27 January 2016
Remarkable Creatures, by Tracy Chevalier
Posted by Callan Bentley
I’ve been doing some reading lately to get some foundational ideas established in my mind for my upcoming summer trip to Europe. This trip has three goals: (1) to gather key digital imagery (GigaPans, 360° photospheres, video) for curriculum to teach geoscience concepts and give students everywhere with particularly instructive geology in Iceland, Ireland, the UK, France, and Spain, (2) to scout out locations and logistics for a Summer 2017 NOVA field course in the UK and Ireland, and (3) to have a good time with my family, who will be coming with me.
One of the locations I’ve been keen to visit since forever is the village of Lyme Regis, on the coast of Dorset, in England. It was there that Mary Anning discovered the first icthyosaurs and plesiosaurs, and there are ammonites galore, as well. I think it would be great fun to hunt for fossils along those same beaches. So, to get into the mood, I recently listened to the audiobook version of Tracy Cevalier’s Remarkable Creatures, which tells Anning’s story in a fictionalized way that seems to be fairly solidly grounded in reality. The structure of the novel is based on Anning’s relationship with Elizabeth Philpot, a London transplant to Lyme and an avid fossilist as well. The two women trade off the role of narration in subsequent chapters, and tell their own personal stories as well as the larger scientific and societal tale of the discovery of species which had no counterpart in the modern world. Anning was “working class” and Philpot was derived from high society, and so their class differences are an important aspect of the tale. Henry de la Beche and Charles Lyell have cameos, and Cuvier’s shadow looms over their finds as arbiter of what’s anatomically legitimate, but William Buckland plays a big role, and William Conybeare serves as a bit of an antagonist.
It’s an excellent yarn, and I feel like I have more of an intuitive grasp of the setting and the sequence of events during Anning’s early life as a result of reading it. I enjoyed Remarkable Creatures, and recommend it to you.
Another nice take on fossil hunting is ‘The Dinosaur Hunters’ by Deborah Cadbury (Fourth Estate, London, 2001) which covers the rivalry between Mantell and Owen. Mary Anning figures in this story too.