Author: Tracy Chevalier, 2009.
Genre: Historical Fiction. 19th century.
Other Details: Hardback. 352 pages.
This novel tells the story of a remarkable young woman, Mary Anning, who had a gift for finding fossils along the rich marine fossil beds around Lyme Regis, Dorset. That an self-educated, working class woman was responsible for some of the most significant finds in the early field of palaeontology is one of those aspects of history that can tend to be overlooked though I understand that in Dorset Mary is well known and her contribution was recognised in her lifetime and that she continues to be heralded as one of history's greatest fossil hunters.
Tracy Chevalier's tells Mary's story through the vehicle of a dual narrative combining Mary's accounts of her finds and the more mature voice of her genteel friend, Elizabeth Philpot. In 1805 Elizabeth and her two sisters find themselves in reduced circumstances when their brother marries and his new bride takes charge of their London home. They choose to relocate to Lyme Regis on the Dorset coast where they seek to make a new life. The sisters could almost have stepped out of a Jane Austen novel.
Elizabeth is very interested in fossils and soon meets the teenage Mary Anning, who is well-known locally for her ability to locate fossils. At the opening of the novel Mary sells these 'curies' from her family home while her father works as a carpenter. Mary eventually makes a number of important discoveries, which are initially bought by collectors and find their way into the hands of scientists. These finds literally shook the scientific world into examining notions of change and led the way to the theory of evolution.The novel chronicles both Mary's work and the richness of the friendship between the two women.
I enjoyed this very much and it brought back some lovely childhood memories of fossil hunting in Canada with my father and brother. Chevalier captures both women's voices with great skill as well as portrays provisional Regency life with an air of authenticity. It was a quite a revelation for me to learn of the contribution made by these women to this field.
Tracy Chevalier's Page on 'Remarkable Creatures with background and fossil gallery.
Mary Anning's page at Lyme Regis Museum site.