Mary Anning truly was a remarkable creature. Born in 1799, she was struck by lightning at the age of one and survived. Living with her family in the village of Lyme Regis on the southern coast of Britain, little Mary spent many hours on the beach with her father searching for “curies” or “curiosities” which were in fact fossils of many prehistoric creatures such as ammonites, crinoids and belemnites. To Mary and her family, “curies” were a way to put food on the table. They collected the specimens and then sold them to the tourists who visited the coastal resort each summer.
When the three spinster Philpot sisters move from London to Lyme Regis, Elizabeth Philpot takes an interest in Mary and her fossils. A collector herself, Elizabeth joins Mary in scouring the beaches and uses her connections in aristocratic circles to help her sell her finds. When Mary discovers a “monster” embedded in the rock, she unknowingly uncovers the first documented dinosaur, the first of many finds to come, and Elizabeth must fight to see that Mary gets the recognition she deserves.
Chevalier has taken a real life person in Mary Anning and fictionalized her life and accomplishments. At the time that Mary lived, science was a man’s world and hunting fossils was not considered a suitable pursuit for women. It was seen as “an unladylike pursuit, dirty and mysterious.” Although she made major contributions to the world of paleontology, Mary was never given the credit she deserved and was mostly forgotten, though several of her finds are still on display in museums today.
Alternating between the voice of Mary and the voice of Elizabeth, the chapters emphasize the class differences between the two women and highlight their unlikely friendship, including both mutual admiration and, at times, barely disguised envy and jealousy. Not just a book about fossils, Remarkable Creatures is also an examination of the roles of women in society, and in the world of science, at a time when being a spinster at the age of 25 or spending time in “unladylike” pursuits such as fossil hunting were looked upon with suspicion and derision.