At the Water's Edge with 'Remarkable Creatures'

by Diane Leach

4 November 2010

Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot have nothing in common, save their unladylike love of fossils.
cover art

Remarkable Creatures

Tracy Chevalier

(Plume Books)
US: Oct 2010

Remarkable Creatures is the story of the unlikely friendship between two Englishwomen of very different backgrounds. 

Mary Anning, born in Lyme Regis, England, is a gifted locator of “curies”, fossils strewn along the water’s edge and trapped within the Blue Lias cliffs of her seaside hometown. Poor and uneducated, she is an intelligent young woman with “they eye”: an uncanny ability to spot “ammos”, “bellies”, and “verteberries” where others see only muddy sand and perilously sliding cliffs. 

She sells her finds outside her father’s cabinetmaking shop. The family is brutally poor, a situation that only worsens when her father dies, leaving the Annings dependent on Mary’s fossil finds and their sales. Mary is determined to keep coal in the hearth and potatoes on the table. She is also passionate about her “monsters”, including the “crocs”, or crocodiles she finds in the Lias cliffs. Only these monsters are not crocodiles. Indeed, these fossils are beasts nobody has ever seen before, and soon interested scientists are following the teenaged Mary about as she extracts these fascinating creatures. 

These monsters are quite unsettling, for they upset conventional religious notions of God’s creation and the Biblical story of the world’s creation. Where does extinction fit into God’s plan? If the world wasn’t created in seven days, how did these animals come to be, live, and die, leaving their fossilized remains to be found by a near illiterate young girl?

Elizabeth Philpot, 25, is a spinster living with her sisters Louise and Margaret in genteel poverty. Originally from London, the women have moved to Lyme Regis to economize after the deaths of their parents and the realization that marriage is not in the offing. The novel is set in Victorian England, and spinsterhood is considered a hardship, though Elizabeth is not all that disappointed at remaining unmarried. Educated, sharply intelligent, possessed of a tart mien, she finds Lyme Regis quite suitable, for she may pursue her great passion: hunting fish fossils, a most unladylike occupation she could never pursue in London. 

The two meet when Elizabeth seeks the services of Mary’s father for the construction of a display cabinet for her growing collection. At the time, Mary is barely adolescent, but soon the two are spending much of their time together on the beach. Mary finds what she thinks is a “croc”, in reality the first intact ichthyosaur. She will later locate an intact pterodactyl, another ichthyosaurus, and a sqauloraja, an animal between a shark and a ray.

Like most of Tracy Chevalier’s work, Remarkable Creatures is based on fact. Both Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot were real women. They were friends, despite a 20-year age difference, and Mary was as gifted at finding fossils as her fictional alter ego. In the postscript, Chevalier readily admits the novel is a mix of fact and fiction, but the class consciousness and chauvinism of the era are painfully indisputable. Male scientists often take credit for Mary’s work; her gender forbids her joining the London Geographical Society. 

Yet Mary has little time for indignance; her family is too poor. Anger is a luxury for the better-heeled, in this case in the form of Elizabeth, who goes to great lengths to defend her young friend and ensure she is credited for her work. As the years pass and she spends less time amidst London society, Elizabeth’s tongue sharpens. So does her manner. The fingerless, filthy gloves and muddy fingernails of the fossil hunter do not upset her. Nor do her ruined, mud-encrusted boots. 

The problem is the men. Men appear and follow Mary about, riding her coattails, so to speak. As this provides income, Mary tolerates it. Elizabeth is less patient, particularly with the well-meaning yet clueless William Buckland, an Oxford geologist whose avid interest in nature leaves him oblivious to propriety. Though he is entirely well-behaved with the now-maturing Mary, wanting only to find and discuss fossils, the citizens of Lyme Regis are scandalized by this young woman out alone on the beach with a man. 

Elizabeth, for her part, is irritated by Buckland’s self-absorption. It isn’t until Mary’s mother, the surprisingly canny Molly, enters the picture, that Buckland is forced to acknowledge the Victorian norm of an escort. The results are disastrous. 

Chevalier, best known for her book, Girl with a Pearl Earring, is equally excellent here. She is deft at setting, character, place—we see the dresses and shoes, the turbans and feathers, the “servant problem”, here personified by the ever-miffed Bessy. She is at her finest in delineating Mary and Elizabeth, whose voices play counterpoint. Elizabeth possesses proper elocution and informs the reader that she judges character by what a person leads with—hands, hair, or, in Mary’s case, intense dark eyes. She is remorseless about her own plainness,  explaining she is not only bony, but leads by her prominent jaw. She is in fact remorseless about everything, a woman who loathes the female weakness expected of the era. 

Mary, who learns to read and write comparatively late in life, will never abandon her vocabulary for her “monsters”, even as she learns their real names. Vertebra, found aplenty at low tide, are “verteberries”, belemites are “bellies”, ammonites “ammos”. Her most important find is dubbed an “ichie”,  Her speech is colloquial, often employing “were” for “was”, here describing a moment when she is arguing with her dear friend:

“It were like she was waiting for a gust of wind to blow itself out….I learned something else that evening, which come to me afterwards.”

Once again, men are the trouble, here in the person of one Colonel Birch. About 50-years-old, he is handsome and gallant, with eyes only for the now teenaged Mary. The young woman falls in love. Rather than spoil the plot, let me only say that Birch represents a turning point in both women’s lives.

Chevalier brings a fine researcher’s mind to her work, be it Vermeer, Blake, or the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries from the book of the same name. She describes the dirty, dangerous, difficult work of fossil hunting and those obsessed by it. Fossils are best found in cold, wet weather, while the tide is out and the cliffs loosened and muddy. To hunt fossils is to be cold, wet, and if one is not careful, caught by incoming tides, or worse, killed in a landslide. 

The repression of these talented women and the posthumous recognition of their gifts is as painful as their discoveries are exhilarating. The real Mary Anning worked hard her entire life, barely scrabbling out a living, and died young. Elizabeth Philpot had the dubious fortune of outliving not only Mary but her sisters.

Chevalier tells us their fossils may still be seen at the Oxford Museum of Natural History and the Philpot Museum in Lyme Regis.  For those of us unable to undertake this journey, there is consolation in Chevalier’s fine novel, and in the recognition that many of us—at least in some parts of the world—no longer suffer the repressions these women endured.

Remarkable Creatures


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