Tracy Chevalier, 2009
Tracy Chevalier’s story of two real-life fossil-hunters in early 19th-century England reads like a Jane Austen novel, which isn’t surprising since Lyme Regis, a place visited by Austen early in the nineteenth century, is where and when this tale is set. It’s not an edge-of-your-seat page turner, but this historical fiction is worthy of your time.
Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot were remarkable, as were the relics found by both women. They were extraordinary women for their times and Mary, in particular, found fossils that baffled experts of the day. That bafflement is expressed well in the novel; in addition, Chevalier highlights the difficulty in reconciling the existence of skeletons of unknown and probably extinct creatures with the Creationist philosophy that was prevalent at the time.
Chevalier chronicles the possible relationship between Mary and Elizabeth, highlighting their presumed differences and similarities, as she speculates on how known historical events would have played out from the perspective of each of the women. Both women were unmarried, one genteel and one too poor to be strictly genteel, and both were interested in fossils. Mary was around twenty years younger than Elizabeth, but still one would expect they ran into each other a lot, both while fossil-hunting and while conducting business in daily life in their small town. Chevalier presumes that both women lived lives of some despair, having failed to marry, but I prefer to think they lived boldly and without regret. Perhaps they had no time for regret.
One note about reading: this is told in first person, alternating between Mary and Elizabeth, and the narrator is not named; one has to read a bit before recognizing from the context and vernacular of the narrator which of the paleontologists is speaking.
As with all historical fiction, the facts are the framework but license is taken in building relationships; approach the book with an open and curious mind, and follow up with your own research into the lives and times of Mary and Elizabeth as well as their colleagues. The author gets you started on your research; keep going past the last chapter of the novel and you’ll find a summary of the life and death of each of the women, as well as information on family members and colleagues.
Expect a film based on the novel; it’s currently in development.