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.
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.
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.
London, HarperCollins, 2010
*It is also the setting, of course, of John Fowles‘ The French lieutenant’s woman.