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Buried treasure

Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier

Philip Strange 10 October 2010

www.lablit.com/article/625

Discarded: female fossil scientists got no credit

Anning and Philpot are long dead, so the novelist is free to take whatever liberties she likes. But how should we react to fictionalised accounts of real people?

Some years ago, my daughter brought a book home from the library and demanded I read it to her: Fossil Girl by Catherine Brighton, a children’s version of the story of the 19th century fossil hunter, Mary Anning. The story stayed with me and when I heard about Tracy Chevalier’s novel Remarkable Creatures, also about Mary Anning, I put it on my “to read” list for the summer holidays.

Remarkable Creaturesis a fictionalised account of the intertwined lives of Mary Anning and her friend Elizabeth Philpot. Both women made major contributions to science so this is ‘lab lit’ in its purist sense. Mary Anning was born in Lyme Regis in 1799 and learned from her father how to collect fossils from the surrounding cliffs. When she was about 12 years old, she and her brother discovered a large fossil which turned out to be the first example of an Ichthyosaur, a previously undescribed but now extinct creature. Despite having little or no formal education and coming from a poor working-class family, she went on to become a leading expert on fossils and discovered several other fossilised skeletons from different creatures, all now extinct. She was well respected by the leading geologists of the time who sought her out in Lyme and befriended her. Despite this friendship, these men took the fossils she found to further their own reputations but gave her little or no credit. As a woman and without formal education, she was never able to assume her rightful place in the scientific hierarchy.

Elizabeth Philpot, 19 years older than Mary Anning, was one of three unmarried sisters who moved to Lyme from London in about 1805. The sisters were from an educated middle class family and their move to Lyme provided a lifestyle more affordable to their brother who had to support them. The Philpots also collected fossils and amassed a fine collection of fossilised fish, now in the Oxford Natural History Museum. Elizabeth Philpot and Mary Anning became friends across the social divide and often went out together searching for fossils.

Remarkable Creatures is unashamedly a novel and Chevalier imagines how the two women’s lives might have been. Chevalier writes well about the contributions the two women made to science. She is, however, keen to imagine what the other aspects of their lives might have been like. She fleshes out personalities for the two heroines, stressing their social and financial differences and showing how they were both outsiders but in different ways. She also invents a love interest that leads to a schism separating the women for several years. Chevalier provides us with a good story but the writing is rather flat and would have been improved with some humour. She also does little to create the atmosphere of life in Lyme in the early 1800’s. Mary is made to speak with a slightly lower class accent in Chevalier’s account whereas I would have expected her to speak a strong Dorset dialect. A little more “Ooh Arr” might have brought life to the writing and emphasised the social and educational divide that Mary successfully bridged.

The novel ends with the happy reconciliation of the two women after their rift. This neglects an important part of the story of Mary Anning. In her later years she made no big discoveries and interest in fossils had declined. In 1845, she found she was suffering from breast cancer, and died aged 47, her pain relieved by laudanum. These events must have provided great emotional turmoil for the two friends and it seems surprising to have omitted them from the novel.

Anning and Philpot are long dead so the novelist is free to take whatever liberties she likes with their story. But how should we react to fictionalised accounts of real people? On the one hand, Mary Anning is not widely known so this book will spread the word about Mary Anning and her achievements, which is a good thing. I worry, however, that readers will think they have read a true account of her life and this book is not that. In fact we know very little in detail about what Mary Anning’s life was really like and I doubt if it helps establish her significance by providing a fictional account with many imagined events. As I read the book, eventually I became unsure whether I was reading fact or fiction: this was very distracting.

One of the more outrageous fictions in the book is the love interest. This concerns Lt Colonel Birch, a fossil collector described by some as a philanthropist. Mary helped him assemble a fine collection of fossils and in 1820 he sold the collection in a much-heralded auction in London, giving the proceeds to the impoverished Annings. This led to some speculation about a relationship, but no evidence exists. In Chevalier’s story, Mary falls in love with Birch (he 52, she 21) but because of their social differences this is hopeless. Despite this, Mary decides that Birch will be her 21st birthday present. The day of her birthday, Birch duly arrives on horseback to carry her away. Their tryst results in the crushing of Mary’s bonnet – Thomas Hardy meets Mills and Boon. (A second fictionalised account of the life of Mary Anning appeared earlier this year from Winnipeg-based author Joan Thomas, entitled Curiosity. The book is not available in the UK yet but I understand Thomas uses a different male love interest.)

Fictional affairs aside, we must focus on the true significance of Mary Anning. She was the greatest fossil hunter ever known and possessed a unique skill and persistence in finding fossils together with the intelligence to learn about the underlying science. She discovered several new species based on fossils including three complete Ichthyosaurs, two Plesiosaurs, a Pterodactyl and the fossil fish Squaloraja. These were major discoveries, mostly made before she was 30. A scientist nowadays who exhibited such precocity would be well-known and showered with honours.

Her discoveries also shook the foundations of the scientific and religious establishment of the time. At the beginning of the 19th century, the prevailing view of the creation of the world was as described in Genesis with calculations suggesting that the world was only a few thousand years. The discovery of creatures that had existed but were now extinct challenged the idea that the living world was simply a replica of the world God had created. Together with discoveries in geology, these observations hinted at events occurring millions of years rather than thousands of years ago. At the very least a literal reading of the Bible began to seem inappropriate and this was deeply unsettling for some. Anning’s discoveries also contributed to the changes in thinking that paved the way for Darwin to propose his theories about evolution by natural selection.