Tracy Chevalier (Girl with a Pearl Earring) gives us another fascinating historical novel based on the lives of fossilist and palaeontologist Mary Anning and her fellow-enthusiast Elizabeth Philpot and their important discoveries in the early 19th century which fuelled speculation and controversy about God, creation, and extinct species of life.
Mary Anning was born in Lime Regis, Dorset, UK in 1799. As a toddler, she was struck by lightning and shouldn’t have survived. But she did. She was, however, known to be odd as a result. Born into a working-class family of little substance, from an early age Mary would search the beach looking for interesting specimens of fossils and shells she could sell to tourists and thus augment the family income. As a result, she was often dirty and bedraggled and generally looked down on and talked about.
Elizabeth Philpot’s parents died leaving her older brother, John, a solicitor, in charge of herself and her 3 sisters. After her older sister married and John became engaged, their summer progress was completely with the intent of finding a modest home for Elizabeth, Margaret, and Louise as John’s wife would now be in charge of John’s home. They settled on Lime Regis in Dorset and it was here that her interest in fossils began as did her strong bond with Mary Anning.
At a time when women were not expected to take part in higher education, politics, or science, these two women pioneered a greater understanding of the natural world and made many discoveries which shook the scientific and religious world. It began when Mary discovered what they first thought to be a skeleton of a crocodile which, in itself, raised many questions. Later, it was classified as an ichthyosaurus specimen, and it attracted many scientists and tourists to the area in search of more unusual fossils.
Mary’s first major discovery was bought by a Lord and sold on to a museum where it was credited to him. When confronted with the deception by Elizabeth, he referred to Mary as a “spare part” because she was only a woman. While Mary led many scientists to unusual finds and discovered a wide range of extinct species, she was never allowed to take part in meetings at the Geological Society where some of her discoveries were displayed and discussed nor could she ever publish a paper and yet her diligent work led the way to what were amazing revelations.
The story of these two ladies is well told. Elizabeth’s observations of people were quite delightful and the temporary rift in the friendship between the two was detailed in a believable way. Elizabeth collected mostly fish fossils and so they weren’t competitors in any way and Elizabeth was able to negotiate when required between Mary’s often poverty-stricken world and the London society she herself had come from. Both were able to hunt fossils because of their independent attitude toward life and their disregard for what others thought of them. They certainly lived in interesting times and were considered unusual in their unladylike behaviour but the story moved along as it alternated in the telling between Mary and Elizabeth.
I wish there had been a glossary included in the book and drawings of the fascinating fossils the ladies discovered. I was forced to the internet where I found all the information I sought but it would have been nice to have it in the book. At times I wondered whether the title, Remarkable Creatures, referred to the ladies themselves or the creatures’ remains they discovered but either way, it is a book well worth reading for anyone but especially for anyone with an interest in palaeontology. A remarkable story. * * * *