An author I’ve picked up fairly consistently over the years is Tracey Chevalier, who writes historical novels – you may remember The Girl with a Pearl Earring, which was made into a movie. Her books are usually a fairly light, engaging read, but she has a knack of digging out a very human story from an often overlooked corner of history.
Remarkable Creatures is a novel about two women who were instrumental in the discovery of fossilised remains of dinosaur-era animals at the coastal town of Lyme Regis. We are just after Waterloo, and the Origin of the Species has yet to be written so the Bible’s version of how God made the world holds sway.
The plesiosaur fossils young Mary Anning and her brother discover are first thought to be some form of crocodile but awaken interest from collectors and scientists alike. The two are still only kids but have been scraping together a bit of extra cash selling small ammonite fossils outside their father’s workshop since they were tiny. The money from their sale to collectors is important, especially when their father suddenly dies. Mary being the humble daughter of a carpenter with very little schooling is not taken seriously or given credit for her ability to spot fossilized remains in rock strata. Fortunately, she finds a friend and champion in Elizabeth Philpot, who makes fossil hunting her passion too.
Elizabeth and Mary are characters are based on real people and Chevalier brings them to life, highlighting their difficulties as females at a time when science was dominated by men. Elizabeth’s plight as a spinster, unlikely to marry because of a lack of looks or fortune, is another strand to the plot, as well as the difference in class between Mary and Elizabeth, which creates tension between them at times.
At first, I wasn’t sure if the remarkable creatures of the title were the fossilised animals or the women who found them. What is certain is that this is a remarkable book. Four out of five from me.