Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier
As I reach the end of the semester and, thus, the end of my Jane Austen class, I grow more and more interested by the time period outside of Austen’s narrow scope–the Napoleonic Empire is crumbling, abolition is brewing, and riots are breaking out among the working class. When I was given a chance to read and review Remarkable Creatures, I was quite pleased–two women against the male scientific establishment in Regency England? What a fantastic idea! It also gave me a chance to finally read Tracy Chevalier, whom I’ve heard decent things about. When I picked up Remarkable Creatures, I was surprised by its shortness–it’s only three hundred pages in paperback. But length signifies nothing; it’s the content that’s important.
Remarkable Creatures focuses on the friendship between Mary Anning, a working class girl who finds “curies” (fossils) to sell to help her family, and Elizabeth Philpot, a genteel spinster also interested in fossils. When Elizabeth moves to Lyme Regis and begins searching for fossils, she takes the young Mary under her wing. But when Mary discovers an ichthyosaur at the age of twelve, the scientific establishment comes to Lyme Regis and Mary, because she’s working class, is quickly exploited. Elizabeth must brave the male-dominated scientific establishment in order to champion her young friend.
As an asexual woman, I have very little patience with works that treat sex and romantic love as absolutely necessary to everyone and, particularly, sex as a necessary coming of age ritual. While I enjoyed The Lovely Bones, the ending angered me–the main character is given an opportunity to lose her virginity, which the novel treats as closure to her strange life. This is why I had little patience with the Colonel Birch subplot. Colonel Birch is the man that comes between Elizabeth and Mary. (Because, of course, a man must come between them.) While I was annoyed with Mary’s invented sexual encounter with Colonel Birch, I could see and enjoy her falling in love with him–she’s young, he’s dashing, and Mary learns a valuable lesson about men from him. I couldn’t care about Elizabeth’s conflicted feelings for a man she dislikes, especially when compared with the Annings’ dire financial situation–it seemed so frivolous in comparison, since Elizabeth doesn’t have to marry for security as Mary hopes to do. And for a novel bringing to light two mostly forgotten women who struggled against a male establishment that excluded them, depicting the lack of straight romance in their lives as a problem to sigh over is problematic for me, especially since Chevalier invented the romantic subplot. Both Mary and Elizabeth envy women who have men and believe other women pity or are jealous of them based on their current romantic prospects. This focus on men in the novel makes an unfortunate parallel to the focus on men in the scientific community in Regency England and undermines the main narrative. It also takes up valuable time we could have spent on character development.
Instead, poor Elizabeth gets to experience an explicitly life-changing nautical voyage in three pages, compared to the seventy pages we spend with Colonel Birch. I’ve heard Remarkable Creatures praised for its distinct character voices, and this is true–Elizabeth is a buttoned up and genteel woman trying to be independent, but Mary steals the show here. She’s quick-witted, haphazardly educated, and dreamy, to a degree; struck by lightning as a child, she frames exciting moments like that. She’s also honestly worried about where her next meal might come from, although, wonderfully, she never considers giving up fossil hunting for a more stable job. I really wish we’d spent more time with Mary, and especially with her mother, a shrewd businesswoman with too many mouths to feed who, nevertheless, loves and supports her daughter. I also wish that the relationship between Elizabeth and Mary, especially Elizabeth’s role as Mary’s mentor, had been fleshed out and developed more.
In fact, I wish the novel had been more fleshed out and developed. The novel focuses on a very short time in their lives; the beginning of their friendship, their breakup, and their reconciliation, a plot structure familiar to anyone who watches enough buddy comedies. But this is at the expense of spending more time exploring the women’s struggles against the establishment, neglecting Mary’s quite interesting later life–such the opening of her own storefront (where kings would come to visit!) and her friendship with Henry De la Beche, a geologist who did his best to help her.
This isn’t to say that Remarkable Creatures doesn’t have bright spots. The language is light and poetic, the character voices distinct, and Chevalier does portray her characters as proto-feminists instead of awkwardly too modern feminists. I also enjoyed the distance between Elizabeth and Mary, as exemplified in a scene where Elizabeth, enraged over the sale of Mary’s ichthyosaur to a sideshow, tells Mary about it; Mary, to Elizabeth’s consternation, is delighted that so many people are seeing her ichthyosaur. But the narrow focus and heteronormativity undermines the remarkable nature of these women, particularly Mary.
Bottom line: Remarkable Creatures’ focus on its assumption that all unattached women want men desperately undermines the main narrative of two women struggling against the scientific establishment by mimicking the scientific establishment’s focus on men. It also ends before some of the more interesting events in Mary Anning’s life. Still, the language is light and poetic and the character voices period and distinct; if you’re interested, it’s worth a rental, but otherwise, I’d give it a miss.
I received a free copy of this book for promotional purposes.