Before, during, and for some time after I wrote the picture book, Mary Anning and the Sea Dragon (FSG, 1999), I read as much about the fossil-hunter as I could find. Since she grew up in the first decade of the 1800s, one of many children in a poor family on the coast of England, she never learned to read or write very well, and most of what we know about her is hearsay passed down from scientists who bought the fossils she collected. Many of her finds are now displayed in the British Museum of Natural History, but she died in poverty and her grave site is thriftily shared with other family members. I saw it behind a church with ammonites by the stained glass windows. After being in the small town of Lyme Regis just an afternoon, I entered one shop with a reputation: Oh, one shopkeeper said, You must be the lady that cares about our Mary.
I still do, but when I heard of Tracy Chevalier’s recent novel based on her life, Remarkable Creatures, I wondered if it would read like old news to me. It did not. I had a great time reading it by the Maine coast on vacation. Tracy Chevalier’s different interpretations of familiar events usually seemed sensitive and logical. For instance, there’s contraversy about whether then-ten-year-old Mary or her older brother Joseph first spotted the head of the seventeen-foot-long ichthyosaur which started her career. Since I wanted my picture book to be based on this incident, rather than trying to cover the work of her lifetime, I had to make a decision. I went for Mary. It seemed likely that someone would want to give the boy in the family more credit, and even if Joseph did first spot it, she was the one who dedicated her life to searches and excavations. Tracy Chevalier decides that Joseph found it, but the legend-makers claimed Mary did, which was fine with him since he was embarrassed by what he considered Mary’s eccentricity.
Nobody knew how many children were in the family, as the mother had many babies who died very young and the family was too poor to keep a record, which the town didn’t demand. Tracy Chevalier doesn’t keep a tally of babies, but shows them as sickly and squalling, and establishes Mary’s distance from them. I love the voice she gives Mary, a practical girl, solidly working class. The novel alternates her point of view with that of Elizabeth Philpot, who is documented as a well educated woman in town. We see not only her interest in science, but how she grapples with the issues of religion in respect to evolving views of the age of earth. Mary grapples, too. After finding what she first believes to be a crocodile, she reflects: “The croc made me feel funny. While working on it I’d begun going to chapel more regularly, for there were times sitting alone in the workshop with it that I got that hollowed-out feeling of the world holding things I didn’t understand, and I needed comfort.”
The novel isn’t all natural history. We see Elizabeth Philpot living with sisters, all of whom experienced a reversal in fortune, and what becoming spinsters means to each. There’s a Jane Austen like sensitivity to class and romance. A touching chapter focuses on a younger sister’s hope. Elizabeth notes a man must not only care for a woman, but expects something of what her sisters might bring to a marriage. Elizabeth notices what “leads” people – with Mary, it’s her eyes, with some it’s their jaw, hands, legs, but with this courting man, it’s clothing. We feel the chill when he observes the fraying neckline of Elizabeth’s gown.
I'd say Tracy Chevalier, who is perhaps best known for Girl with Pearl Earring, also leads with remarkable eyes. She gives a painter’s attention to the small details that make up history. I came to this novel for Mary and the fossils, but I hope those who care less for them will enjoy this beautiful evocation of the pre-Victorian era in a small seaside town.