Tracy Chevalier’s novel Remarkable Creatures is not entirely fictional. The novel tells the story of two women living in Lyme Regis, a small coastal town in England. Miss Elizabeth Philpot meets Mary Anning when Mary is still a young girl and Miss Elizabeth has just resigned herself to spinsterhood. The two share an interest in collecting fossils, called “curiosities” or “curies,” on the beaches surrounding Lyme Regis. Mary collects them to sell them to tourists, while Miss Elizabeth keeps them for her personal collection. The two become close, spending their days combing the beaches together.
Later in the book, Mary uncovers a fossil much larger than anything they’ve seen before. She, and the rest of the people in town, call it a crocodile, but it’s immediately obvious to Miss Elizabeth that it’s no crocodile. As Mary works on extracting and polishing up the creature, she and Miss Elizabeth struggle with their belief that the crocodile is a creature that no longer exists on earth. It’s an idea that goes completely against their religious beliefs, but they are both puzzled by the “curies” they find on the beach, skeletons which don’t appear to belong to any animal they knew of.
Remarkable Creatures is a combination of adventure novel, comedy of manners, and scientific journal. As the two women navigate the steps following finding a monster–notifying the scientists who may want to purchase it, negotiating a reasonable price, hosting those scientists in Lyme Regis to see where the specimen came from–they struggle to find their place in the male-dominated world of science. At one point, Elizabeth sneaks away to London to attend a meeting at which a scientist will present Mary’s first plesiosaur to the London Geology Society. Because women are not allowed in the building, she asks her nephew to sneak her in so that she can squat on a landing and listen to the men speak. Constantly gossiped about, Mary returns home each day with dirty hands, hem of her dress muddy, after a day of braving dangerous landslips to collect fossils. She (or Miss Elizabeth) never married or gained much social standing in Lyme Regis, but their contributions have have proved much more lasting.
Tracy Chevalier’s novel is, in fact, based on two real women, Elizabeth Philpot and Mary Anning. Mary discovered extremely important “monsters” over the course of her short life in Lyme Regis, all of which were sold to scientists in England and France, and were not immediately attributed to her. Today, the ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs that Mary Anning found on the beaches are on display in various museums including the Natural History Museum in London and the Palaeontology Gallery of the Musee National Histiore Naturelle in Paris. Interestingly, Mary also discovered the first complete pterodactyl later in her life. She died at forty-seven, still living in Lyme Regis, collecting fossils of large prehistoric animals. It wasn’t until later in her life that she was recognized in scientific books, and then only as a brief mention. Elizabeth outlived Mary, and her collection of fossilized fish and other creatures are on display today at the Oxford University of Natural History.
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20. Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier