Saturday, March 27, 2010

Tracy Chevalier imagines the female origins of evolution

Tracy Chevalier’s new novel talks about two women, from different classes, whose fossil collecting in the early nineteenth century changed scientific understanding of different species and their extinction.

Remarkable Creatures

Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures (320 pages, Dutton, $26.95) tells a remarkable story. The three Philpot sisters, whose brother has inherited the family house in London, move to Lyme Regis, on the Devonshire beach, as a way of preserving their small inheritance of 150 pounds a year (each). Each sister has a way of coping with the exile from London society. Margaret, the prettiest, tries to maintain a social whirl by attending balls at the Assembly and participating in whatever other social occasions are available. Louise fills her days with gardening, at least when the weather is good, and gets satisfaction from making the grounds of their home very beautiful. Elizabeth, however, has a different obsession, and for her, Lyme is a perfect choice. She collects fossils. Obviously intelligent and well-read, she finds these hints of earlier life at the beach both intriguing and challenging.

Luckily for Elizabeth, there is a local girl, Mary Anning, whose own experience of collecting fossils is even richer than her own. Mary’s life is not rich in any other ways. Her father collects and sells fossils too, but there is not much money for their family of four. When their father dies, Mary is challenged to find enough fossils to support the family.

Elizabeth and Mary become a successful team. Mary has the eye for finding ever larger and more impressive fossils, and Elizabeth helps Mary learn how to organize and classify them. As Mary finds richer and more connected buyers willing to pay well for her finds, Elizabeth is more concerned to bring them to the attention of scientists and collectors who are more interested in studying the discoveries than making money on them.

At the same time, Elizabeth begins to worry about the implications of what they are finding. One of the species, a particularly large specimen that looks like a crocodile, she knows is not like any croc she has ever seen in any book. The fact, later confirmed by scientists, that this is not a species still in existence, challenges her faith. If God created the world and the animals in it, how could there be animals that no longer existed? She asks her local priest, who tells her that she has not looked far enough to find the same species. Another scientific friend ties to explain how a theory of extinction could also be consistent with her faith.

While Elizabeth is dealing with these questions, Mary is selling more and interesting fossils to various men in her pursuits. Elizabeth knows these men are out to use Mary, and she reacts so aggressively that Mary distances her and tries to make it on her own. Chevalier is wonderful at creating the tension between these two women and showing how deeply they love each other, even when they are unable to articulate this to themselves.

The personal drama is played out against a moving account of what is happening in the scientific world. The discoveries that both women are making contribute importantly to the burgeoning understanding of evolution. This is really a wonderful novel, based on historical fact and imagination in ways that make it impossible to put down. I loved it.

Tracy Chevalier

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