Chevalier, Tracy. 2009. Remarkable Creatures. Penguin: London. ISBN 978-0-452-29672-5 (paperback). 310 pages, brief bibliography.
The Birth of Modern Science
Remarkable Creatures is the fictional recreation of the relationship between two real British women who played important roles in the birth of paleontological science in the early decades of the 19th century. Elizabeth Philpot was an educated, middle class spinster exiled to Britain's south coast when her family couldn't support her in London; Mary Anning was twenty years younger and a working class woman who supported her own family by collecting fossils. They met about 1815 on the Dorsetshire beaches between Lyme and Charmouth their they practiced their mutual obsessions.
Together, Anning and Philpot discovered fossils of extinct fish and dinosaurs, fossils that became a part of the collections used by Georges Cuvier, Charles Lyell, Louis Agassiz and other male paleontologists to create the science of paleonotology. Anning, Chevalier tells us in a postscript, discovered the first complete pterodactyl in Great Britain; today, their collections can be found in the natural history museums of London, Paris and Oxford.
Remarkable Creatures: Bottom Line
Many books have been written about Mary Anning, who was truly an important collector of fossils in these last decades before Darwin's treatise on evolution was published. In contrast to these primarily biographical records, Remarkable Creatures provides us with an image of the social environment in which paleontology arose. That environment relied on the investigations of these two women but did not allow them access into the Geological Society.
If I have one criticism, it is an odd one, given the topic: it's difficult to track time within the context of the book. Anning and Philpot were friends for some 35 years; that span of time isn't easily reflected within the novel. However, Chevalier herself points to the necessary telescoping of time in her postscript.
Remarkable Creatures is a work of fiction, but it does give the reader an insight into the history of paleontology (and thus archaeology), bh presenting a facsimile of the society in which paleontology (and evolutionary science) began, from the vantage point of two remarkable women forever on the outside, but clearly fundamental to the creation of modern science.
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