Elizabeth, along with her sisters Louise and Margaret, as unmarried daughters of the Philpot family, must relocate from London when their only brother becomes engaged. This was not spoken of upfront, but implied as they were offered the opportunity to spend the summer looking at different seaside communities. They would have 150 pounds per year on which to live and they would be much more comfortable in a less expensive location outside of London. When Elizabeth found her first fossil on the beach at Lyme Regis, she knew that is where she wanted to live. Luckily, her sisters were in agreement. It was then that the Philpot spinsters moved into Morley cottage. Elizabeth’s keen interest in fossils and natural history brought her into contact with the Anning family. Richard Anning, a cabinet maker, also sold fossils – or curies – to supplement the family’s income. Mary, his oldest daughter, had the same passion for curies that Elizabeth did, but she lacked the education behind it. Although Mary was many years younger than Elizabeth and from a much lower class, the two became friends who enjoyed hunting for curies on the beach. Both of their lives changed when Mary’s brother found the fossilized remains of what is now known as the first ichthyosaurs in the cliffs around Lyme Regis. Their joint interest pulled them together, but eventually tore them apart when educated men from around England began to call on Mary her skills. Jealousy and resentment became a stumbling block for them both.
During Elizabeth and Mary’s lifetime, the widely held belief by society was that God created the earth and all of its creatures once and that it remained as is since the beginning. This meant that all animals that existed at that time existed for the entirety of earth’s history. More importantly, since all that God created was perfect, it was not possible that He would allow any of his creatures to become extinct. This concerned Elizabeth from the beginning and it was frustrating to her to have no one to discuss the implications of her fossils, either large or small. At the same time, there was something the general public found eery about curies and, as a result, both Elizabeth and Mary were considered strange. Their interest and delight in fossils set them apart. People did not want to be closely associated with them and, as Elizabeth found out, her preoccupation could cost her sister a potential engagement. They were also both frustrated by the lack of opportunity for their sex. In pre-Victorian England, women were viewed as incapable of intellectual pursuits. Scientific men like William Buckland and Georges Cuvier came or sent others looking for Mary Anning’s help in hunting out and buying her curies, but Mary was often not given credit for the discovery, the collector was. This caused Mary much sorrow and fueled Elizabeth with so much indignation that she found herself confronting men publically in ways she never through she was capable. It was at those times that I finally began to love her character and understand the weight Elizabeth carried on her shoulders.
When I picked up Remarkable Creatures and began reading, I didn’t do any research. I hadn’t realized at the time that Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot are actual historical figures who lived in Lyme Regis. I wish I had pictures in front of me of the huge fossils Mary Anning found in the cliffs surrounding Lyme Regis as I was reading. Seeing them after reading the novel was awe-inspiring. I cannot imagine uncovering such things when there was no such thing as dinosaurs. How very thrilling and unnerving that must have been! Perhaps if those fossils had not been found and preserved had Mary and Elizabeth not been involved the discovery would have been made by others, but it is equally likely that they might not. The suspicion and superstition surrounding curies at that time and all that they called into question could have led to their destruction. Despite all that we have learned about natural history since the 19th century, Elizabeth Philpot’s questions about how scientific knowledge and religious belief can coexist are still relavent today – 150 years since the publication of Charles Darwin‘s On the Origin of Species. This novel is sure to spark some interesting book club discussions.
Tracy Chevalier is an author I am sure to watch because she chooses diverse and interesting subject matter. Her Postscript added even more to her portrait of Mary’s skill and vulnerability and Elizabeth’s convictions and strength. It will never cease to amaze me how small things come together to make up something great. Elizabeth needed Mary’s lack of concern for what Lyme Regis thought of her and what she was doing while Mary needed Elizabeth’s access and influence in the greater society. Mary needed Elizabeth’s knowledge and intellectual interest in fossils and Elizabeth needed Mary’s aptitude for caring for the curies once they were found.
Reading Remarkable Creatures was like lazily looking for fish fossils along the beach and then looking up to the cliffs and noticing something unfamiliar and spectacular. It built gradually for me. I wasn’t sure where the story was going until it hit me out of the blue. Once I started chiseling away that large monster, I was hooked. It is a novel about friendship, jealousy, the role of women, and the joy of discovery. The story has a slower pace and is more subtle than my favorites such as The Lady and the Unicorn, The Virgin Blue, and Falling Angels. I enjoyed Remarkable Creatures just as muchfor what I learned along the way and what it prompted me to explore after I finished. You really owe it to yourself to read this novel if you enjoy reading about 19th century England, Jane Austen, and natural history. I can see Mary Anning becoming a beloved heroine for young women, especially those interested in pursuing the sciences. I am so thankful that Chevalier introduced me to her.
If you live in the UK, Remarkable Creatures will be released this Monday, August 25th (lucky you!). For those of you living in the US, you will have to wait until January 10, 2010 – unless enter my contest and are the lucky winner! See details below.
Many thanks to Kate at HarperCollins UK for sending me this novel for an early review! It made my day to receive her email.
We were both hoping that it would arrive in July. When it hadn’t arrived before my vacation she sent another copy hoping that I would receive it before I left. Unfortunately, both copies arrived while I was in Michigan. My vacation’s loss, however, could be your gain!
Leave a comment here with your thoughts about the relationship between science and religious belief and you’ll be entered in my contest for the second unread ARC copy of Remarkable Creatures. This contest is open to one and all. Tweet about this giveaway for a second entry (just be sure to reply to @lithousewife in your tweet).
This contest will be open until Saturday, September 12. I’ll post the winner on September 13th.
You can pre-order this novel, by clicking here.
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