I’m going to try something different. A few posts ago, I wrote about the ten essential ingredients for successful historical fiction. Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier is the first novel I’ve finished reading since that post. Chevalier was in the top historical fiction authors list so, why not rank her story against the list of essential ingredients?
Like a teacher marking the first exam of many or a judge ranking the first of many glorious dives, I will probably err on the side of being critical rather than generous. My apologies to the author.
Remarkable Creatures is the story of Mary Anning who has a unique gift: ‘the eye’ to spot fossils no one else can see. When she uncovers an unusual fossilized skeleton … she sets the religious community on edge, the townspeople to gossip – and the scientific world alight with both admiration and controversy. Prickly Elizabeth Philpot … becomes Mary Anning’s unlikely champion and friend, and together they forge a path to some of the most important discoveries of the nineteenth century.
(1) superb writing – Chevalier’s prose is a delight but I found her pacing too leisurely although one could argue that the pacing suits a character of quiet gentility like Elizabeth Philpot and the seaside town of Lyme Regis in the 19th century. The dialogue works very well, a great blend of speech patterns that identify the time and circumstances of various characters without weighing the story down in colloquial phrases and speech patterns. In terms of emotional resonance, I identified with Elizabeth’s desire to make a life for herself and her willingness to be unconventional, and empathized with Mary Anning’s passion for fossil hunting and her fierce drive to help support her family. The plot twists and turns although the story remains subdued. 7/10
(2) dramatic arc of historical events – Chevalier structures the story by tracing the timeline of Anning’s major finds using alternating first person narratives of her main characters, Elizabeth and Mary. While I found each voice engaging, ultimately the calm unfolding of this first-person narrative undermines the drama of discoveries that must have turned the scientific and religious world upside down. For me, tension was missing. 6/10
(3) characters both heroic and human – In my opinion, Chevalier gets top marks for her portrayal of the two main characters and through their eyes, other characters such as Colonel Birch, William Buckland, Elizabeth’s sisters and Mary’s mother Molly also come alive. 9/10
(4) immersed in time and place – every historical novel comes with expectations of the time in which it is written. As a purchaser, one expects to be transported to another world and like a hypnotist’s subject I was ready to dwell in the early 19th century the moment I opened Remarkable Creatures. On page 9, this sentence was the compelling step back in time: “Once our brother married there would be neither the place nor the money for us all to live at Red Lion Square.” Descriptions of Elizabeth’s brother John, Lyme Regis, the Assembly halls and Margaret’s one chance to capture a husband solidified the era for me and Chevalier held all senses firmly in that period. 8/10
“The bathing machine, a little closet on a cart, had been pulled far out into the water to give her privacy.”
“And they find Bishop Ussher’s calculation of the world’s age as six thousand years comforting rather than limiting and a little absurd.”
Describing a salve made by Elizabeth’s sister Margaret, “made of beeswax, turpentine, lavender, and yarrow.”
“I expect your ichthyosaurus has a place in Aristotle’s Great Chain of Being.”
(5) corridors of power – Chevalier writes convincingly of the small town minister who is scandalized over Elizabeth Philpot’s notions that God’s creations might have become extinct, science battling religion. She also positions the leaders of England’s Geological Society and noted French naturalist and zoologist, Baron Georges Cuvier, as masters of their domains of power in evolving scientific thought. Another corridor of power is that of gender in the early 19th century. Men had all the power, brother over sister, husband over wife, even Philpot’s young nephew has more power than Elizabeth to enter the premises of the Geological Society at a crucial point in the novel. 7/10
“Besides which Mary Anning is a female. She is a spare part.”
“God in his infinite wisdom has peppered this world with mysteries for men to solve.”
(6) authentic and educational – I now know a lot about fossils, fossil hunting, and the debates prompted by Mary Anning’s discoveries. Remarkable Creatures also illuminates the prejudices of the times – the role of women, the spinster’s lot in life, country versus city, social classes and pecking order. Chevalier brings these details out seamlessly but without interfering with the story’s flow. Through Mary’s discoveries and Elizabeth’s learning the reader also learns. What could be dull, scientific information is anything but. 8/10
“Mr. Buckland handed me the blade, then sat back to watch me scrape along one of the ribs, freeing and brushing away the limestone that clung to it. Slowly a clear line emerged, and because I went at it carefully, the rib weren’t nicked or scored, but smooth and whole.”
“… quarrymen and not considered suitable for any but the most desperate women.”
(7) ageless themes – struggling out of poverty, the destructive power of jealousy, standing up for what you believe in and for people who are powerless, finding one’s identity, dealing with fame, the understanding that freedom has its price. These themes ring out with conviction. 8/10
Elizabeth: “So be it. A woman’s life is always a compromise.”
Mary: “She had too openly flouted the rules of what was expected from a girl in her position.”
(8) high stakes – reputation, friendship and love are at stake in the story. Significant matters although I sensed the outcomes early on which in my mind detracts from the impact. The most compelling matter is the friendship between Elizabeth and Mary. 6/10
In Mary’s voice: “It seemed whenever I found something, I lost something else. I found an ichthyosaurus and lost Fanny. I found Colonel Birch and lost Miss Elizabeth. I found fame and lost …”
(9) sex and love – the only significant male/female relationship is that of Mary and Colonel Birch. Chevalier renders it with charm, creating tension in the telling and a strong sense of poignancy in the conclusion. 7/10
“There I found out that lightning can come from deep inside the body.”
(10) dysfunctional families – the families of Mary and Elizabeth are not dysfunctional, although they operate in ways that modern readers might find unusual. From my perspective, minimal drama emerged from the family dynamics. 5/10
While I enjoyed the story, the characters and Tracy Chevalier’s writing, Remarkable Creatures is a quiet book and not a compelling page-turner. But then, of course, this is only my opinion.
An interesting exercise. What do you think?