Book Review : Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier
Mary Anning had the unusual experience of being struck by lightning as a baby which irrevocably changed how she saw the world. Mary had the unique gift to spot fossils that no one else can find. As she discovers previously unknown creatures the religious community is upset and the scientific world turned over by the magnitude of her “curies”.
Elizabeth Philpot finds herself in the uncomfortable position of being unmarried and having to find a new home as her brother marries. Miss Elizabeth discovers a small fossil while visiting Lyme and settles in the small seaside town with her two other sisters who have not married. In such a small community Miss Elizabeth finds a bit more social freedom and befriends the young Mary Anning through their mutual interest in fossils.
Chevalier traces the history through both Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot as the narrators. In ways I am much more interested in Mary Anning, however, there are points that would have been left less defined without the voice of Miss Elizabeth because of her more elevated social sphere. I can accept the dual narrative because I am interested in both sides of society that rarely had interaction, with Mary and Miss Elizabeth having a unique friendship.
The account of Mary being struck by lightning was so dramatic I would have thought that it was a literary device except for the recorded fact that it was true. It is even recorded that the townspeople took note that Mary had been a sickly baby and after the lightning became healthy. They also accredited Mary’s inquisitive nature as being a result of the lighting. In this case truth was better than fiction, and stranger too.
I also particularly loved Miss Elizabeth Philpot’s perception of how people would lead with a particular feature. For example, she said that Mary lead with her eyes while she led with her chin. Miss Elizabeth also never trusts a man who leads with his hair, good advice for all women to take to heart. The leading feature was an indication of the predominate personality of the person. I have to wonder what Miss Elizabeth would believe was my leading feature, perhaps my voice.
As I was reading this account I became interested in what was fact and what was fiction. These women were contemporaries of Jane Austen and so their world felt very familiar to me. I was not familiar with the scientists and philosophers in the early 1800’s and after a little research found that the key men of the time had been included. Overall Chevalier’s novel is quite accurate. I have not yet read Curiosity by Joan Thomas as a contrast to Remarkable Creatures.
There is one relationship in which artistic liberty was used to boost book sales. I believe that Mary was a woman of character and find the love tryst with Lieutenant-Colonel Birch to be improbable. I could also find no supporting documentation that Lieutenant-Colonel Birch had been such a cad and thoughtless in his treatment of Mary and her family. The facts show that Lieutenant-Colonel Birch had purchased the ichthyosaurus as well as other fossils and that he did not exaggerate his military position. I believe he was naturally generous and he greatly respected Mary, as shown through the sale of his personal collection of fossils to benefit Mary’s family when they were under extreme financial distress. In Remarkable Creatures he only sells his collection after being berated by Miss Elizabeth over his unseemly conduct. It seems a shame to assassinate the moral character of Mary Anning and Lieutenant-Colonel Birch to spice up a novel. In this incident truth would have been better than fiction.
Even with the flaws there were many points that I enjoyed in Remarkable Creatures.
3 out of 5 stars.