Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier is based on the life of Mary Anning, an early 19th century fossil hunter, collector, and paleontologist (although without a formal education.) I first discovered Mary Anning during a visit to the National History Museum in London. I was fascinated by this young woman, whom I somehow had never heard of before, who was the first to discover many new dinosaur species.
Chevalier’s novel focuses not just on Mary, but also on her friend and champion–a higher class woman (also a fossil hunter & collector) named Elizabeth Philpot. Although from two very different socio-economic stations, and despite a 20 year age gap, Elizabeth befriends young Mary and the two often fossil hunt together on the beaches of Lyme Regis and the surrounding areas. While a natural curiosity and love for the natural world of the past brings the two women together, it is (disappointingly so) a man and jealousy which tears them apart.
At its core, Remarkable Creatures is about lasting friendships despite coming from different backgrounds, despite squabbles, or schoolyard jealousies. Coming from a working class family and being a woman, Mary would never have the opportunity for education, published works, or scientific presentations at learned societies that her counterparts would. Elizabeth, although a woman but having more social sway and resources, acts as Mary’s advocate in the intellectual world of men so that Mary receives recognition, as many men who seek Mary’s help in fossil hunting have taken credit for her work and finds. But the relationship is not all one-sided. On the contrary, Mary’s free spirit, bravery, imagination, and enterprising nature often inspires Elizabeth to speak up for herself and carve a different path from the one society has already laid out for her. What’s more, both Elizabeth and Mary push the boundaries of “what is known” in a world before the theories of Evolution and Extinction took hold within the scientific community.
As I said earlier, I was a bit disappointed that their friendship was put on the rocks due to a man, as the trope is tired. That said, I enjoyed learning more about Mary Anning and her discoveries. I would love to visit Lyme Regis someday and hunt for my own fossils.