Book cover of Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier

Remarkable Creatures
By Tracy Chevalier
HarperCollins, £15.99, 350 pages
FT Bookshop price: £12.79

Lyme Regis, the early 19th century. Two women from different backgrounds share a passion for fossil-hunting along Britain’s southern coast. Elizabeth Philpot is a scholarly lady of the gentrified classes; Mary Anning a local girl of humble origins, famous for having been struck by lightning as a babe in arms.

Their common pursuit, portrayed by Tracy Chevalier as an ardent and almost obsessive interest rather than a mere hobby, creates a complex friendship, not least because it is divided by age. Philpot is plain and growing old in her spinsterhood. Anning, while socially inferior, is buxom and young. She also has “the eye” and shows Philpot a thing or two about spotting “curies” and “verteberries” on the beach.

This relationship shifts dramatically when Anning (or rather her brother) finds a “crocodile” embedded in the cliffs of Lyme. Once dug out from its ancient resting place, the croc is revealed instead to be one of God’s first designs, an ichthyosaurus, or fish-lizard.

With the help of Philpot and her wily mother Molly, Mary sells the relic to a local lord, who then sells it to a museum curator. Dressed up in a waistcoat, the fish-lizard is displayed in London much like a freak-show attraction. The scientific significance of the discovery is equal to its entertainment value, a reminder from Chevalier of what pre-Darwin society was like.

As with Chevalier’s hugely successful novel Girl with a Pearl Earring, a precariously balanced relationship is eventually toppled by romantic friction. Anning and Philpot fall for the same man, argue and grow apart. Both end up alone, still combing the beaches.

Like Vermeer and William Blake in Pearl Earring and Burning Bright, Anning and Philpot are real historical figures, blurred into fiction by Chevalier’s imagination. In her own words, she has “taken the events of their lives and condensed them to fit into a narrative”. The French scientist Georges Cuvier, novelist Jane Austen and other real people weave their way into the story but, as Chevalier says, she took authorial licence with matters of plot: “I made up plenty.”

This creative leap in storytelling is not new, but Chevalier handles it well, and with thoughtful detail. Though the narrative is prone to large chunks of exposition, Remarkable Creatures is a largely enjoyable book, despite being, at times, unashamedly romantic.

Indeed, though Chevalier depicts an era when women were denied the privileges common to men – not least education – there is still an occasional caricatured bias to her male characters. The men are frequently self-absorbed, eccentric and unreliable, mostly from the upper classes. One cannot help but snigger at how the crustaceous Captain Cury, another fossil hunter who has taken to following the more talented Mary about, gets his comeuppance.

Chevalier excavates her two main characters with great confidence and wit. These women, neither of whom I had heard of before, become vivid and engrossing. Like a fossil hunter herself, Chevalier has again combed the beaches of history for subject matter and created an engaging story for the modern reader.

Monique Roffey is author of ‘The White Woman on the Green Bicycle’ (Simon & Schuster)

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