Tuesday, March 9, 2010

When Reptiles roamed England ...

Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier (Penguin Group, 2010) 312 pages

This is a gentle and loving account of the relationship between two intriguing women involved in an unusual pursuit in the early 19th c. - fossil hunting. Elizabeth Philpot (1780 – 1857), an impoverished gentlewoman and amateur paleontologist, and Mary Anning (1799 -1847), a working class girl with a talent for discovering rare and important fossils.

The two unlikely heroines of this real life tale collected fossils from the cliffs around Lyme Regis in Dorset located on the southern English coast. The chapters alternate between Elizabeth's more "refined" voice and that of the hardscrabble and quick-witted Mary.

It is hard to fathom today how revolutionary the discovery of these fossils were. The supposed age of the new discovered fossils contradicted established notions of the earth's age and the creation of all life on the planet. It directly contradicted a literal interpretation of the Bible which states that God created the world in six days. This is also the basis of a new film about Darwin called Creation which I saw at TIFF last year.

Mary Anning's life is clearly destined to be something special for we learn in the opening chapter that she was struck by lightening at the age of fifteen months. While those around her perished, she survived. It was rumored that this created special attributes in Mary.

The three Philpot sisters, Elizabeth, Mary and Margaret, are sent to live in Lyme Regis when their brother marries (shades of Elinor and Marianne's fate in Sense of Sensiiblity here). The two eldest Philpot sisters assume that they will never marry as they have neither the financial means nor the looks to attract husbands. This fate is bothersome to Elizabeth but it does not impede her from beginning a lifelong pursuit of fossils while in Lyme.

Mary, nineteen years Elizabeth's junior, is a natural explorer who uncovers many fossils upon the beach and sells them in her parents' shop. This becomes a more acute situation when her father Richard Anning, a cabinet maker who initiated this interest in her, dies.

Mary Anning's brother Joseph finds the remains of an mysterious 18 foot creature which they dub a "crocodile" in a cliff face (later identified as a first complete specimen of an ichthyosaur (similar sample of fossil shown left). The local mucky mucky Lord Henry Hoste Henley purchases it for a pittance ... first the skull which is unearthed separately, then the body. Because a storm had covered the cliff face with debris where it was initially found, Mary must wait two years to unearth the intact body.

Chevalier underlines in a subtle, non-strident manner the difficulties the two women had in being taken seriously. When Lord Henley learns of their discovery he immediately tries to lay claim to the fossil and sells it to a museum attributing the discovery to himself. Mary's fossils, which are rare and important finds, are at times attributed to others (always men) and, it would appear, vastly undervalued by buyers.

Her life changes somewhat when the eminently respectable William Buckland, an English geologist & paleontologist, enters her life. His involvement gives her stature and respectability even as it loosens the clucking tongues in Lyme about the unsuitability of Mary traveling about with Buckland. This is considered such a scandal that Buckland procures a chaperone for them so they might fossil hunt together. When a landslip (where a portion of the cliff face collapses) permanently injures the chaperone Fanny Miller, a former friend of Mary's, "vague impressions hardened into harsh opinions".

Mary is soon sought after for her discovery prowess. A Colonel Thomas James Birch soon come calling. He courts Mary until she discovers, for him, another ichthyosaur, and then promptly sails away with his find. When Elizabeth angrily confronts Colonel Birch he soon sells his fossil collection and gives the proceeds to Mary's family which, despite her success, barely keeps the family afloat financially.

Later we learn that Birch has made overtures that turn the girl's head ... stolen kisses, a locket with his hair which Mary treasures. The class differences would make it impossible for them to marry (if that's what Birch was after which is suspect). She is poor and he is not much better off though of a higher class. Elizabeth is flesh and blood enough to be jealous of this relationship and to confront both, at different times, about it. For an alternative version of this relationship, and possibly more accurate historical take, please read here.

Unexpectedly Colonel Birch returns on Mary's birthday and he acknowledges that they cannot marry. They wander off alone together and the conclusion of that brief tryst is unclear. At the end of the chapter Mary says, "I lay back down and looked at the stars until I had to close my eyes".

When Mary's discoveries are challenged by a leading authority in the field, Elizabeth feels compelled to travel to London to defend her friend even though they have not spoken for years after their dispute over Colonel Birch. Mary is being accused of being a forger, of trying to piece together two separate remains to manufacture some new creature and enhance her reputation.

The denouement is as gentle and graceful as the rest of the book. Mary is vindicated and her expertise is finally recognized. The two women are reconciled. This piece of historical fiction is not a page turner but I do respect that Chevalier has not painted the lives of these women as not being lead without a cost to their emotional lives. They feel the price of being outside of the maintream. Being respected female pioneers in their field does not completely compensate for the lack of love and passion in one's life. Being too poor, too plain or too "odd" to attract a husband is not something easily forgotten or ignored.

Two devices in the novel irked me: Chevalier describes her characters as leading with a certain body parts (eyes, nose, hair, etc ...). It becomes tedious and not particularly enlightening. Secondly, at certain points when Mary is filled with clarity about a situation she is said to be filled with lightening. This feels too heavy-handed a metaphor.

Tiny, delicate echoes of Jane Austen are pleasingly evident here (I am a committed Jane-ophile, hence my attraction to this historical period!) ... especially when Elizabeth Philpot is found upon the beach with a soiled dress and dirty gloves which she is sure has repulsed her sister Margaret's potential suitor just as Lizzie Bennett's soiled dress horrified the Bingham sisters in Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth Philpot pointedly admonishes Margaret in the novel that life was "not a Jane Austen novel" where all ends amicably in marriage. Indeed it does not. In the post-script, Chevalier mentions that Austen frequented the same Assembly Rooms noted in the novel and it is recorded that she was in contact with Richard Anning, Mary's father, who was a cabinet maker for a quote but, alas, he was too expensive!

I enjoyed these two women, creatures as remarkable as the treasures they found.


Cheryl said...

Got this book and started it today.
Thanks for the kind words. It has been a rough two weeks.

I still think I need to go to Paris and eat some butter - where is Julia when I need her???

Michelle said...

Cheryl, I wish I could express to you my feelings for your loss but this forum is so inadequate. We have just lost a family relation too (I came from the funeral today). Everyone is feeling shaky and upset so I can only imagine what you are experiencing. Stay strong. Keep up the lovely work on your writing and blog. I look forward to reading more in the future.

Cheryl said...

I had the same two irks, but it was sweet and I think I will give this book to my mom for mother's day.