It might sound childish – but I wanted some pictures when I was reading Remarkable Creatures! I wanted to see what the fossil finds looked like and wished there were some small line drawings, like the pictures often seen in novels for children. There’s a picture gallery at Tracy Chevalier’s website, but I wanted to see them as I read the book, not have to look them up afterwards.
I was predisposed to like this book. I became interested in fossils myself when I was doing the science component of my teacher training: we went fossicking in slate shards in the Victorian Goldfields; I learned to identify and label my finds; and I started a rock collection. I would still have it except I enthused one student too much, and he stole it. All of it. I had to start again.
So now most of my fossils are purchases, not treasures I split from rock myself. There is not the same frisson from the memory of carefully prising the rock apart and discovering the treasure within. On the other hand my new collection is more diverse and includes many more specimens from around the world. I get a very satisfying thrill out of watching children’s faces when tell them that the trilobite they are holding in their hands is 500 million years old. (It’s Cambrian).
Tracy Chevalier is the bestselling author who made art history popular with Girl with a Pearl Earring (1999) and The Lady and the Unicorn (2003) both of which I enjoyed very much. Her other historical fiction includes her first novel The Virgin Blue (1997), Falling Angels (2001) and Burning Bright (2007). Her books are thoroughly researched and her plots make interesting reading, not least because she writes about women of the past with a modern sensibility, that is, she shows intelligent, interesting women constrained by the mores of the time, but she’s not heavy-handed about it.
So it is with this book. It’s the story of Mary Anning, who reshaped the world of palaeontology, and her (mostly) friendly rival Elizabeth Philpot. What began as an eccentric hobby for an unmarriageable spinster in reduced circumstances became a passion when Elizabeth met Mary, the then illiterate child of a cabinet-maker in Lyme. Mary knew more about fossils than she did, even though Elizabeth had some access to reference books, but it was Elizabeth who had the connections which eventually made Mary’s name and reputation as a palaeontologist. To quote Wikipiedia:
Her discoveries included the first ichthyosaur skeleton to be correctly identified, which she and her brother Joseph found when she was just twelve years old, the first two plesiosaur skeletons ever found, the first pterosaur skeleton located outside Germany, and some important fish fossils. Her observations played a key role in the discovery that belemnite fossils contained fossilised ink sacs, and that coprolites, known as bezoar stones at the time, were fossilised faeces.
It’s chastening to read just how difficult it was for women to be taken seriously in those days. Elizabeth and Mary could not work alongside male fossil hunters without damage to their reputations; and their work was appropriated by men either unscrupulous or merely thoughtless. Elizabeth could not join the Geological Society, and Mary was even further disadvantaged by her class. It must have been incredibly frustrating for highly intelligent women like this to be excluded from the exciting world of the Enlightenment and to be dismissed as irrelevant.
Author: Tracy Chevalier
Title: Remarkable Creatures
Publisher: Harper Collins, 2009
Source: Personal library, purchased at Benn’s Books Bentleigh $27.99