“Remarkable Creatures” by Tracy Chevalier

“Remarkable Creatures” by Tracy Chevalier (2010)  – 303 pages

    “Your Miss Austen would never allow such a marriage to take place in her novels you so love.” I went on. “If it can’t happen in fiction, surely it won’t happen in life’”

I, like many others, discovered Tracy Chevalier with her 1999 historical novel “Girl with a Pearl Earring” about Johannes Van Meer and the girl in his famous painting.  ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’  became a huge best seller in spite of or because of this quiet domestic story.    She has had several novels since then.  This year Chevalier has published another historical novel, “Remarkable Creatures”, which is about Mary Anning, “the greatest fossilist the world ever knew”. 

Mary Anning lived in Lyme Regis which is on the south coast of England in the early nineteenth century.  Her father was an amateur fossil hunter, but he died at an early age, and Mary carried on the fossil hunting even before she was a teenager to help support her poor family.  The cliffs by the ocean near Lyme Regis were a rich spectacular source for fossils.    Mary helped discover some of the earliest icthyosaur and pleisiosaur skeletons.  Early on everyone called these skeletons ‘crocs’ and ‘monsters’ only later to learn that they were entirely unknown species of dinosaurs.

The two main characters in “Remarkable Creatures” are Mary and a somewhat older upper class single woman named Elizabeth Philpot who also collected fish fossils for a hobby.  Elizabeth Philpot takes the role as protector for Mary and her family by making sure that they got a fair price for Mary’s specimens and that Mary Anning got proper credit for her finds.  There were always some well-to-do Englishmen willing to buy the specimens from Mary at as low a price as they could get away with, attach their own name to the specimens, and take all the scientific credit for them.

Once again Tracy Chevalier has taken a rather quiet commonplace story and turned it into something fascinating.  A lot of the story concerns the domestic lives of these two women.   I was particularly drawn to the comments about Jane Austen who was living at the same time as the events in this novel take place which would be from about 1805 to 1820. 

    “This was the sort of situation that she read about in the novels she favored, by authors such as Jane Austen, whom Margaret was sure she met long ago at the Assembly Rooms the first time we visited Lyme. One of Miss Austen’s books even featured Lyme Regis, but I did not read fiction and could not be persuaded to try it. Life itself was far messier and didn’t end so tidily with the heroine making the right match. We Philpot sisters were the embodiment of that frayed life. I did not need novels to remind me of what I had missed.”

Another facet of this novel is a dramatization of the effects the discovery of these fossils on the prevailing religion which believed in an infallible God who could not possibly have created species that had gone extinct hundreds of thousands of years ago.  But do not expect a thorough discussion of the clash between religion and dinosaurs, as this is only a minor theme of the book.

I found “Remarkable Creatures” a satisfying historical novel which made events about which I knew virtually nothing interesting to me.  It is scheduled to be made into a movie soon.

Tracy Chevalier was born and raised in Washington DC and now lives in London.

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10 responses to this post.

  1. It looks like a wonderful book. I did so enjoy her Girl with a Pearl Earring and have been meaning to read both this one and the one about tapestries.

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  2. Hello Jeane,
    ‘Remarkable Creatures’ is a very entertaining novel, and I think you will enjoy it. Tracy Chevalier has a sure way with this type of story.

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  3. I have this on my TBR somewhere and must get to reading it soon. I read the blurbs about it and thought it sounded fascinating.

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    • Hi Lisa,
      So many good books, so little time. I did not know at all that this book was about fossil hunting, just knew it was time to revisit this author.

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  4. I very much enjoyed Girl with a Pearl Earing (the movie too), but haven’t read anything else by her since. I think I must try to read another before too long. The conflict between religious belief and fossil evidence was explored rather brilliantly by Edmund Gosse in Father and Son – the clergyman father being unable to reconcile what he found in the fossil record with his deeply held religious beliefs.

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  5. Sorry, a bit behind I’m afraid. Clearly this is a book I have to read even for the Jane Austen refs and the overall period. Like others, I’ve only read her Pearl Earring one, which was an enjoyable story.

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  6. Hi Whisperinggums,
    Not to mislead you, but the references I made to Jane Austen are the only references to Jane Austen in the novel. I just thought they would be a nice way to frame my post. Still it is an excellent novel by Tracy Chevalier.

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    • LOL Tony, I didn’t mean just those specific Jane Austen refs but the Lyme Regis connection. I’m not sure when I can fit it in but this does sound good. Maybe I’ll give it to my Mum for Christmas and then read it in our summer holidays.

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