Remarkable Creatures, Tracy Chevalier

This volume extends Chevalier’s genre – novelized histories of cultural icons, as told through the lives of women who orbit or inhabit them – by addressing not some well-known male figure or male-made object, but a pair of under-acknowledged women, Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot, whose excavation of fossils along the beaches around Lyme Regis, England, helped spawn the field of paleontology and with it, our modern understandings of evolution, zoology and biology.  This the author does with grace and generosity, if somewhat of a Hallmark Channel/young adult vibe.

The tale is told in alternating first person narratives, with Annie’s broken grammar the main indicator of who is speaking as each section begins.  Despite the intimacy of the first person, one never feels a visceral connection with either woman, likely due to the formality and reticence which characterize their era (the early- to mid-nineteenth century). Yes, their romantic disappointments are addressed, but there is little reflection or revelation, Chevalier’s concentration is very much on the science and sociology of the story, and it is there, in the women’s interactions with the men who rule those spheres, that more heat is produced. Anning’s loss of repute for being ‘on beach’ with a male, Philpot’s need to secure a male escort for any public errand in London, these are clear and impactful; a woman’s life was in large-part a prison, and when gender did not suffice to complete its enclosure, then drudgery did, witness Anne’s mother, Molly Anning, or Philpot’s servant, Bessy.  It is so telling that the novel’s high points of suspense and drama are Philpot’s unescorted excursion to overhear a lecture (she must hide on a back stair to do so), and her later boldness in approaching the Geological Society, even with her young nephew as escort. While a couple of the ‘scientists’ show nascent traces of open-mindedness, the men in this story are by and large smug, self-satisfied and uninterested in the world around them, except for their narrow spheres of ‘expertise’. The most interesting of them, Mary’s Dad and Elizabeth’s nephew, are only minor players.

This, in retrospect, is the most important message of the novel; not what these two intelligent and driven women discovered, but what they had to overcome to do so, and then to attain even modest recognition in their lifetimes. Remarkable Creatures is, in effect, a prison-break story; The Great Escape for women imprisoned by custom, manners and gender. Bittersweet, and well-worth the telling and remembering.

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