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Mary Anning is nowadays acknowledged as one of the founders of paleontology. Born in 1799 in Lyme Regis, Anning was responsible for many important discoveries which included finding the first fossilised skeletons of creatures such as the ichthyosaurusus and plesiosaur. Her finds forced changes in scientific thinking; up until this time nobody had known that animals became extinct. Anning herself was shown to have been thinking along the same lines as Darwin, many years before he published 'On The Origin of Species'. What makes her story even more remarkable is that many of her discoveries were made during a childhood steeped in poverty. Her father died when she was still a child and the family made money from selling 'curies' or curiosities, (fossils), to tourists. This poor background didn't stop Mary from ultimately becoming a famous and respected figure in the scientific community, although it took a lot of work for her to be given credit for both her finds and her intellect. Elizabeth Philpot was another respected fossil hunter who also lived in Lyme Regis at the time, although she was from a different social class to Mary. It is the unlikely friendship between these two women that forms the basis of the storyline in Tracy Chevalier's sixth novel, Remarkable Creatures.
Chevalier has taken what could sound like a dry and worthy subject and turned it into an entertaining, dramatic and at times, fascinating novel. I wasn't sure what to expect as I've found her previous five books to range from exquisite, (The Virgin Blue, Girl with a Pearl Earring), through enjoyable enough but easily forgotten, (Falling Angels, The Lady and the Unicorn), to really quite dreadful, (Burning Bright). With this one she is back on top form and I enjoyed it more than anything I've read in a while.
The story is told in the first person, between the two female protagonists. It begins with Mary Anning telling how, as a baby, she survived a lightning strike that killed three people. This may sound just the sort of thing a novelist would invent, but apparently it is fact. It makes a striking start, (sorry), to a life in which Mary refuses to conform to societal expectations. In the second chapter Elizabeth Philpot explains the reduced circumstances which result in her move to Lyme Regis with her sisters. This second chapter introduces a feel of Jane Austen, although this is probably more due to the characters circumstances and the way they interact, than the style of writing. The novel is set during the same time period in which Austen was first publishing her novels, one of the Philpot sisters is a fan of hers and is sure that she once met the famous author at the Assembly Rooms in Lyme Regis. It made me wonder whether Chevalier studied Austen as a guide to the 'proper behaviour' of the time.
The chapters narrated by Elizabeth tend toward a genteel, somewhat restrained style, they are more subtle, philosophical and descriptive than Mary's chapters which concentrate more on her interactions with he people around her in an active, dynamic way. It's almost as though Mary is chatting to the reader, whereas Elizabeth is reflecting on events in a diary. The characters of the women are very well drawn, each with their own idiosyncrasies, although very occasionally I did feel aspects of their characters were over emphasised to the point where the author seemed to be reminding me of something I already knew. The other people in the book feel real too and I was interested to find out more about them in the postscript which gives details of what happened in the rest of the real lives of the characters. I thought this was a nice touch, although slightly odd because it makes everything seem true, even though it is a work of fiction. Chevalier also explains how she fictionalised the story by changing aspects of the timeline of events and making rumours into fact.
Themes explored throughout the book include class issues and women's position in society, with the struggle for acknowledgement from the male scientists of the day providing some of the narrative tension. Mary was sought out by male geologists who she would help to find fossils, they would seek her opinion, then receive the credit for writing down what they had learned from her. At one point the celebrated French anatomist, Georges Cuvier, accuses the Anning family of being fraudsters who combine different animal bones to make strange creatures - it was the discovery of the plesiosaurus and it's unfeasibly long neck which prompted this accusation, but Cuvier later admitted he was mistaken. Elizabeth notes that when she donates a fossil fish to the Natural History Museum, the label names the collector as 'Philpot' in order to sidestep the issue of gender. Of Mary she says, "Her name will never be recorded in scientific journals or books, but will be forgotten," and indeed for many years after her death it was, as she slipped into obscurity only to be rediscovered in more recent years. On the Natural History Museum website today she is described as 'the greatest fossil hunter ever known.'
Remarkable Creatures isn't the only book to be written about Mary Anning and I'm surprised there has never been a film made about her life. Chevalier has sold the film rights to this book though, so that may be remedied in the next few years. It stirred my interest in finding out more about the real Mary Anning and other fossil hunters of the time. As a measure of my interest - I even began looking at Lyme Regis websites with the idea of visiting sometime and hunting for fossils.
Despite the subject matter, it's actually a light read, which both entertains and informs. There is an occasional swerve towards melodrama, but the main criticism I would make is that the timing of events isn't always clear; several years are covered and what appear to be weeks passing sometimes turn out to be years.
Although I wouldn't call Remarkable Creatures a masterpiece, it is an enjoyable and interesting piece of escapist historical 'faction', which also raises awareness of the role of early women geologists and the work of fossil hunters. It had me engrossed.
Published by HarperCollins (2009), 352 pages, currently priced £4.57 on Amazon.co.uk
I read Girl with A Pearl Earring a couple of years ago and must admit I was disappointed with it after everybody I knew raved about it. For this reason I wasn't too impressed when one of my friends selected Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier as our Book club book for last month. However I have always managed to finish all of our books so I knew that I would definitely read it.
When my book arrived I liked the look of the cover, two ladies in the distance on a beach with a collection of ammonites in the foreground. The gentle feel set the atmosphere for the book perfectly.
This book is a fictional story based around the real-life characters of Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpots. These remarkable women were residents of Lyme on the South Coast and were responsible for finding and bringing to the world's attention the amazing fossilised remains that were plentiful on the beaches in the area. This is a story of an unlikely friendship, shared interests and of emotional rivalry.
I found this an extremely easy book to read and finished it quickly as I soon became absorbed in the repressive world of the 1800s when ladies could not travel anywhere on their own and were certainly not allowed any intelligent or progressive thought. At a time when the theory of the six day creation was rarely challenged it was difficult for people to comprehend how they were finding skeletal structures that did not represent any of the animals that currently roamed the world.
I enjoyed the contrast between the lives of the Philpot sisters, spinsters who had moved to the area after being forced from their wealthy London home by their brothers impending marriage, and that of the Anning family who were struggling to make ends meet even before the untimely death of the Richard Anning. The constraints on upper-class ladies were well described and the frustration it could cause was sympathetically explored. I remember reading about the first female accepted at university, she had to have a doctor with her for her first exam as they thought her brain may overheat as women were not expected to be able to actually reason and analyse. I find it fascinating that even in such recent history people were so academically constrained and also very scared of making any sort of hypothesis that would contradict the general thoughts of the day. This book certainly made me consider what ideas would have been around at the time.
Tracy Chevalier has used as much historical factual information as she could to tie the story together but obviously most of the narrative is fictional. I was not sure I could be convinced of the friendship that grew up between a well-to-do spinster and a young working class girl. I imagine a mutual respect and admiration could happen eventually but I am not sure that the friendship would have been as immediate and as intense as described. The jealousies and insecurities that both of the women suffered however did seem well expressed and believable.
I found the subject matter absorbing but I am a bit of a science geek, however even if this is not a field of interest I don't think the descriptions of any of the finds were boring or tedious and I think any reader would find them interesting. Having grown up when these creatures have already been classified and described it was unusual to think about how they would have been first received when discovered.
The one thing I found a little difficult to follow whilst reading this novel was the passage of time. Occasionally I found that more time had passed than I imagined and because we first met Mary Anning as a young girl I sometimes forgot that she would have become a young woman so needed a chaperone when out hunting with a gentleman. The author had obviously tried to cover a lot of ground and was covering quite a long period of time so the story did have to move quickly which was fine but I could have just done with a few more clues about the date.
The only other thing that irritated me was the constant reference to Mary Anning being struck by lightning as a baby. If it was supposed to have given her the "eye" which helped with her hunting it was too farfetched for me so I just preferred to ignore that interpretation as I felt it was trying to move the story from one that was well-grounded to one that had a helping of the supernatural which wasn't needed.
The chapters are alternately written from the perspective of Mary and of Elizabeth which made for interesting reading as the author has tried to capture the eloquence and education of each person so they narrated in quite a different manner. This is also useful in helping the reader understand the feelings each woman had with regards to various situations they find themselves in and also how they regard each other.
I actually found I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I found it much more readable than I expected with a lovely flow and a nice use of language. The subject matter was unusual so added to the interest and the characters are well defined and very believable. This is not as sophisticated or as in-depth as I had thought it might be and it is a better novel because of that. Remarkable Creature made a lovely holiday read as it is engrossing without requiring too much concentration but offers more interest than the normal chick-lit that I often opt for on holiday. I am glad my book club chose it and I would certainly recommend it.
The cover of my copy of Remarkable Creatures is awash with quotes from journalists singing its praises. One that particularly caught my attention was a quote from the Daily Telegraph:
"Chevalier recently stated that making fossils sexy was one of her chief aims in writing Remarkable Creatures. She has certainly succeeded"
In my view, this was a pretty bold statement to make. I've never found all this business with rocks and the little marks on them even remotely interesting, and so I began this book hoping to be converted into a positive enthusiast by the end of it. Let's just say that perhaps I raised my expectations a bit too high.
The book is basically a novelisation of two prominent fossil-hunters from the 19th century, Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot. Mary is a young girl from a poor background who sells the fossils she finds upon the beaches of Lyme Regis so that her family can afford to buy food. Elizabeth, on the other hand, is a middle-aged woman in need of a hobby to keep her from the boredom of being a spinster in Lyme. Together they form an unlikely bond which serves them well through the twists and turns of life, being seemingly the only female fossil-hunters to their knowledge. They have to face a great deal of prejudice from the male-dominated Geological Society as well as from respectable society at the time who viewed fossils as a threat to everything Christianity taught. Despite this, they did eventually find fame in geological circles, and now many of the fossils that they found are in museums up and down the country. However Mary's discoveries of ichthyosaurus and plesiosaurus fossils somewhat outshone Elizabeth's collection of fossil fish, thus breeding some jealousy between them.
This is the first Tracy Chevalier novel I have read, but I did once watch the film Girl With A Pearl Earring and was thoroughly bored despite being an art-lover. However I bided by the rule 'don't judge an author by the movies based on their books' and went into the novel with an open mind. However I found that the distinct lack of momentum that I detected in Girl With A Pearl Earring was also present in this book. Chevalier says in her Postscript that she had to embellish quite a lot on the lives of Elizabeth and Mary in order to entertain the reader. However I still felt that this novel could have been told in a far more exciting way. By the end of the book I didn't really feel like very much had happened, and indeed I struggled to remember what actually had happened.
It is a credit to Chevalier that she managed to make a book with what appears to have been such dull material, but I have to say that I don't think the lives of Elizabeth and Mary were ever meant to be a novel in the first place. Their lives were dominated by fossils and they would spend almost every day combing the beach for them. Occasionally they would receive interest from the Geological Society and sometimes zoological authorities such as Baron Cuvier. Sometimes Mary would discover another dinosaur skeleton hidden in the cliffs of Lyme Regis. But ultimately that was it, and it doesn't really make for an enthralling read.
When I read books as well-researched as this one I do expect to glean some factual knowledge from them, because I am genuinely interested in finding out new things. A good example of this is a book I read a while ago called 'The Behaviour of Moths' by Poppy Adams, which was both a thrilling novel and a minefield of information about lepidoptery, something I hadn't the first clue about until I read the book. However, in Remarkable Creatures I didn't feel that I really gained very much informatively from the book. My knowledge of fossils is pretty much non-existent, even to the extent that I couldn't actually remember what a fossil was until I found a picture of one on the front cover. With all the talk of vertebrae and ammonites and plesiosauri I found myself completely lost as to how a whole dinosaur could end up as a fossil, and there was no explanation throughout the book. Neither Mary nor Elizabeth seemed to even share their thoughts on the matter. Perhaps this book would appeal to someone far more knowledgeable than me, for now I find myself even less well-disposed towards fossils than I was to begin with!
Another thing which irritated me about this book was that I found no less than 3 or 4 mistakes which had obviously been missed in the proof-reading process. For example, it says at one point 'The room with vibrant with interest' instead of 'was vibrant with interest'. Although I know this is isn't necessarily the fault of Chevalier, it did not help to endear the novel to me.
There are 10 chapters spread over 343 pages, meaning that the chapters are fairly long, too long to read in one session before bed. On average the chapters were 30-40 pages long, and so I often had to stop reading in the middle of a chapter. The chapters are told in the first person, narrated alternately by Mary and Elizabeth. I personally would have liked to see the voices alternate more frequently, as perhaps this would have given the book a bit more momentum. It also often omits to mention dates, which is frustrating as you don't know how old the protagonists are for long periods. For example, a man begins to court Mary when I thought she was 15. However it turned out later that she was actually about 21, which totally put a different light on the situation. For a book that sweeps across a timescale of about 25 years, it needed more precision.
Overall, I was really disappointed with this book. I was excited to begin it having read the critics' praise littered all over the back and inside cover, but for me it lacked drive and the ability to really inspire and captivate a reader. Chevalier chose a really interesting time period for the subject matter she was pursuing as the whole idea of extinct animals was very controversial at the time. However, the novel left me disappointed, which is a shame because the writing style is thoroughly readable. Nevertheless, the protagonists just don't seem to cut it as novel material and perhaps should have been left to the confines of the history book. On the other hand, it occupied me for a couple of weeks, which I suppose is something.
Tracy Chevalier is most famous for writing The Girl With The Pearl Earring. I've not read it and to be honest historic faction isn't something I usually particularly like but my Mum does. She had read this book and one Saturday over a cup of tea and a donut she mentioned it and told me a bit about it. I was intrigued by it. When I was little (and even not that I'm big) I used to love going on holiday to the Isle of Wight which is famous for there being a lot of dinosaur finds there. I used to love and clambering over the rocks looking for dinosaurs. So this book struck a chord with me.
It is set in the early 1880's and the story is told from the perspective of two different characters. Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philot. Mary is a poor working girl living in Lyme ho has to hunt fossils (or 'curies' as she calls them) to sell to make money for her family. Elizabeth is a fairly well off spinster who has moved to Lyme from London. Elizabeth loves to find fossils and loves learning about them. Their mutual love of fossils causes an unlikely friendship between the two.
When Mary and her brother find a fossilised skull of a reviously unknown creature the scienctific community are stunned. I won't tell you anymore as I don't want to spoil it for you but along the way there there are also romantic bits, heart-warming and funny bits.
Mary and Elizabeth are both real people and Tracey Chevalier has based this story on real events. There is a really interesting section at the end which tells you which elements of the story are true and which are embelishments.
I loved this story. The characterisation was fantastic. I really found myself liking the two main characters and genuinely got very involved in the story. I love the fact that so much of it is true. It is a fairly easy book to read. Ok for reading at the end of a hard day at work and lovely to relax in the bath with.
I would definately recommend this book to other people as it is awell told, lovely story.