A tale of two women

I mentioned yesterday that we had been reading Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier, published in 2009 for our book club. We all loved it – which is unusual since quite often we all have different opinions of the books we read and I have to confess it is usually me who struggles with whatever has been chosen. As a group we decide on what to read and we try to vary the genres and types of books, often challenging ourselves with something out of our normal preference range!

Remarkable Creatures is the story of the famous nineteenth century fossil hunter, Mary Anning, a true story of a poor, ill-educated woman who became a remarkable creature herself. She and her family lived in Lyme Regis on the Jurassic coast where many fossils from different era have been found, and are still being found. Mary, born in 1799, learned from her father, a carpenter and cabinet-maker, how to spot specimens which could be sold to tourists to contribute to the poor family’s income. Mary became famous and discovered many amazing specimens, some of them huge, which had never been seen before but it is only in recent times that she has been properly credited with her discoveries.

The book is written in a first person  from two narrators, Mary herself and another real person, Elizabeth Philpot. Elizabeth and her sisters also lived in Lyme but came from a very different class from Mary, however they were united by their interest and fascination in palaeontology. In some books this swapping of narrators can be irritating, but Chevalier has caught their ‘voices’ just perfectly, subtly indicating the difference in class and education without exaggeration or being condescending to Mary.

This is the story not just of fossil hunting but the development of the relationship between the two women, even though Elizabeth was twenty years older than Mary. It explores the class system and how it wasn’t just Mary who suffered by being of the wrong class, Elizabeth and her sisters were also stuck painfully in the wrong part of society as it was then. The book also deals with the position of women, and even educated Miss Philpot was not given credit for discoveries she made and was excluded from debate and discussion because of her gender. This is woven into another thread, that of the acceptance of scientific evidence rather than adhering to the stories in the Bible. Creationism was being challenged before Darwin, before his proposition of the Origin of the Species. Chevalier has explained these debates (and prejudices) so clearly that it becomes quite exciting to see whether science and sense will override ignorance.

The story is so clearly and cleverly told, the descriptions so vivid, I was completely engrossed and carried along by it. The characters, though partially imagined, were so vivid and real, so believable that we in the book club all really cared what happened and how the difficulties between Mary and Elizabeth were played out and resolved.

Here is a link to Chevalier’s site – to give you a flavour!


My featured image isn’t of a fossil hunter, but an archaeologist looking not for fossils but evidence of an Anglo-Saxon church!

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