Date Read: 1.29.10
Book From: Personal Collection
When Elizabeth Philpot and her sisters move to Lyme Regis, resigned to a life of spinstershood tucked away in a modest English seaside village, she finds herself befriending a queer fossil hunter, Mary Anning. Through Elizabeth’s education and readings, and Mary’s instinctive knowledge of the shore, they grow together in their mutual love for paleantology and fossil hunting. But the lives of the Philpots, Annings, and the very town are turned upsidedown when Mary discovers a prehistoric extinct fossil, causing an uproar in the scientific community and the entrance of many distinguished gentlemen in the field. Behind the scenes, Elizabeth and Mary explore a friendship that is strained by their respective failures to find a suitor, and interwoven with the fervor and drama of scientific discovery in a male dominated intellectual society is the sorrow and resignation that comes with spinsterhood.
For me, Tracy Chevalier has never quite accomplished the same breathtaking, luminous achievement that was The Girl with a Pearl Earring with her other books, but Remarkable Creatures is a complete turnaround. I ran away to BNN one day, picked it up for two hours, and simply could not put it down so I paid the $26.95 + tax to have the privilege of finishing it that very night in my bed. Overall, Remarkable Creatures is the historical novel I’ve been craving for a long while, whisking me off to 19th-century seaside England and embroiling me in the scandal, loneliness, and scientific discovery of the time.
Remarkable Creatures made me fear for my own life, made me examine my aspirations and accomplishments, and specifically the incredible brevity of a lifespan. Elizabeth and Mary have such purpose and drive, and are both gripped by an urgency to uncover more and more truths, working furiously to overcome social and cultural barriers. I, on the other hand, sit in my cubicle writing mundane scripts and am safe from the discrimination and prejudice of a century ago. And once Elizabeth and Mary reached a certain age in their lives, the despair seeped in, and both resigned themselves to many stagnant, loveless remaining years.
I love how Chevalier boldly strives to illuminate those lesser-known pockets of history for the world. In particular, the focus on the concept of spinsterhood, the idea that in certain places and times, there existed an unmarriageable age, a stark contrast to the presence of the 60+ dating scene in our American world that is not necessarily thriving, but still there. Chevalier forces an appreciation for the privileges and rights that many of us take for granted. She also focuses on the feelings of failure and self-disappointment as Elizabeth and Mary are to be shunned for the rest of their lives, their many achievements never able to break down the barrier of social discrimination.
This book is also a triumph for the nerds out there since it spotlights science and the process of discovery. The research is evident in this narrative, and it is particularly refreshing to see the field of paleontology being used as a backdrop. Chevalier works in so many aspects of the science, including the classification debates of the day, the importance of technical skeleton drawings, the religious conflict sparked by fossil discoveries, and the very preservation and extraction of scientific evidence. Chevalier recounts and records these aspects of the story boldly and meticulously, and in doing so, lends an air of eclectic grace to the novel. I was absolutely fascinated by the prehistoric species and the subtle differences between related animals.
I only knew that these characters were actual historical figures after reading the book, I had the chance to reexamine the book in a whole new, profound light. The characters linger and haunt, a testament to the extremely evocative storytelling, and after I put the book down, I felt emotionally hollow on behalf of Mary and Elizabeth. I left the book with respect and awe for Elizabeth and Mary’s friendship, and a desire to know more about everything– Lyme Regis, Mary and Elizabeth, prehistoric fossils, and 19th century English class warfare.