17. Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier

Published in 2009. This Edition: HarperCollins, 2010.

Good first sentences can be utterly damning. They allude to the possibility of reading something that will spellbind us, something that, if it is grotesque, is so sublimely grotesque that we are rather glad we lost our lunch over it. (I can only imagine the Marquis de Sade grinning in glee at a well-heeled dowager’s protestation that The 120 Days of Sodom sent her scampering to church for shrift.) If the best part of a book, however, is its opening sentence, that seems to be a cowardly act—to sculpt nothing fine, save one or two arresting lines. When I opened Remarkable Creatures, therefore, and read

“Lightning has struck me all my life. Just once was it real.”

I was wary.

Civilly banished from their London home to the seaside town of Lyme, the unwed and not-particularly attractive Philpot sisters gradually learn to sift out what happiness they can, in their considerably reduced circumstances. Of the three, it is stoic Elizabeth who is drawn to beachcombing for fossils, an exercise she initially selects to occupy her days, free of the male attention she only occasionally craves. As she swiftly becomes enamoured of her fossil collection, particularly of the ancient fish skeletons she hoards, Elizabeth encounters young Mary Anning, the working-class daughter of Lyme’s debt-swamped cabinetmaker. A talented ‘hunter’ (in this context, fossil locator, gatherer and preserver) Mary allows Elizabeth into her own life, in its frequently impoverished yet deeply resilient reality. The two women grow up both alongside and apart from each other, and as their friendship is tested, severely, by bitter jealousy, by the arbitrary hand that assigns social class and station, and by one irresistible man, Elizabeth and Mary learn how much they can both withstand, and what causes them to shatter under pressure.

I’ve not read any other of Chevalier’s books, but after finishing Remarkable Creatures, I acquainted myself with the plot and concerns of each. I feel reasonably justified in remarking that the writer’s forté seems to be in her marriage of engrossing historical situations with finely considered characters. Though I had not heard of them before this reading, Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot were real women. It is fascinating to contemplate how much of their lives, as presented to us on Chevalier’s pages, are directly sown from the long hand of history, and how much is invented, conjured out of the ether, to add pathos, verve, humour. Both Mary and Elizabeth are deeply likeable, frustrating and varied characters—no less than human renditions, in short, and we find ourselves caring for their everyday struggles, as well as their protracted longings, sooner than we might have expected. Much historical fiction too often relies on the richness of the situation it attempts to reanimate with prose—The Great Depression, the rise and fall of the Roman empire, the history entire of a small island—that it falters in its investment in people, in breathing life into the past through the vessels that are best suited to carry it—the inhabitants of the work, be they living or purely ghostlike.

It is maddening to read of the circumstances of women in this early 19th century British society, and worse yet to contemplate that the injustices endured by Mary, Elizabeth and others of their sex are still endured, oft-unrecognized, not given the illumination in art or sound policy-making, nearly as much as they warrant. Mary’s loneliness, denied a life of comfortable indulgence, with the financial prospects it affords, is starkly illustrated, in a conversation with the person who has captured and bewildered her heart.

“My life led up to that moment, then led away again, like the tide making its highest mark on the beach and then retreating.

‘Everything is so big and old and far away,’ I said, sitting up with the force of it. ‘God help me, for it does scare me.’

‘There is no need to fear,’ he said, ‘for you are here with me.’

‘Only now,’ I said. ‘Just for this moment, and then I will be alone again in the world. It is hard when there’s no one to hold on to.’

He had no answer to that, and I knew he never would.”

Chevalier’s depiction of the life and times in which the novel is set strikes one as being infused with accuracy, from the recollections of past-times, superstitions, customs and everyday minutiae. We feel as though we’ve wandered onto the set, perhaps, of a BBC production of  a period drama, replete with narrow, cobblestoned streets, home-brewed bottles of elderflower champagne, petticoats and workhouse-penury alike. Natural landscape is no less vividly portrayed than the man-made structures of the novel. The beach, for example, is its own character, in every right—it’s unforgiving nature, its mystery, secrecy, the pleasure of its unexpected treasures, and the peril of its capricious cruelties. Anyone who loves the sea deeply cannot help but be moved by Chevalier’s design of it, as well as appreciate the relevance of all that the ocean offers to Mary and Elizabeth, both tangibly and soulfully.

What I loved best about reading Remarkable Creatures is that it did not challenge me. Surely, this sounds like an extraordinary contradiction, but I think one might catch one’s death of illumination-depression, sipping from an eternal literary font of Kafkas, and Joyces. The read was absorbing without being daunting, entertaining without meriting a single furrow of my brow, and if not particularly earthshattering, then distinctly eye-opening. Otherwise, I would not be purposing to read more on the life of Mary Anning, and other women of the 19th century who have been overlooked (until now) in science, engineering and other heretofore-considered ‘masculine’ fields. This, to my mind, is the premier advantage of well-done historical fiction. It transports us, not simply during the hours in which we read it, but when we have turned the last page, then seek knowledge, context and more reading on that era, that set of unique circumstances, elsewhere. Remarkable Creatures has done this, and therefore, perhaps it is unfair to say that it has not challenged me. It has, after all, challenged me to learn more—and is this not one of the best pursuits?

Finally, it is worth noting that the last line of Remarkable Creatures is as good as its first – maybe it’s a little better. I’m looking forward to hearing whether or not you concur.