I vaguely remember learning of Mary Anning when Google celebrated the 215th anniversary of her birth with a special doodle. But the little that I read didn’t interest me enough to read more.
By the time I came across Tracy Chevalier’s novel Remarkable Creatures in the library recently, I had forgotten whatever little I knew of Anning. I wasn’t sure how much of the novel was based on fact, but it seemed interesting enough to check out.
I was fascinated by the story, told in alternating chapters from the viewpoints of Mary Anning herself and Elizabeth Philpot, a woman of somewhat higher social class who became friends with Mary due to their mutual interest in fossils.
It’s hard to imagine now what it was like when people first found these fossils of creatures long extinct. Today people worry about mankind causing other species to become extinct, but then the idea of extinction provoked concern for very different reasons.
The very idea that species of animals might have ceased to exist was rejected out of hand by many people as a violation of religious dogma. It suggested either that God had made mistakes and decided to get rid of some of the animals He had created, or else that He was not intimately concerned with His creation and had allowed through inattention some species to die off.
There are religious objections today to the use of fossils to support evolution, but I don’t remember hearing at even the most fundamentalist churches I attended any objections to the idea of extinction itself. I don’t remember if it ever even came up, but if it did, I’m sure it was understood as an aspect of this being a fallen world.
As a story, the books moves slowly, and I didn’t care a great deal for Elizabeth as a character. I also could have done without the forced insertion of romantic elements into the story, which as far as I can tell were purely Chevalier’s invention.
But I found the history and the science quite interesting, as well as realizing just how remarkable Mary Anning was, to have made the scientific discoveries she did in an era when both her low social class and her gender caused many men of science to dismiss her, other than as a useful pair of hands to dig up bones for them.
Several reader reviews indicated that this novel is not as good as others Chevalier has written. This one was good enough, I think, that I will definitely have to try some of those.