Tracey Chevalier and Sandra Gulland introduced me to historical fiction five or so years ago and I have enjoyed everything I’ve read by them (and branched out as well!). So I was very predisposed to enjoy Chevalier’s latest, Remarkable Creatures. And I did. Very much so.
There appear to be two books out this year on the same subject. Curiosity by Joan Thomas is also about Mary Anning, a twelve-year-old English girl and daughter of a cabinet-maker, who discovers the first intact skeleton of a prehistoric creature on the seashore near her home. An uneducated, illiterate young person with an uncanny eye for finding fossils of all kinds, Chevalier’s tale recounts Mary’s friendship with a middle class spinster Elizabeth Philpot. Because of their sex, they were barred from the scientific community, but Philpot’s persistence and (small) investment coupled with Anning’s skill at fossil-hunting yields a scientific partnership that is perhaps unique in the history of this discipline.
Chevalier alternates the voices of Mary and Elizabeth chapter by chapter, giving us a sense of what their friendship may have been like from both points of view. We get a wonderful picture of life in a small English town in the 19th century, and a contrasting view of the excitement of London. The moral codes around being a woman alone on the street, on the beaches, and out in public are interesting to read about, particularly as both women struggle against the restrictions imposed on them by society. An extremely engaging work, this was a difficult novel to put down.