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Friday, March 5, 2010

Remarkable Creatures by Tracey Chevalier

I made the unfortunate mistake of reading Chevalier's "The Virgin Blue" after reading--and loving--"The Lady and the Unicorn". I found "The Virgin Blue" such a letdown that it made me wonder if "Lady" was a fluke. I wanted to read more Chevalier just to make sure, but I was also a bit hesitant to do so because I have such an enormous backlog of books to read. When I saw this novel, though, I decided to give Chevalier a chance and, I'm happy to say, I now think it's "Blue" that was the fluke.

"Remarkable Creatures" is a tale of the remarkable fossils uncovered by a remarkable woman, Mary Anning, who, with the help of a long and remarkable friendship with Elizabeth Philpot, earned the credit she richly deserved. The tale is a fictionalized account of Anning's life and of her friendship with Philpot, and the author does acknowledge that she took some artistic license. Still, I think Chevalier has done a wonderful job of drawing attention to a woman who was, for me, an unknown historical figure. Yet, without Anning, a lot of what we now know about the creation of the world and the extinction of its ancient creatures may never have come to light.

Chevalier does a fine job of giving voice to Mary. Though Mary never received a formal education, Chevalier shows how Mary educated herself. The contrast between Mary's enlightenment and the reluctance of other, more learned people to accept the truths she uncovers is interesting. I found it interesting to speculate on whether some of the most esteemed minds of the time would have arrived at the scientific truths that we now take for granted, had it not been for the integral part Mary played in their uncovering.

Equally interesting to me was the character of Elizabeth Philpot. Though born into a more genteel family, Elizabeth in many ways is even more limited than Mary. Elizabeth's passion for fossils is considered unseemly and the fact that she is a spinster living with two spinster sisters makes her a subject of some scorn among those equal to her in class. I find it inspiring to read tales of women like Elizabeth, who are willing to buck convention for the sake of claiming their own independence.

The friendship between the two women is also nicely written. It is not a friendship that is all butterflies and roses. Just like any real life relationship, the friendship is strained at times by jealousy and strife. Both women learn from the other and, as a result, both women grow as characters. The tale of their friendship gives the novel an extra dimension. It becomes not just a book about the amazing scientific discoveries of an unschooled girl from Lyme, but also a novel about how empowering friendship between women can be, especially in an age as unfriendly to women as that in which Mary and Elizabeth lived. Though, at that time, society encouraged women to surrender everything to men, the lives of Mary and Elizabeth show that it was often only other women upon whom women could depend.

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