Reviewing Tracy Chevalier’s “Remarkable Creatures”
Most writers will get this question when they meet people or do book launches: “Where do you get your ideas?”
My favourite response comes from the wonderful author Neil Gaiman:
I make them up… out of my head.”
This is often true but in many cases, there is a small kernel, a nugget of something that triggers the wish to follow a trail. To open oneself up to more: more information, more discovery, more understanding. This was certainly the case for me with The Punishment and Shadow Self.
When it came to Chevalier’s book, this was a visit to the Dinosaur Museum in Dorchester. There she learnt about Mary Anning whose life inspired much of this book.
Though this is a work of fiction, the fact that is based at least in part on historical fact, made it much more fascinating to me. I have also written stories based on a walk here or there through a museum and I understand the impulse completely.
Remarkable Creatures, however, follows the lives of not just one but two extraordinary women. There is Mary Anning “the greatest fossilist the world ever knew”1 and her friend from a wealthier and more educated family, Elizabeth Philpot, who was also a fossil collector and paleontologist.
The novel is mostly set in Lyme Regis in Dorset on the southern coast of England during the 19th century. I loved the setting, and especially learning about how society worked in terms of women. For example, a woman could not walk down a street without being accompanied by a man, unless of course she was literally a streetwalker, soliciting.
The facts about what it meant to discover the proof of extinct animals was also thought-provoking, especially with regard to the evolution debate.
I enjoyed the book, but more in terms of what I learnt than for any particular plot, structure or characterisation. It was not my favourite of Chevalier’s books but it was well researched and quite interesting.
Did you enjoy the novel? What do you think about basing books on real people from the past?
- Annotation on an undated letter from Mary Anning to one of the Misses Philpot of Lyme, in the collection of the American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, cited in Torrens, Hugh: “Mary Anning (1799-1847] of Lyme: ‘the greatest fossilist the world ever knew,’ British Journal for the History of Science, 25: 257-84, 1995.