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Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier

This is the story of two women in the early 1800s – fossil hunters who played an important part in the beginnings of the evolutionary debate.

Elizabeth Philpott and her younger sisters have to move after their brother marries; not being able to afford to live in Brighton, they choose Lyme Regis where the youngest sister Margaret can shine in society there – as, in the novels of Jane Austen, marriage is a high priority for them. Already living in Lyme, young Mary Anning earns a living collecting fossils and selling these curiosities, or ‘curies’ as they are known, to visitors to the town; she has a real feel for the fossils. But when her father dies leaving them in debt, the pressure is on the family to make ends meet.

Elizabeth meets Mary out on the beach, and the two strike up a friendship despite being of different classes and ages, and they collect fossils together. Elizabeth is an educated woman with an interest in natural sciences, and is following new developments in what will become palaeontology, and is really beginning to question to creation myth – surely God can’t have put fossils in the rocks as a test of faith as the local vicar believes – the fossils must be creatures that have become extinct. Over the next few years, interest in fossils increases hugely. After Mary discovers the skeleton of a ‘crocodile’ (actually an ichthyosaurus) more collectors come to Lyme and one in particular, Colonel Birch, takes a big interest in Mary – and she to him leading to a falling out between Mary and Elizabeth who thinks he’s taking her for a ride…

Once again, Chevalier brings history to life – most of the characters within existed. This well-researched novel, coming as it does during the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s The Origin of Species, is a treat from start to finish. I enjoyed all the explanations of the fossils – as Mary and Elizabeth self-educate on the subject, we benefit from that too. Told mostly in alternating voices between Mary and Elizabeth, it is a gentle tale, but not without its moments of drama. Although it considers all the Austenish concerns of friendship, marriage, manners and social mobility, the main thrust is that of women trying to be accepted in the man’s world. Some of the Regency men may have been dinosaurs, but there were enough enlightened ones to recognise the womens’ contributions and ultimately this story celebrates their success.

I think it’s my favourite of her novels so far. There’s something fascinating about fossils – they’re great in museums, but even better when you find them yourself. I’ve had a go out on the beach at Charmouth near Lyme, resulting in a little treasure box of ammonite and belemnite fragments. By the way, the tongue-twister “She sells sea shells by the sea shore” is said to be about Mary Anning, and you can see her big ichthyosaur find at the Natural History Museum in London (see below); Elizabeth Philpott’s fossil collection is kept in the University Museum at Oxford.

(Book supplied by the Amazon Vine programme, Ichthyosaur photo Niki Odolphie via Wikipedia).

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