Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier

In Tracy Chevalier’s latest novel, Remarkable Creatures, she has, once again, set her deft hand to drawing characters, situations, and landscapes to enthrall the reader.

This historical novel tells the story of Mary Anning, a poor girl during the Regency period in England. Her father, a cabinet maker, ekes out the barest of a living for his family. Mary has a unique talent for spotting fossils along the shoreline of southern England. She befriends Elizabeth Philpot, a spinster banished from London to Lyme Regis. Elizabeth, distraught at her removal as a “poor relation,” begins to wander the beaches and finds some interesting fossils.

Creatures is in opposition to Jane Austen’s stories with happy endings. In fact, Elizabeth chides her sister for living in the unreal world of Miss Austen. Elizabeth and her sisters – poor, unattractive, ungainly – have no hope of a good match, but they have learned to live with the disappointment, burying themselves in reading, gardening, and fossil hunting.

Mary and Elizabeth charge into the new, masculine world of paleontology and discover new species. Ironically, these women, “fossilized” by society, become famous for their fossils. The author also uses Brontë’s term, “creature,” to refer to the women in the story lending a double meaning to the title.

In the novel Girl with a Pearl Earring, Chevalier captured the feeling, atmosphere, and language of 17th-century Holland. She has done the same with England in the opening years of the 1800s. The chapters alternate narrators between Elizabeth and Mary, and Chevalier accurately voices Elizabeth, an upper class woman who is painfully aware of her circumstances and place in society, and Mary, the eldest daughter of a family struggling on the precipice of financial ruin and the workhouse.

Elizabeth says, “‘You must pardon my sister, sir,’ I said now. ‘Just before you arrived she had been complaining of a cough. She would not want to inflict her illness on a visitor’” (74). Right off the pages of Pride and Prejudice!

Mary, on the other hand sounds like this, “It weren’t just the money from selling the croc that changed things. It was knowing there was something to hunt for and I was better at finding it than most – this was what were different.” (111)

Unlike most of Austen’s Regency women, Mary pursues her passion regardless of the whispers of the townspeople, while Elizabeth is a bit more reserved, she does, on occasion, get her hackles up – a bit like Elizabeth Bennett of Pride and Prejudice.

For fans of Austen and Brontë, or readers interested in the early days of paleontology, or for those interested in period pieces set in 19th century England, or those who simply love a great story, this novel has something for everyone. Five stars.

--Chiron, 7/5/10

No comments: