On the Shelf: Remarkable Creatures

Victoria here. I picked up the latest Tracy Chevalier novel with a bit of trepidation. Again she was working in my period.  I liked her earlier works until it came to Burning Bright, a novel about poet William Blake–which didn’t work for me.

However, I truly enjoyed Remarkable Creatures, a story set in Lyme, and based on the life of Mary Anning, the woman who discovered many interesting fossils and played a role in the developing science of biology as well as in the roots of the theories of Darwin.  Elizabeth Philpot, a collector of fossils, and Mary became friends and colleagues. Neither female could break out of the restrictions placed on women in those days, nor could they totally overcome class differences in their situations. 

The novel is set in the pre-Darwin period of the early 19th century. However, fossils were well known and raised many questions for those trying to reconcile the fact that some living things had become extinct, a concept which clashed with conventional Christian interpretations of the creation of the world as told in Exodus.

Mary Annning and Elizabeth Philpot were real people and their heritage is honored today in their home town of Lyme Regis on the southern coast of England in Dorset. The local museum in Lyme is known as the Philpot Museum and contains more about the lives of local fossil hunters and how they contributed to the development of the knowledge of evolution.

Right, part of the fossil beaches near Lyme. Popular today with fossil hunters, the beach gives up new finds frequently.  Some make their living by guiding hunters to potential sites.
Lyme Regis is also the setting for several well known scenes in other novels.  Jane Austen set her famous stair-jumping silliness on the Cobb at Lyme in Persuasion. John Fowles in The French Lieutenant’s Woman used Lyme as a dramatic background.
Tracy Chevalier’s most famous novel is probably The Girl with the Pearl Earring which brought her great fame and was made into a film starring Colin Firth as the artist Vermeer and Scarlett Johansson. Other novels included The Virgin Blue, Falling Angels, The Lady and the Unicorn, and Burning Bright.      Happy reading!

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