By Tracy Chevalier
Dutton $26.95, 320 pages
REVIEWED BY CLAIRE HOPLEY
The remarkable creatures highlighted in the title of Tracy Chevalier’s new novel are two early-19th-century English fossil hunters, Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot. Equally, the eponymous creatures are the remarkable animals these two women discovered - all of them extinct. Patrolling the beaches of Lyme Regis, they found, dug up, cleaned and preserved the fossils of prehistoric animals, thus providing the physical evidence that enabled scientists to estimate the age of the earth, to prove that extinction is a fact of biological history and ultimately to show that living forms evolve over time. Their work was literally, as well as metaphorically, ground-breaking.
Born in 1799 in Lyme Regis, Mary Anning developed an unerring instinct for where to find fossils on its unstable cliffs and beaches. When she was still only 12 she found the first-known ichthyosaurus, and sold it for enough money to keep her widowed mother and two brothers from the workhouse. Later, she unearthed the first plesiosaurus and the first pterodactyl. Without formal schooling, she nonetheless learned to read, write and make scientific drawings so she could correspond with the scientists whose work depended on her skills.
Elizabeth Philpot was born into London’s professional class, but moved to Lyme Regis when it became clear that she and her sisters would not marry and therefore must live somewhere less expensive than the metropolis. Learning of the extraordinary fossil remains on the local beaches - now called the Jurassic coast - Elizabeth decided to occupy her spinster days by hunting them, eventually specializing in fish and amassing a fine and scientifically valuable collection.
Mary was her teacher and companion. In return Elizabeth, who was older and more au fait with the ways of the world, helped Mary and her family deal with collectors and scientists, who often underpaid them for their work.
Tracy Chevalier tells the overlapping stories of these two remarkable women in alternating chapters, allowing each woman to speak in her own voice so each appears as she sees herself and also as she sees the other. Not least among the advantages of this narrative structure is that the novel captures the ways these two women of different ages and social classes perceive their world. It also exposes their varying feelings about each other, ranging from admiration to envy, liking to disapproval - always underpinned by respect. Often, they reach different conclusions about events or people.
Through Elizabeth we see how Mary’s need to sell her fossils exposes her to patronizing clients. Through Mary we see Elizabeth as privileged by her class and relative wealth, potentially, though not actually, a dilettante. Who could invent fictional lives as interesting as those of these women? Ms. Chevalier therefore sticks close to the historical record of what they discovered and when. Yet her book is fiction, not biography. As a novelist, she is free to imagine more about them than can be gleaned from her extensive list of primary and secondary historical sources. Most importantly, novels can explore the underpinnings of behavior.
However, rather than exploring what gave these two women the psychological strength to pursue their calling, Ms. Chevalier focuses instead on their social situations - Mary’s need to make a living and Elizabeth’s desire for an occupation - and their emotional lives: both are exercised about men and marriage. As a working-class girl, Mary expects to marry, but realizes that her unusual work sets her apart. When she spends days on the beach alone with male scientists, townspeople question her virtue, further reducing her chances of marrying a local boy.
Yet those same scientists think themselves too superior in class and education to perceive her as a potential wife. Of course, this does not stop her from hoping. Elizabeth, though more astute about the marital requirements of middle-class men, also has hopes. When both hope for the same man, they quarrel. In developing this theme of unrequited love, Ms. Chevalier inevitably raises distinctly modern issues about women’s work and marriages. But did 19th-century working women face the same issues as we do today? Did they have more or less reason to either desire a marriage or to shun it?
“Remarkable Women” suggests that Mary and Elizabeth know the difficulties of marriage. Mary watches her mother lose many children, and struggle under the burden of her husband’s debts. Elizabeth reflects on the benefits of the single life after seeing her younger sister set her cap for a man who would make an appalling husband. Perhaps such women would be gratified by freedom from child-bearing and household cares. Though the pain of unreciprocated love is feelingly described, to understand Mary’s and Elizabeth’s attitudes toward marriage we need more information about 19th-century marriage - more of a back-story - than a first-person narrator can provide.
In other words, the accurate account of Elizabeth and Mary as fossil hunters that powers this novel is slightly blurred by the imaginary description of their rivalry over a man, whereas an exploration of motivation may have sharpened it. Such difficulties in splicing the factual with the fictional are inherent in historical novels. Authors who give too much historical information can freight their books with so much detail that their characters disappear under its weight.
Readers, too, can misjudge, often by making anachronistic assumptions such as the one above: the 21st-century idea that self-sustaining women may not want to marry. Ms. Chevalier has the sleight-of-hand to overcome these problems as Mary and Elizabeth tell their tales of hunting for fossils on the beach, and of thinking about what these strange creatures imply for the history of the earth.
Claire Hopley is a writer and critic in Amherst, Mass.