Sunday, June 9, 2013

Remarkable Creatures by Tracey Chevalier

My church book group selected this book (And it featured Congregationalists - yay!) a few years ago.  Although, I never seem to make book group, I often read what they select and this story has stayed with me over the years. When I first read this, I consulted the internet to see the cliffs of Dorset, see actual "ichies" and "plessies" and tried to learn more about the real life women who inspired the novel - Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot.  I enjoyed it only slightly less this time around.

What did you think?  




22 comments:

  1. I enjoyed it! Was surprised to learn at the end that the story is based on some real people and real events.

    How mysterious these fossil creatures must have been -- they are still fascinating, but understanding of what they were was so much in its infancy.

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  2. I'm not qualified to say much about theological matters, but it was a bit startling to hear characters flounder at the notion that some of the creatures on earth might no longer be alive -- even educated men. Even men who believed that 7 "days" of creation in the Bible could be interpreted metaphorically rather than literally.

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    1. So, they couldn't accept that there might be animals that did not march 2 x 2 onto the Ark, animals that died off.

      And yet -- death happened all the time, right up close. Mary's mother Molly bore 10 children, and all died but 2. (The casual mentions of all those losses were wrenching; it was hardly worth noting, being so common.) Mary's father died young, in his 40's, while still raising children. Mary found that drowned woman from a shipwreck on the beach; she was there when the competing local fossil hunter was crushed and killed in a landslide, and barely spared herself.

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    2. I think what they struggled with was the idea that a species/creature could be extinct at all. The idea that a creature could sit outside of the "circle of life" (ie die and leave no similar creature behind) was beyond them, apparently.

      Also, the stuffy minister (can't recall the name) was completely adverse to hearing about any implication of God's "mistake."

      At that time everything was on God. Babies die - God's will (the very thought makes me shudder). Husband dies - God's will. Neither hunger nor illness is to blame - it's all the omniscient God. In other words, what the church teaches is the truth. Oy.

      Just think of all the people in the world who still think the earth is 6000 years old.

      Because Mary and her family were not compliant sheep following the teachings of the church to the letter, she was less intimidated by Elizabeth's talk of extinct species.

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  3. Mary and Elizabeth -- I really enjoyed their characters, and their somewhat unlikely friendship. Both ended up "doomed" to not marry, but that permitted them the unexpected freedom to be themselves -- which at least Elizabeth felt was a good trade. (Mary, not so much; not when she was used and rejected by that rich former military person.)

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  4. The book begins close to 200 years ago. It is easier to remember the changes over the past 100 years -- I knew people who were alive 100 years ago, such as my grandparents. But I had forgotten how much changed in the 100 years before that.

    During this story, there are no telephones or telegraphs. Nobody is taking photographs; the closest substitute is drawings or watercolors. People are accustomed to spending the day walking the several miles to something nearby. Obviously, there are no automobiles, but also no trains -- travel to London is by carriage or boat, either one taking days.

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  5. I thin it was the ideas that whole species could die off. It would mean that the creation was not the perfect form of a perfect deity. Even today, I think we have people who have a hard time accepting that.

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  6. It is really interesting that this young, poor, barely educated girl and the peculiar spinster from London were the town's most scientific thinkers, isn't it?

    They talked about how the earth itself changed -- over time (creating fossils) and sometimes right in front of their eyes (landslips) -- how the fossils must have been formed when earth covered the creatures in the distant past.

    And they questioned themselves when the great Frenchman's book did not show a creature like the long-necked one they found. But his reported accusation of Mary faking the skeleton (re-arranging pieces from various specimens) became a matter of personal integrity; they both were committed to preserving what they found in the way they found it.

    In that time, Elizabeth might not have had the courage to go fight for Mary's integrity, had she been a polite conventional married lady.

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  7. Good point kathy. I wonder if marriage would have placed too many expectations of decorum on Elizabeth. From the first pages, she did not strike me as a woman who "needed" to be married in the conventional sense of being looked after and protected. A woman ahead of her time for sure.

    Is it a coincidence that Mary and Elizabeth are named after two women whose lives profoundly changed (Christian) history?

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  8. Mary, as a poor fatherless girl in a small village, did not feel many constraints -- but the tongues were wagging anyway, when she went out to the beach cliffs with gentlemen. One has the impression that she didn't have much of a reputation to ruin, but there it went.

    Elizabeth enjoyed the relative freedom of spinsterhood in a small town of lesser social expectations. When she was back in London, she had to sneak out of the family home; she felt so out of place walking the street alone that she needed a cab just so passersby would not gawk. Uck.

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    1. I'm in a feminist funk so this aspect of "polite society" made me want to hurl. I give the author a lot of credit for realistically conveying the social climate for women in that day. I read in an interview that she wanted to explore what life would be like for women of that era who did not find their Mr. Darcy. From an Austin novel perspective, being a spinster was not a happy ending but a modern reader will instantly know that living without the strictures of polite society is the true happy ending.

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    2. With the long rear-view mirror of time, it is really remarkable that Mary became well-known, and that her story and Elizabeth's survived.

      Elizabeth remarks someplace that should she wish to publish about the things she found and collected and studied, her scholarly work would not be accepted by the journals of the day. That is reinforced by the scene at the Geographic Society, where she was not permitted to attend the meeting.

      And Mary -- she laboriously hand-copied scholarly articles and illustrations (no xerox!), adding her own notes -- including the fabulous note that she would need but one preface. She never did write her piece, but there seems little doubt of her influence on some who did.

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  9. Mary and Elizabeth are such common names; it is hard to tell, given that neither family was extremely devoted to a church, if there was meaning in the names their parents gave them.

    But there definitely could be meaning in the names the author gave them. As I understand it, the biblical Elizabeth was older and she served as an adviser to and protector of Mary. Others are better situated to talk about that.

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    1. The book clearly addresses some theological tensions, so that is a hint that the names aren't accidental.

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    2. It was the mentor relationship plus Elizabeth's comparative age that caught my attention. Good assessment kathy!

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    3. I guess I did not read into the symbolism of the names since there really was a Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot.

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    4. Oh, you're right, Miranda!

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    5. But still, the true names fit rather neatly into the theological tensions of the book. And, the mentor relationship -- that is a pretty important feminist theme, too.

      One thing I really like is that Elizabeth was not just a kind of big sister and sponsor, but she knew she was learning something from this remarkable young woman as well. It was not at all like the Lord Henleys of the world, watching the workers from atop his horse, never getting his boots dirty.

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  10. I loved the story of the friendship between the sisters and the women. I loved how the author captured the social, scientific and theological tensions of the day. However, I felt like the romantic sub-plots diminished my enjoyment of the story. It was not so bad the first time because I was so wrapped up in the scientific discoveries and the friendship parts of the stories but it stood out the second time.

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    1. The gentlemen were a sorry bunch, no? I really hated that military person who took advantage and then tore poor Mary up, and also how callously the youngest sister was tossed aside. (Sorry, the names have slipped my mind.)

      But those interludes helped highlight how extraordinary it was when Elizabeth and then Mary became respected in their field, with scholars who were interested in their knowledge rather than whether they were marital prospects.

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  11. Sigh. I am only about 20 pages in. I elected to sleep last night instead of read (I do not always make this choice). Hopefully I'll finish up this week and get to chime in here.

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