Fame, particularly for women, is a strange and unpredictable thing. For centuries, most of the great things done by women, their outstanding talents and amazing discoveries, have been forgotten and later reinvented by men, or claimed from the start by men – and often there’s little chance of this being corrected. Yet sometimes, a story is so outstanding, so surprising, so amazing, that it’s survived to be revived and propagated in an age that seeks out these women’s deeds.
Who would have predicted that Mary Anning, a working-class woman, who spent much of her life only a few pounds from the workhouse, in an obscure little English coastal town, would today be one of the most famous women of the 19th century?
An actress portraying her regularly parades around the Natural History Museum, many of her great fossil discoveries are properly labelled with her details, and now, Tracy Chevalier, well known for her Girl with a Pearl Earring (although personally I prefer The Lady and the Unicorn) has made her the subject of her latest book, Remarkable Creatures.
Like those books, this isn’t great literature, but very good reading – built around finely woven characterisation and dialogue that superbly exercises that cardinal novelist’s rule: show don’t tell.
As in all of her other books, Chevalier has clearly done her research on Anning, and her other central character, Elizabeth Philpott, a middle-class if impoverished spinster who helped Anning, while doing her own fine and important work on fossil fishes. She’s also clearly absorbed the social mores of this stiff, superstitious, class-obsessed age, and the way it was deeply disturbed by the unmistakable message that emerged as the fossil record in the cliff of the coast around Lyme Regis started to be unearthed.
(N.B. This book has not yet been released in the US, but is available in the UK.)
If the structure of their relationship – its great split engendered by what seems like an unlikely obsession with a clearly unsuitable, unlikely man – seems a little forced and artificial, well that’s the price one pays for popularising Anning’s story. (And it has to be said that for all her virtues, Chevaliers always have the whiff of the writing class about them.)
Nevertheless, if you know Anning, you should read this book – it might not teach you anything new, but it will enjoyably put flesh on the bones of her story. If you don’t know Anning, read it for the entertainment value, but also because you’ll then know about a great woman of history, and have acquired the knowledge in an entirely pleasurable manner.