In this novel, Tracy Chevalier turns her novelist’s eye to the life of Mary Anning who, although reasonably well known as a pioneering fossil hunter, has never received the attention she deserved and remains something of an enigma. However, without her skill and knowledge, the learned palaeontologists of her day would never have had access to the specimens from which they formed their theories and reputations.
Mary was born in and never left Lyme Regis on the coast of Dorset, a place long renowned for its strange fossils. The family supplemented their income by selling fossils to visitors. Mary’s keen eye began to discern the fossilised remains of huge and strange creatures buried in the rocks. These finds caught the attention of the leading fossil hunters of the day and in turn led to a radical re-thinking of the earth’s origins and the Biblical interpretation of the Earth’s creation.
As an experienced and talented writer of historical fiction, Chevalier is not content merely to tell Mary’s story. She has cleverly allied it to that of another fossil hunter, Elizabeth Philpot, who also lived in Lyme and who became an authority on fossilised fish. Her story was new to me and I am grateful for Chevalier’s insight. This is not just a story about two remarkable women but an exploration of women’s role in the 19th century and particularly friendship between women of different background and expectations.
With Remarkable Creatures, Chevalier has returned to form partly, I believe, because she is more comfortable writing about women’s domestic lives. Having said that, although Remarkable Creatures held my interest, I felt the writing lacked passion and commitment and was a little tired and predictable. For me, it concentrated too much on the heart rather than the intellect, which belittled both of these remarkable women.