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Thursday, December 3, 2015

Book Advent Calendar (Day Three) - "Remarkable Creatures" by Tracy Chevalier

It's the third day of my Book Advent Calendar so we're at the third letter of the alphabet.  For today's book suggestion, I've chosen a novel by Tracy Chevalier.  She is best known for Girl with a Pearl Earring, but I’d certainly recommend Remarkable Creatures

Day Three:  Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier
4 Stars
This is a fictionalized story of Mary Anning, a fossil hunter extraordinaire.  In 1811, when she was twelve (and Darwin was two), she found a complete icthyosaurus skeleton in Lyme Regis.  Later, she discovered the first pterodactyl.  She was taught to read by Elizabeth Philpot, but she taught herself geology and anatomy.  Several scientists owed their achievements to Mary’s finds; very indirectly, she assisted Darwin in his insights.  Her skeletons are still on display in London and Paris.  Elizabeth Philpot is the other female narrator, another historical figure, whose fossil fish collection ended up in Oxford.

This book is a celebration of female friendship, a friendship that was viewed as odd in provincial Regency society because it crossed class fissures.  The two women have a shared obsession (fossils) and this eccentric interest and their mutual respect despite rigid conventions of class and gender behaviour lead to gossip and their being ostracized (especially Mary, the poor working girl).

The novel examines the interaction of women with overconfident, dismissive men.  Several collectors and scientists appropriated Mary’s efforts.  She received official acknowledgment for her work only later.  Mary and Elizabeth’s intellectual pursuits cost them heavily in terms of romantic happiness.

The novel also examines the implications of dinosaurs for religion.  Extinction was not an acceptable theory because it implied that God did not plan out what He would do with the creatures He created.  Most people believed that the earth was created the night before October 23, 4004 BC.  Elizabeth pushes against accepted wisdom, letting physical evidence lead her to heretical conclusions. 

There are some interesting touches:  the motif of lightning is used to signal important moments in Mary’s story (as a child she survived a lightning strike); Elizabeth classifies human beings according to which of their features they “lead with” so shallow people are easily identified; Mary’s father, a cabinetmaker, once tried to overcharge Jane Austen (at least according to her diary).

There are some weaknesses:  Mary’s mother is suspicious of Elizabeth but twice asks for her help; Mary becomes very pre-occupied with a drowned woman; Elizabeth reaches self-knowledge during a short boat trip to London.

Mary was the inspiration for the tongue-twister, “She sells Seashells by the Seashore,” because she sold fossil curiosities to help support her family.