Here’s another historical novel from Tracy Chevalier (Girl With a Pearl Earring, The Lady And the Unicorn, others) that I found interesting, though not compelling. It’s the carefully researched story of two British women who played key and largely forgotten roles in the discovery of multiple dinosaur skeletons in the English coastal town of Lyme Regis. Awarded three stars on Goodreads.
In the early 19th century, most people, even those who were highly educated, believed the Bible was the best accounting of history. God created the Earth in seven days as a sort of fixed entity that never changed. Concepts like evolution and species extinction were not yet part of mainstream discussion. Nor were women considered suitable for any kind of scientific inquiry.
Nevertheless, here come Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot. Mary is a child of poverty, who has a knack for spotting fossils along the beach. Elizabeth is a middle class “spinster” with an interest in fish fossils. Initially, they believe they are collecting the remains of species that still live.
Despite their different backgrounds, their shared interests create a strong bond and Elizabeth becomes a kind of protector for Mary. Many more famous and recognized fossil collectors (all male, of course) come and go, buying Mary’s fossils for nominal fees and then (surprise, surprise!) taking credit for their discovery.
But when Mary discovers several complete skeletons of much larger beings (eventually identified as Plesiosaurus and Ichthyosaurs), she and Elizabeth are among the first to notice that these remains seem different than any creatures that still live. Trying to get others to consider that possibility means going against the established scientific and religious orders of the day.
Their struggle to gain recognition as amateur paleontologists — for both their ideas and work — is really the center of this story. That sounds fascinating, right? But somehow it came off as a bit on the dry side to me.
I enjoyed learning about yet another example where women played an important, but uncredited role, in some major human discovery. One that is later ascribed to “scientific” MEN of learning. No shortage of these stories around these days.
One interesting aspect that DID hold my attention throughout was the way class dominated British society in everyday life. Who you were allowed to socialize with? Who was proper to invite to your home? Who was considered too far below you to acknowledge when passing on the street? And, of course, what women were allowed to do on their own, especially if unchaperoned? It is clear that a big part of getting Mary any recognition had to do with her humble origins.
If you have an interest in the subject matter you may enjoy this one. It’s not a long book. And you WILL no doubt learn something new. I just wish the book had done a better job of communicating the drama inherent to this story.
More about the author.
You may be interested in my review of another Chevalier novel, The Last Runaway.