Religion, women’s rights, and social injustice all play a major role in Tracy Chevalier’s newest novel, Remarkable Creatures. One of the heroines of the tale is Mary Anning, an impoverished woman living in Lyme Regis with a prodigious talent for discovering fossils. The other is Elizabeth Philpot, a member of the minor gentry who must rely for her living upon her married brother. When Elizabeth moves from London to Lyme to live more frugally, she meets and befriends Mary, for, despite their difference in class, they share a burning interest in fossils and the living animals they once were. Elizabeth provides Mary with a rudimentary education, and in return, Mary teaches her to hunt and collect. The years pass, and when Mary makes an extraordinary find, Elizabeth works with Mrs. Anning to help build an income for Mary. It isn’t long before noted geologists and scientists are calling upon Mary to “assist” them in their own hunts. Because of the times, they take outrageous advantage of the young woman, who never receives the recognition that is her due.
These are real women, who lived in the first half of the 19th century, when the very idea of extinction was anathema because it suggested that God was imperfect. It was a rare woman indeed who received credit for any contribution to science or business, and class differences were accepted as part of God’s plan. The story of Elizabeth Philpot and Mary Anning deserves telling, because together, they did so much to advance scientific thought and evidence with little personal gain. Tracy Chevalier has done a service to history by revealing the contributions of these remarkable scientists.