Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier

The most enjoyable Chevalier I’ve read for a while, Remarkable Creatures takes a few fictional liberties with two real fossil-hunting women who lived in Lyme Regis in the early 19th century; the title could refer equally well to Mary and Elizabeth, or to the fossils they found and studied.

When London solicitor John Philpot marries, he arranges for his three remaining unmarried sisters to move to a cottage in Lyme Regis, a small town on the south coast where they will still be able to live a respectable middle class life in reduced circumstances. Louise and Elizabeth have their botany and fossil-collecting, respectively, to make spinsterhood more palatable but their younger sister Margaret still has hopes, fuelled by her Jane Austen novels. Mary Anning, a local girl who finds and sells fossils to supplement her father’s income, meets Margaret through Elizabeth, and is influenced by her romantic notions.

Though there are gentle flavours of romance, intrigue and adventure, the novel is largely about fossils and strong female friendship (the phrase ‘vicious gossip and the heartbreak of forbidden love’ on the back cover refers to restrictions of class rather than gender). Tracy Chevalier has once or twice in the past fallen into the trap of dumping incongruous passages ito the narrative rather than wasting her research, but in general it is woven seamlessly into this book. Her only stumbling blocks in this regard seem to arise from the format of alternating chapters being first-person accounts from Mary and Elizabeth’s points of view, which left working-class Mary having to say a couple of things which, in my opinion (and really, what do I know about 19th century Dorset girls?) didn’t sit quite right. With Elizabeth’s chapters, however, the tone seemed to fit brilliantly, very Trollope (and regular readers will know just how much of a compliment I mean that to be).

An infuriating book to read if, like me, your blood boils at the thought of scientific women in the past being sidelined, ignored or having their discoveries stolen by male colleagues. Nevertheless, an interesting insight into the time, and a well-written tale.

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