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Tracy Chevalier, Remarkable creatures

December 9, 2010
Bookcover

Cover image courtesy HarperCollins Australia

Most readers experience, I think, periods of reading synchronicity when we read books in close succession that are related in some way. I am experiencing such a period now as Tracy Chevalier‘s Remarkable creatures is the third book I’ve read recently to deal in some way with the first decades of the 19th century. The others are David Mitchell’s The thousand autumns of Jacob de Zoet and Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America.

Tracy Chevalier would not normally be high priority for me, but this book intrigued me because of its period and setting. You see, it is set in Lyme Regis in the early 1800s, and that rings a special bell for me! Yes, it’s to do with Jane Austen. Not only did she visit Lyme Regis, but she set a significant scene in Persuasion there*. So, my appetite was whetted.

But, I must say, I was somewhat disappointed. It’s not that I expected a lot, really, but I did expect a little more than I got. In other words, I didn’t expect exciting or innovative prose, but I did expect writing that wouldn’t bother me. However, it did, and this was mostly due to a lack of subtlety. The best writing shows, not tells, but there was way too much telling in this book, and it falls into two main types:

  • Giving “facts” that we should know. Here is Elizabeth over-explaining Mary’s calling her “Ma’am”, when she’d previously called her “Miss”:

And she was calling me “ma-am” now. Spinster or not, I had outgrown “miss”. Ladies were called “miss” while they still had a chance of marrying.

  • Describing something, such as a character’s emotions, when it should be (and usually is) apparent. Here is a bit of petulance that sounds rather silly in the first person voice of a supposedly mature Elizabeth:

As angry as I sounded, I was also secretly pleased that Colonel Birch had discovered the value of my fish enough to want one for himself.

(For a humorous review of an unsubtle book, do read Kerry, aka Hungry Like the Wolf, on Ken Follett’s The pillars of the earth.)

There are also a couple of rather gratuitous references to Jane Austen and her novels, gratuitous because the main characters don’t read novels and the reference to Austen adds nothing significant in terms of plot or characterisation. It’s as if Chevalier knew Austen went there and decided to draw on Austen’s current popularity by making the connection:

One of Miss Austen’s books had even featured Lyme Regis, but I did not read fiction and could not be persuaded to try it. Life itself was far messier, and did not end so tidily, with the heroine making the right match. We Philpot sisters were the very embodiment of that frayed life. I did not need novels to remind me of what I had missed.

Enough of all that, however. Let me give a quick rundown of the plot. It tells the story of two women who were fossil hunters in Lyme Regis in the first half of the nineteenth century. They were Mary Anning (1799-1847), a poor working class woman whose fossil finds helped change the course of paleontology, and Elizabeth Philpot (1780-1857), a gentlewoman who befriended Anning and who was particularly interested in fossil fish. Using known facts and novelistic licence, Chevalier has written an engaging story that focuses not only on the fossils and their impact on scientific and religious thinking of the time but also on the difficulties faced by women, particularly those unmarried like Philpot or unmarried and uneducated like Anning. Philpot says early in the novel that

… I had to find a passion: I was twenty-five years old, unlikely ever to marry, and in need of a hobby to fill my days. It is tedious being a lady sometimes.

Chevalier shows the financial precariousness of women, their lack of power, and how easily they can be exploited. Women, for example, were unable to belong to the Geological Society of London, and Mary’s collections (in particular) were written up in scientific journals by men, often with no credit given to her contribution. This is the real story of the novel and Chevalier captures well the circumscribed lives of women, and the challenges they faced in living independently. And yet, she undermines this by fabricating a jealous falling out between Elizabeth and Mary over a man. Did Chevalier really need to do this to make the story exciting?

That said, the characterisation is effective overall. She differentiates the two main characters not only by their very different voices, but also by creating a conceit for each of them. For Elizabeth it is her describing what people “lead with”. The forthright Mary, for example, leads with her eyes, while one of the foppish male characters leads, she says, with his hair. Good one, I thought! Mary’s conceit is being the “lightning girl”. The book begins with her being struck, but not killed, by lightning when she was a young girl. Lightning thereafter becomes a motif in her life for surprising or lucky events and for strong feelings.

Chevalier also writes some lovely descriptions – of people and landscapes:

While I accommodated her absence, a dull ache in my heart remained, like a fracture that, though healed, ever flares up during damp weather.

and

Lyme Regis is a town that has submitted to its geography rather than forced the land to submit to it …It is not planned, like Bath or Cheltenham or Brighton, but wriggles this way and that, as if trying to escape the hills and sea, and failing.

This is an enjoyable book for the glimpse it gives into the lives of two interesting and little known women, but the writing, for me, doesn’t quite do the story justice. For a more positive review, you may like to read Lisa’s at ANZLitLovers.

Tracy Chevalier
Remarkable creatures
London, HarperCollins, 2010
352pp.
ISBN: 9780007178384

*It is also the setting, of course, of John FowlesThe French lieutenant’s woman.

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24 Comments leave one →
  1. December 10, 2010 2:57 am

    Hmm, when this book first came out I thought it sounded really good and wanted to read it. But now you and a few others I trust have read it and found it to be disappointing. Too bad too since it is such an interesting subject. But now I will very likely be skipping this one.

    • December 10, 2010 8:31 am

      Oh thanks Stefanie … I’m sort of glad I’m not the only one. I did rather enjoy “The girl with the pearl earring” but I can’t help thinking that she just didn’t quite know how to make an exciting fictional story of it (at least of the type of story she likes to write. That’s possibly a bit cheeky of me as I’m basing that on having only read one other!!)

  2. December 10, 2010 8:28 am

    I too noticed this book when it first came out but then again there were so many other choices. The only book I really enjoyed from her is The Girl With the Pearl Earring. I tried to read her other one (The Lady and the Unicorn, I think) but could not get myself to finish it. What captivated me about The Girl was her very subtle yet incisive description and social commentary. From your very detailed and in-depth review here, especially about her writing style, seems that the artistry and subtlety of her first work is missing here. Thanks for a fine piece of book review!

    • December 10, 2010 8:34 am

      Thanks Arti … yes I liked Girl too and the social commentary was a big part of it. There is some of that here but the writing just didn’t quite support it for me. There were lovely flashes but overall it felt forced to me. I’m very glad though to have had those two women brought to my attention. BTW for your list of coming adaptations, it apparently has been bought by an Australian production company (or you have it already? I can’t recollect).

      • December 12, 2010 4:38 pm

        Yes, thanks for the heads up. Also, in my “Books Into Films” list, I just found out that the page to The Book Thief has been taken off IMDb, I don’t know why. So I’ve replaced another link in there, even better, a YouTube clip of the official trailer.

  3. December 10, 2010 12:04 pm

    I inhaled Girl With a Pearl Earring when I read it, I just couldn’t put it down. Since then every book I have read has failed to live up to GWAPE. To be fair, it was varying degrees. I didn’t mind Fallen Angels, but I really didn’t like Burning Bright, mainly because it was purported to be about the poet William Blake, and it really, really wasn’t.

    • December 10, 2010 2:42 pm

      Ah, I’m glad to hear that about The GWAPE … I won’t feel so sorry about missing the others! What a shame though because Blake could be interesting.

      • December 13, 2010 1:49 pm

        He was a secondary character, but not the main character that I had been expecting from everything I had heard about it previously.

        • December 13, 2010 3:04 pm

          Ah, thanks – then I won’t feel so badly about missing it!

  4. December 10, 2010 1:14 pm

    What a shame! I’ve read quite a few of Chevalier’s works (three, I think?) but now that I think about it, you’re right – none of them are altogether special, unique, or “fresh” in their writing. I might pass on this one, then, and say I’ve done my Chevalier duty in the past!

  5. December 10, 2010 2:45 pm

    Clearly you have – way more than I have so I think you can feel as though you’ve done your Chevalier duty if indeed one needs to have done such duty!

  6. December 11, 2010 7:20 pm

    I only know Girl With a Pearl Earring which was rather good (and what a good film it made too). This one sounds a little clunky to say the least – “had discovered the value of my fish enough to want one for himself” is just a badly constructed sentence and you suggest that there are others like it. Perhaps I’ll give it a miss, although I had been considering picking it up at some point

    • December 11, 2010 11:35 pm

      That’s it Tom … a bit clunky. Still, given your proximity to the area I wondered it you would read it. I won’t hold my breath but would be interested if you did! If that makes sense!

  7. December 12, 2010 6:01 am

    I know Lyme Regis well as my sister in law used to live there. Its quite a way from here though (although we Brits tend to think distances are greater than they really are)

    I’ve been able to reserve Remarkable Creatures from my local library so I’ll have a go at it in the next month or so – I thought Girl with a P.E. was a very good book so I assume others by the same author can’t be all bad!

    • December 12, 2010 7:53 pm

      Yes, I liked Girl rather a lot too … but haven’t read any others. I’ll be interested to see what you think.

    • December 12, 2010 7:58 pm

      Thanks for that Tom. A novel about Quakers in the US (and quilts) certainly has some interest for me … Fascinating trailer.

  8. December 12, 2010 8:52 am

    An even-handed review, Whispering Gums. Mary Anning was working class so certainly would never have heard of Jane Austen. Elizabeth Philpot was upper middle class but not all everyone was interested in literature. To have Jane Austen show up at the site would have been contrived.

    • December 12, 2010 7:53 pm

      Thanks Tony … she worked in the Jane Austen bit by having Elizabeth’s sister be a novel reader but it just felt a little forced (contrived, as you say).

  9. December 19, 2010 8:22 am

    Sue have you been watching the series about the British Museum that the ABC is running at the moment? It’s been really quite interesting, and the junior paleontologist about the house is loving it. They profiled Mary Anning in last weeks show which was about fossils, it was very interesting, brought her to life almost, perhaps more than this book did for you?

    • December 19, 2010 8:32 pm

      Oh d**n, I haven’t been watching it and so didn’t see it. I’ve watched almost nothing new in the last couple of weeks. Sounds like it would have done it for me!

  10. carolyn Ikuta permalink
    November 28, 2011 11:38 am

    Wonderful review! You expressed so well a vague sense of dissatisfaction I had with the book but was unable to put my finger on…….

    • November 28, 2011 11:54 am

      Oh, you commented Carolyn! Lovely. Glad you liked the review. It was an interesting read for the history, wasn’t it, but just didn’t grab and literature (to be pompous!).

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