Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier

Photo from the Natural History Museum at South Kensington website.

Remarkable Creatures tells the embellished tale of the real-life people Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot. Anning was a famous paleontologist, fossil collector, and fossil dealer from Lyme Regis, England. Living from 1799 to 1847, Anning was a surprising expert in her field at a time when women were not allowed to engage in scientific pursuits. She fought stigma and the natural elements in order to discover and catalog her fossil finds along the now-famous “Jurrasic Coast.”

Her most famous discoveries include the Plesiosaurus, Ichthyosaurus, and Pterodactyl.

Philpot was also a paleontologist, though never reached the same level of recognition or discovery. She specialized in fish fossils.

Photo from the Natural History Museum at South Kensington website.

Anning and Philpot became close friends (with some ups and downs along the way) despite the age difference of about 20 years. Drawn together by a love of paleontology, they spent countless hours hunting fossils together along the coast.

I really enjoyed Tracy Chevalier’s take on these women’s stories. She mentions she must invent some detail and alter the timeline a bit to make the true-story readable as a novel. Of course, this is a perfectly common and acceptable practice among historical fiction writers.

Chevalier keeps a moderate pace and alternates narrators between Anning and Philpot. The education and social standing of the two women become apparent in their language and thought processes, as well as the way they view themselves within society. Very interesting contrast because they essentially want the same things (paleontology and respect) yet they go about it in different ways.

Anning is driven first by a need to support her family financially. Her father is deceased and her mother and older brother cannot support them alone. She is generally uneducated and self-taught in all things science.

Philpot is a spinster living with three of her sisters in relative comfort. She has a need for a hobby and wants a way to contribute.

This women-driven story was refreshing and rekindled my own love of fossils and extinct creatures. Anning and Philpot were inspiring in their time and remain so nearly 200 years later. I was a bit frustrated with the sexism present in the early 1800s in England. Though not surprising, it was annoying.

“I have never hated being a lady and yet at the same time hated men as much as I did during those minutes alone on the London streets.”

-Elizabeth Philpot in Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures

Some of the main conflicts occur when Philpot stands up to the men dominating the paleontology field. She challenges the man who so easily takes Anning’s work for granted. It is heart-breaking to watch talented women go unrecognized, but there is a great sense of pride when their accomplishments are now seen for their worth.

I could have done with less of Philpot’s diverging stories about trips to London and the inner workings of her middle-class life in England. It was a bit bland compared to the rockslides and massive discoveries brought along from Anning’s story. The contract between the two worlds of these women was nice, but I’m not sure it was necessary to spend so much time on this.

Overall, Chevalier chose a wonderful story to tell and did the characters justice. Anning and Philpot deserve to be recognized for their scientific contributions.

Want to learn more about Paleontology?

Check out these books below to read more!

Terrible Lizard
by Deborah Cadbury

Rating: 4 out of 5.
Wonderful Life
by Stephen Jay Gould

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.
The Dinosaurs Rediscovered
by Michael J. Benton

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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