In England two hundred years ago, when Tracy Chevalier’s new novel takes place, the idea that animals could become extinct was too radical for most to contemplate. Fossils could be decorative and might even have magical powers, but they couldn’t possibly be the remains of creatures that God had erased from the world. Surely, people thought, the huge, toothy skeletons that were beginning to be unearthed from the cliffs of Lyme Regis, a shabby resort town on the Dorset coast, must belong to beasts that still exist in some remote land.
Imagine the anxiety these beliefs produced. What if one of those bloodthirsty monsters suddenly swam up onto the beach? What if the Earth (which, according to church doctrine, was created by God in six 24-hour time slots beginning at 8:00 PM on October 23, 4004 BC) was in fact always changing, and not comfortingly constant? For conventional Britons of the Regency period, the discovery of these fossils was amazing and disturbing in equal measure.
Such a milieu offers rich reserves for a historical novelist to plumb. And Chevalier’s story — whose outlines are mostly true, though the author admits in a postscript that she “made up plenty” — gets even better as she explains who was performing those early-nineteenth-century Lyme Regis excavations.
It was a working-class girl named Mary Anning, who kept her family out of the poorhouse by selling “curies” — curiosities — that she found on the beach. (She inspired the tongue-twister “She sells seashells by the seashore.”) Mary Anning had very little education and few rights — no women of any class could vote or attend university at the time, and certainly none would be allowed across the threshold of London’s Geological Society, where Anning’s finds were hotly discussed — yet she knew more about the fledgling field of paleontology than all the blustery gentlemen collectors who charged onto the Lyme beaches, hoping to nab themselves a specimen.
In 1810, at age eleven, Mary uncovered the first complete skeleton of an ichthyosaurus, though it then had no name and was thought to be some sort of crocodile. (The word “dinosaur” would not enter the language until 1824.) In 1821 she found the first plesiosaurus, and in 1828 the first dimorphodon, a kind of pterosaur. These major discoveries brought her fame during her lifetime, but never distinction, or even financial solvency. She remained, as one of Chevalier’s male characters describes her, “a spare part,” an oddball, an outsider.
“The world has used me so unkindly, I fear it has made me suspicious of every one,” Mary once wrote in a letter. Yet Chevalier is much too canny a novelist to turn her version of Anning’s life into a strident catalogue of feminist and class-discrimination grievances. Instead, in Chevalier’s imagining, Mary’s grim limitations cling to her as plainly and stubbornly as her ambitions, without much fuss. This is a quiet book, it turns out, about a spinster who walked up and down the beach nearly every day of her life. Like Chevalier’s most popular previous novel, Girl with a Pearl Earring, its eloquence lives in that quietness, its frankness like cold clear water after too much wine.
Mary’s voice alternates throughout Remarkable Creatures with that of her friend Elizabeth Philpot, another unmarried woman, twenty years her senior. Elizabeth lives with her sisters in Lyme’s more upscale neighborhood, sustained by a secure but hardly lavish annuity. More or less resigned to spinsterhood (“too plain, and too serious”) and in need of something to occupy herself, Elizabeth cultivates an interest in fossil fish, becoming nearly as accomplished as Mary in finding specimens. Although they become rivals for the scant attentions of at least one unsuitable suitor, and despite their differences in age, class, and education, Mary and Elizabeth develop a long, useful friendship. (Like Anning, Elizabeth Philpot was a real person who made important contributions to fossil science; the Philpot Museum in Lyme Regis, quite active today, was built on the site of Mary Anning’s birthplace.)
It’s Elizabeth, in Chevalier’s dramatization, who encourages Mary to learn to read, and teaches her to label her fossils using Linnaean classification instead of Anning’s childish diminutives, her “ammos and bellies and lilies and gryphies.” She advances money to Mary to help pay for excavations, and once even pulls the younger woman out of a landslip that has buried her in an ooze of blue clay, a common enough danger on Lyme’s ever-shifting cliffs.
For her part, Mary teaches Elizabeth how to hone her vision when fossil hunting, and then how to clean and display her treasures. Perhaps more important, the two friends find companionship in a society that only recognizes women in service to men, and thus views these spinsters as suspiciously peculiar. The rescue of a happy marriage, like those in the novels by Jane Austen which Elizabeth’s sister Margaret favors, is less and less likely as the years pass. So they stave off loneliness in the silent amity of long beachcombing days.
“A woman’s life is always a compromise,” Elizabeth muses with some bitterness. Meanwhile, buzzing around Mary is a throng of wealthy, unimpeded men, eager to use her as “a knowledgeable servant” to advance their own dreams of scientific glory. Free to be as eccentric as they please without fear of ostracism, these figures (again, almost all of them real) would receive star billing in The Big Book of British Weirdos, if such a book existed (and I so wish it did). Among their number are William Buckland, the flamboyant Oxford geologist whose hobbies include eating one of every species in the animal kingdom, and retired blowhard Colonel Thomas Birch, who in his fossil-collecting fervor treats Mary with both surprising kindness and heedless cruelty.
Amid all this clamor, two women are quietly making discoveries that will change the way men understand the world, opening the way to Darwin and the battles over creation that continue in our own day. Chevalier gets everything right here — the din and the silence, the strangeness of those times and the shadowing of our own — and then, with practical effectiveness, she wisely gets out of the way.