While I now work with a wide range of archaeological and historical material on a regularly basis as I work in museums and heritage sites, I must admit that my first love was always dinosaurs. It was the dinosaurs that lured me in an captured my imagination at the Natural History Museum in London and nurtured my deep love and passion for museums. Oh I loved the stuffed animals and the various other exhibits. But most of all I loved the fossils. So it was only natural that growing up I should develop a deep respect for Mary Anning. She seemed like such a magical creature to me. Her name there on labels in the natural history museum. A female fossil hunter from back when they were still debating what on earth the fossils meant.
So I can readily admit that when I was browsing my local library for something of interest and I stumbled upon Tracy Chevalier’s ‘Remarkable Creatures’, a fictionalised account of the lives of Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot, I didn’t hum and ah over whether to borrow it or not as I had with the other books I had browsed through. I knew I was going to pick up this book, borrow it and read it in an afternoon.
‘Remarkable Creatures’ was a remarkable book, swapping between the points of views of these two women with a deep and abiding passion for fossils, knowing that society would down upon them for such an active interest and it would do them few favours. Its a beautiful book that develops the two characters wonderfully.
I suppose sadly, as it is a historical fiction, one knows all along that there will be no romantic happily ever afters for either of them. And I think in a way I loved the book all the more for that. It wasn’t about romantic happily ever afters. It was about a friendship and about fulfilment in a passion for fossils and discovery. In some ways I think I found it more empowering because of that. It closes with the image of Mary and Elizabeth hunting fossils together on the beaches by Lyme.
Really it felt like such a sweet comfortable read. Perhaps because I am already so familiar with the early history of fossil hunting and the various scientific names I slid easily into that aspect of the book. It reawakened my memories of as a child taking in dinosaur fossils with awe. As a child I wanted to be a palaeontologist and discover fossils like Mary Anning. And Elizabeth Philpot, the second main character of the novel, is a fascinating voice in the story. In fact I related more to her than to Mary and loved reading from her point of view.
It made me think about my own passions and goals, my own love for research and academia. I reminded me to be thankful, of how grateful I am to live now when being a woman doesn’t stop me from pursuing my academic and scientific interests. It reminded me of why I prioritise my museum career so highly and why I strongly believe it is worth all the challenges that come with working in the museum and heritage industry. I reminded me who I find skeletons fascinating and worked hard to embed that knowledge and fascination in my own much younger sister. It reminded me that likeminded friends with whom one can discuss deep topics mean a great deal to me.
As I put down the book after a quiet afternoon at home, I had a warm feeling that affirmed to me how grateful I am for the world that we live in and for all that there is in it for us to discover, explore and learn.