. The description of Elizabeth Philpot's unaccompanied walk through the streets of London is particularly memorable. I did have some issues with the language used by these early 19th century characters, the words "judgemental" and "empathy" appearing on the same page at one point (Chambers Dictionary of Etymology might have been usefully employed). "Right now" was also a frequently used expression, which perhaps betrayed the author's American origins. These anachronisms tended to undermine my belief in the
characters and so dilute my interest in their struggles, but the final chapters nevertheless produced a touching moment or two.