When Elizabeth Philpot, a middle class spinster, met Mary Anning, a poor girl who sells fossils to tourists, she had no idea the influence Mary would have upon her life. Elizabeth encourages Mary to learn to read and educate herself, while Mary shows her how to find the best fossils on the shores of Lyme Regis. The townspeople are suspicious of their relationship. A woman of Elizabeth's station should not be spending time digging in the mud with a girl like Mary, an odd girl to start with.
Then something incredible happens. Mary finds the fossil of a creature, a big creature, an animal no one has ever seen in Lyme Regis. Mary calls it a 'croc' but from the books she's seen, it doesn't really resemble a croc. Looking at it gives her a funny feeling, like the world is much more mysterious than she's imagined. Men of science become interested in Mary's find. They're quick to take what she finds and claim it for their own.
Elizabeth doesn't like how these men view Mary. She fears they will take advantage of her. She's also a little jealous. How did this uneducated girl discover something so important? Not that it matters to the scientists. Mary is only the hunter, an unimportant cog in the machine. And a woman to boot. Mary doesn't get to see where her discoveries end up or hear the discussions involving them, discussions that will change how people think of how the world began. She just keeps on collecting her 'curies' and selling them by the seashore.
Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier is a fictional account of two real women in the early 19th century: Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot. They were very different women, separated by class and age but drawn together by a common interest. They collected for different reasons as well. Mary had to collect fossils and sell them to feed her family; Elizabeth collected as a hobby. Their differences weren't easy to overcome and jealousies flared up between them. Still, Elizabeth was Mary's champion. She could speak for her to people Mary couldn't.
The story alternates between the two women, told in first person. Each have a distinctive voice. Elizabeth is forthright and practical. Mary is more of a dreamer and romantic despite her rough life. The secondary characters as seen through Elizabeth and Mary's eyes are mostly strong women, like Molly Anning, and a romantic interest to shake things up a bit. It's a slowly told story but a fascinating slice of little known history.
Thank you to Penguin Canada for sending me this review copy.