by Tracy Chevalier (2009)
Remarkable Creatures is a novel based on real people and events.
Mary Anning (1799-1847) lived in the costal town Lyme Regis in West Dorset in England in the early 1800’s.
As a young child she was struck by lightning and survived. When she was 11 years old, her father died and left the family in heavy debt. Mary and her brother used to search the beaches for small fossils which they sold as souvenirs to tourists.
Around the same time, a middle-class lady from London by name of Elizabeth Philpot (1779-1857) came to live in Lyme Regis together with two of her sisters (all three of them unmarried), after the death of their father.
Elizabeth became very interested in collecting fossils too. In spite of the differences in age and social status, a friendship grew between Mary and Elizabeth, based on their interest in fossils.
When they first meet in the novel, Mary is still a child, Elizabeth a grown woman. Elizabeth teaches Mary to read; Mary teaches Elizabeth about the practical side of finding fossils and the work of cleaning them etc. While Mary depends on finding and selling fossils for a living, Elizabeth can collect them for enjoyment.
Elizabeth Philpot came to specialize in fish fossils, and displayed these in cases in her home; and visitors to Lyme with an interest in fossils came to see them.
One day Mary and her brother found the fossilized skull of an unknown animal in the cliffs. Their first thought was that it must be a crocodile – except that it had a strange big eye that seemed too big…
Little did Mary know at the time that this would turn out to be an even more important find – the first fossil of an extinct creature now known as an ichthyosaur; contributing to turning old scientific and religious concepts of history and creation upside down.
(The idea of extinct animals from a very distant past was shocking to most people in those days, because it challenged a generally accepted belief that God did not make mistakes, and would not have created any animal only to have it die out.)
The novel is written from a double perspective: some parts of the story are told by Mary, others by Elizabeth. Both of them, in their own way, have to fight against the prejudices and gender rules of their time – while influential men tend to take all the credit for their remarkable finds.
I found this book a both enjoyable and interesting read and think it is likely to leave some lasting impressions (as have some of the previous novels by the same author that I have read in the past). I might add that I listened to it as audio book in Swedish and also found it to be the kind of story that is easy to listen to.
I did not really know anything about the characters or events beforehand, except what I read in a short introduction. I waited until I had finished the book to look up some more facts on the author’s own website:
PS. Also found this interview with the author on YouTube: