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The Remarkable Creatures of Tracy Chevalier

Portrait of Mary Anning with her dog Tray and the Golden Cap outcrop in the background,

Portrait of Mary Anning with her dog Tray and the Golden Cap outcrop in the background,

Mary Anning and Her Remarkable Creatures

Tracy Chevalier writes about two women, Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot, who are combing the beach at Lyme Regis on the south coast of England looking for stones bearing the impression of creatures and plants. Curies, they called them. They little knew that this fascination with fossils would rock the whole foundation of Christianity, causing questions to be asked about the story of creation and opening up a whole other world of prehistoric plants, dynosaurs and other animals that had long been extinct.

All this is brought to life in a captivating book, Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier, who transforms the lives of these two women against the background of the Jurassic coast into an engaging, informative and totally enthralling story.

Where is Lyme Regis?

Remarkable Creatures is a Beautiful Book - And a touching story

Tracy Chevalier has said that she wrote this book in order to 'make fossils sexy'. I'm not sure that she has achieved this goal, but she has certainly brought the fascinating history of two women fossil hunters to life. She follows the history of Mary and Elizabeth closely enough to be informative, but has no qualms about devating to create a ripping yarn full of romance, jelousy, thwarted ambition, envy, friendship and real, physical danger.

The story begins when Mary Anning was struck by lightning, lives to tell the tale, and so is special from the very earliest years of her life. Tracy Chevalier follows the life of this remarkable creature and her friend, Elizabeth Philpot, as they search the fossil-rich beaches of the south coast of Britain in the early 19th century. What is this book about? It is about Mary Anning and about Elizabeth Philpot, about fossils, about love and romance, about the restrictions and limitations that were placed upon the lives of women at that time. It is about class, about religion and science, about men and their relationships with women. All this is simply told in a book that you won't want to put down.

Tracy Chevalier Talks About Her Book - Chevalier is herself a 'remarkable creature'.

Do take a couple of minutes to view this very short but beautifully shot video of Tracy Chevalier, (sometimes misspelt Tracey Chevalier), talking about the writing of Remarkable Creatures. She even shows you one of the vertebrae that Mary Anning would have collected

Is Chevalier's Remarkable Creatures Fact or Fiction?

How much of this is true?

It's so easy to read this book and to believe every word is the literal truth because it is so simply written from the point of view of each of the two women and it is so packed withdetail and information. Indeed, when I began to look further into the lives of the characters, it became clear that Chevalier has strung together the clay beads of fact to make an intricately elegant neclace of fiction.

The publishers have stated that "This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it, while based on real historical figures are he work of the author's imagination."

The author, in a postscript makes clear that she "has taken the events of her (Mary Anning's) life and condensed them to fit into a narrative".

Even the fact that Mary was struck by lighting, which might stretch one's credulity, appears to be fact.

Petrified and crystallized ammonite

Petrified and crystallized ammonite

Who was Mary Anning?

The bare bones of her life:

Mary Anning, born on the 21 May 1799 at Lyme Regis. Her mother was Molly Anning and father was Richard Anning, a carpenter. Together they had ten children but only Mary and her brother Joseph survived into adulthood. The family belonged to the Dissenter chapel but later Mary joined the Anglican church. One interesting fact is that Jane Austin had some dealings with Richard Anning.

On 19 August 1800, at the age of 15 months old Mary was indeed struck by lightning. Elizabeth Haskings was holding the baby watching a circus when the lightning struck and killed Elizabeth and two other women. Mary was taken home she was revived in a bath of hot water; a reprive declared miraculous.

As Mary grew up their father took Mary and Joseph on fossil-hunting expeditions to find items to sell to tourists. They worked the coastal cliffs that surround Lyme, part of a geological formation known as the Blue Lias dating from early in the Jurassic period (about 210-195 million years ago). Later Mary was to be nicknamed 'Jurassic Mary'.

When their father died in November 1810 at age 44, he left the family indebt and Mary and Joseph both helped to support the family by finding and selling fossils.

The first major find was made in 1811, when Mary was 12 years old. Joseph discovered a 4-foot ichthyosaur skull and Mary found the rest of the skeleton a few months later and sold it to the local landowner Henry Hoste Henley. Read more below She went on to find skeletons of various other beasts that raised questions that the best minds of the time struggled to answer.

Despite her growing fame Mary and her family were just on the edge of abject poverty. One of the family's keenest customers was Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas James Birch who was later to help them towards financial security. Read more below

It is true that she was almost killed in a landslide. It was the very instability of the rock face made this spot so attractive for fossil hunters and in October 1833 she just missed a landslide that buried her dog, Tray.

Her work continued and her fame grew. Eventually she managed to buy a glass-fronted shop which was visited by King Frederick Augustus II of Saxony in 1844. Her relationship with her peers in the Geological society was not so successful and she died on 9 March 1847 from breast cancer at the age of 47 on 9 March 1847 feeling that she had not received the credit that she deserved.

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Gratifyingly, in 2010 the Royal Society included Anning in a list of the ten British women who have most influenced the history of science. Fame at last!

Image: Petrified and crystallized ammonite Courtesy of Jurii, Creative Commons

The Fossil Hunter - The Story of Mary Anning

Plesiosaurus dolichodeirus skeleton

 Lithograph of Plesiosaurus dolichodeirus skeleton found by Mary Anning in 1823, published in 1824

Lithograph of Plesiosaurus dolichodeirus skeleton found by Mary Anning in 1823, published in 1824

 Fossil fish from the collection of the Fur Museum,

Fossil fish from the collection of the Fur Museum,

Who was Elizabeth Philpot?

She combed the beaches of Lyme Regis for fossils

Elizabeth Philpot was born in London in 1780 and moved to Lyme Regis, (sometimes misspelt Lime Regis), Dorset, in 1805 together with her sisters Mary (not Louise as in the book - too many Mary's?) and Margaret. All three sisters collected fossils and they did also concoct that healing cream.

Elizabeth met Mary Anning while Mary was still a child and they became great friends, despite the difference in their ages and social standing. It was Eliabeth who encouraged Mary to educate herself about the fossils that she collected.

Specialising in fossil fish Elizabeth amassed a good collection which she meticulously labelled and catalogued. She because well known in scientific circles, corresponding with leading geologists like William Buckland, William Conybeare, and Henry De la Beche about her collection and she was consulted by William Buckland, and Louis Agassiz among others. It was Louis Agassiz who named a fossil fish species, Eugnathus Philpotae, after Philpot and another two species after Anning.

The collection was eventually housed at the Oxford University Museum and the museum now know as the Lyme Regis Museum (originally called The Philpot museum) was built by Elizabeth's nephew Thomas Philpot in 1901 on the site of Mary Anning's birthplace. How very fitting! This museum also contains memorabilia of famous people with a connection to the area including John Fowles and Jane Austen.

One quirky little fact is that when Mary Anning discovered that belemnite fossils contained ink sacks, Elizabeth discovered that the fossilized ink could be revivified with water and used for illustrations.

Remarkable Creatures The Film - When can we expect 'The Film of the Book'?

In March 2010 an Australian production company acquired the rights to produce a feature film from the book and I'm looking forward to seeing it. At the moment, though, it seems to be a case of "watch this space".

Until then why not gorge yourself on this sensual Tracy Chevalier book : 'The Girl With a Pearl Earring'?

Sir Henry Thomas de la Beche, geologist, 1848 Engraving by William Walker after a painting by HP Bone 1848

Sir Henry Thomas de la Beche, geologist, 1848 Engraving by William Walker after a painting by HP Bone 1848

Who was Sir Henry Thomas de la Beche?

Sir Henry Thomas de la Beche (1796 - 13 April 1855) was born in London but spent his early life living with his mother in Lyme Regis, where he acquired a love for geology through his friendship with Mary Anning. After a brief military career, he joined the Geological Society of London At the age of twenty-one. He became a keen fossil collector and illustrator, collaborating with William Conybeare on an important paper on ichthyosaur and plesiosaur anatomy that was presented before the Society in 1821.

Henry had his fingers in many pots, including mapping for the Ordanace Survey and mining, and he travelled extensively abroad, but his relationship with Mary and Elizabeth is our main interest. He began to draw and paint to illustrate the important fossil finds of the day and in 1830 he drew a sketch, entitled Duria Antiquior A More Ancient Dorset, which showed Mary Anning's finds: (three types of Ichthyosaur, a Plesiosaur and Dimorphodon). In order to help Mary out of one of her periodic financial crises, De la Beche had a lithographic print made from his watercolour, and donated the proceeds from the sale of the prints to her.

Henry was well rewarded for his endeavors. He was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1819, was knighted in 1848 and, awarded the Wollaston medal. In 1852, he was elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Is there no justice?

Image: Sir Henry Thomas de la Beche, geologist, 1848 Engraving by William Walker after a painting by HP Bone 1848 courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Duria Antiquior

Duria Antiquior, 1830, is the famous watercolor painted by Henry de la Beche depicting life in ancient Dorset based on fossils found by Mary Anning

Duria Antiquior, 1830, is the famous watercolor painted by Henry de la Beche depicting life in ancient Dorset based on fossils found by Mary Anning

Sir William Buckland

Sir William Buckland

Who was Sir William Buckland?

Sir William Buckland (1784 - 14 August 1856) was born at Axminster in Devon and, as a child, would accompany his father on his walks where they would collect fossils together.

He was a geologist, palaeontologist and priest and struggled to reconcile the fossil finds with the biblical explanation of the creation of the world.

When Buckland first discovered the skeleton in 1823, which he named Red Lady of Paviland, he misjudged both its age and its sex. As a creationist, Buckland believed no human remains could have been older than the Biblical Great Flood, and thus wildly underestimated its true age, believing the remains to date back to the Roman era. (Hmmmmm .....)

Who was Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas James Birch?

In Remarkable Creatrues it is 'Colonel Birch' who provides the main love story. Although there was gossip, whether Tracy's storyline was true in reality we shall never know. What we do know is that Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas James Birch, later Bosvile, was a wealthy collector from Lincolnshire (some sources say Yorkshire), who bought several specimens from the Anning family.

In 1820 Birch became aware that the Annings were at the point of having to sell their furniture to pay the rent, and he organised an auction of his own fossil collection to help them. He wrote to the palaeontologist Gideon Mantell on 5 March that year to say that the sale was "for the benefit of the poor woman and her son and daughter at Lyme, who have in truth found almost all the fine things which have been submitted to scientific investigation ... I may never again possess what I am about to part with, yet in doing it I shall have the satisfaction of knowing that the money will be well applied." The auction raised £400, (over £26,000 today). Not only did this provide finacial aid, but it also made Mary famous and buyers began to arrive from Paris and Vienna.

Birch was from the Bosvile family who owned an estate in Yorkshire. A lifelong military man, he was a member of the Life Guards, retiring in 1810. It seemed he fuelled his interest in fossils by buying them rather than hunting them. According to fossilist Etheldred Benett, in 1820 Birch tried to buy her entire collection; she thought him an "amateur" geologist. Read more of Ethelred Benett below.

Who was Henry Hoste Henley?

Henry Hoste Henley (1766 - 1833) plays the role of the villain in Chevalier's tale, and comes to a suitably sticky end, so to speak. Henley, of Sandringham, Norfolk, was lord of the manor of Colway, near Lyme Regis, paid the Anning family about £23 for their first majpr find, the ichthyosaur, which he then sold to William Bullock, a well-known collector who displayed it at London. Unfortunately I can't find enough information about him to tell the fact from the fiction in Remarkable Creatures.

Baron Georges Cuvier by artist François-André Vincent (1746-1816).

Baron Georges Cuvier by artist François-André Vincent (1746-1816).

Who was Baron Georges Cuvier?

Cuvier is a sub-villain in Chevalier's plot and certainly he held opinions that are very unpopular and distasteful today. Born Jean Léopold Nicolas Frédéric Cuvier (1769 - 1832), known as Georges Cuvier, was a French naturalist and zoologist. Cuvier established the fields of comparative anatomy and paleontology through his work in comparing living animals with fossils. He established extinction as a fact but was opposed to evolutionary theories of the time, instead he was a proponent of catastrophism, (a theory supposing that the fossilized animals were wiped out in one sudden, violent, world wide event), in geology in the early 19th century. He believed that all humans descended from the biblical Adam and Eve and that Adam and Eve were Caucasian.

His role in the Mary Anning story came about when Mary sent him her drawings of a plesiosaur skeleton. Cuvier wrote to Conybeare accusing Mary of faking the fossil by combining fossil bones from different kinds of animals; an accusation which could have seriously damaged Anning's ability to sell fossils to other geologists. A special meeting of the Geological Society was called in 1824, which concluded the skeleton was legitimate. Cuvier later admitted he had acted in haste and was mistaken.

Cuvier's most famous work is the Le Règne Animal (1817; English: The Animal Kingdom). In 1819, he was created a peer for the life in honor of his scientific contributions and died in Paris of cholera.

Further Reading - Discover dinosaurs

William Dyce shows women searching the beach on the Kent coast

Pegwell Bay, Kent - a Recollection of October 5th 1858 by William Dyce,  This shows how popular beach combing and fossil hunting was at the time.

Pegwell Bay, Kent - a Recollection of October 5th 1858 by William Dyce, This shows how popular beach combing and fossil hunting was at the time.

Remarkable Creatures by Sean Carroll - This could get confusing!

More About Sean Carroll and his Remarkable Creatures



Lyme Regis

My father took us fossil-hunting at Lyme Regis when I was a child, and we found plenty of fossils, even then. Not the dinosaurs of Mary Anning, but perfectly formed, albeit small, ammonites were fairly plentiful. (If only I'd kept them! Moral of the story - never throw anything away!!) Other than fossil searching on the beaches of Lyme Bay, I can still remember all the quaint tourist shops selling fossils and much, much more. Of course, it is mostly famous now for the fact that the film The French Lieutenant's Woman was filmed there. A visit to Lyme Regis is a real treat.

Blue Lias Cliffs at Lyme Regis

 Blue Lias cliffs at Lyme Regis, Dorset, UK

Blue Lias cliffs at Lyme Regis, Dorset, UK

Jurassic Coast at Charmouth

The Jurassic Coast at Charmouth, Dorset, England where Mary Anning discovered large reptiles in the shales of Black Ven; Golden Cap in the near distance

The Jurassic Coast at Charmouth, Dorset, England where Mary Anning discovered large reptiles in the shales of Black Ven; Golden Cap in the near distance

Read more about Mary's hometown - And the cliffs and beaches of Lyme Bay

What a Journey!

The more I find out the more there is to know.

I began by casually reading the novel, Remarkable Creatures, and this has led me to find out so much more. About the conflict between science and religion, about the many women fossil hunters and geologists. More about Lyme Regis and the fabulous landscape of Dorset. I've been reminded of The French Lieutenant's Woman, a wonderful film, and Dyce's Pegwell Bay, one of my favourite paintings when I was younger. Of course, I've brought together the other Chevalier novels, most of which I've read and loved, but a couple I'm going to buy now. There are still so many loose ends to tie up. The story of the King's visit, of Jane Austin and Richard Anning, of the museums and their collections. Clearly, I must make another visit to Lyme Regis a priority.

I do hope that you've enjoyed reading this and that you'll pop back from time to time to see if I've made any more progress in uncovering these fascinating stories.

Mary and Elizabeth Were Not Alone

There were other women fossil hunters

Etheldred Benett (22 July 1776 - 11 January 1845) was an early English geologist who specialised in the Middle Cretaceous Upper Greenland in the Vale of Wardour. Of independent means, she never married and devoted herself to geology encouraged by her relative, the botanist Aylmer Bourke Lambert.

From 1802 she lived at Norton House in Norton Bavant, near Warminster, in Wiltshire. She wrote and privately published a monograph, A Catalogue of the Organic Remains of the County of Wiltshire (1831). Her fossil collection can be found at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, Leeds City Museum and possibly even in St. Petersburgh, and she made many donations to other collections such as the British Museum.

She corresponded extensively with fellow geologists such as George Bellas Greenough, first president of the Geological Society, Gideon Mantell, William Buckland, and Samuel Woodward. In addition to her own collection In 1836 she was made a member of the Imperial Natural History Society of Moscow though it is suspected they didn't realize she was female! (Sometimes it helps to have a man's name).

Margaret, Duchess of Portland

Lived in second half of 18th and was one of the richest women in England A great collector, the Duchess brought together thousands of fossils in her home, one of the largest and best Natural history collection in England, but remained largely unaware of their origins and how significant they were. She inherited them, bought them or sent others to search for them and they were sold by auction after her death - over 4000 lots.

Born in 1715, Margaret was known as Peggy and she began to collect at an early age, killing 1000 snails for their shells as a little girl.

She turned her house in Buckinghamshire into a museum for the "beautiful, curious and the rare". She spent great sums of money at auction sales of Natural history. A Mrs Lacock collected actively for her from 1773 and she would have had agents in London to act as finders.

She had grottoes decorated with shells, a zoo and collections of rare plants. Hannah Moore?.

She surrounded herself with the great and good in the natural science world and she was both student and patron.

Unfortunately she would not have known what they were but at the time people would have seen fossils as a sort of underground adornment although she may have read books from France about the possible history of the earth.

Anna Thynne

Mid 19th century, a great beauty and mother of 8. She specialized in living corals or madrepores, but to study them she had to be able to keep them alive out of the sea.

Born in 1806 in Ireland but adopted by her Uncle and Aunt Bing who were wealthy, and she married into the Longlete family.

The seabed provided clues to early history as the earliest life forms would have been aquatic. She took the corals in glass jars stitched by hand to natural sponges with barrels of seawater on the tops of the carriage. To keep them alive she changed the seawater but she had limited quantities. She then aerated the water by pouring water for 45 minutes a day (carried out by a maid), although Anna fed them herself on finely chopped boiled shrimps.

Other inhabitants of Wesminster Abbey kept animals and carried out dissections and experiments on the poor creatures. It as quite a craze (See Wilkie Collins "The Moonstone").

Anna tried to find out how to balance her aquariums and eventually added seaweeds sponges and other creatures to aerate the water. In 1849 she became the first person to balance her aquariums. She then noticed spontaneous fission, the second stage of madrepore repoduction and sexual reprodution. William Henry Goss 1859 published her studies, and because she didn't publish under her own name, she didn't get the recognition she deserved.By the 1850s she released her collection back into the wild.

Anna died in 1866 and on her tomb was engraved an inscription from The Song of Songs "Many waters may not quench love nor the floods drown it".

Much information came for Radio 4 Fogotten Female Fossilists

Other Women in Geology

There are at least nine other notable women who contributed to geological discoveries during the late19th- and early 20th-century. Gordon Cumming, Gray (Scotland), Owen and Maury (United States), Cleve von Euler and Sahlbom (Sweden), Pavlova, Solomko and Tsvetaeva (Russia).

Owen was a speleologist and Sahlbom a rock and mineral analyst; the others worked in the field of palaeontology.

© 2011 Barbara Walton

Leave a message! - I'd love to hear from you

Ibidii on June 03, 2014:

The Girl With a Pearl Earring was an awesome movie. The book is in my queue. I will now add Remarkable Creatures! Great lens! I love historical fiction!

Barbara Walton (author) from France on August 15, 2013:

@kislanyk: Yet another good Tracy Chevalier read for you to dip into marciag. I hope you'll enjoy it as much as I did.

Barbara Walton (author) from France on August 15, 2013:

@Davidfstillwagon: Fascinating - and nearly all 100% true!

Barbara Walton (author) from France on August 15, 2013:

@mbgphoto: One thing I like about Tracy Chevalier is that her books tackle very different themes but they are all excellent. Thanks for leaving a message mbgphoto.

Barbara Walton (author) from France on August 15, 2013:

@knitstricken: Hi knitstricken, thanks for this message and these kind words. I must say that I'm inspired too to find out more about this period and the women scientists of the time;

Marika from Cyprus on August 14, 2013:

I love Tracy Chevalier, but I was not aware of this book of hers. Thanks for introducing me to it, looks great.

Davidfstillwagon on July 01, 2013:

Sounds like a very interesting story

Mary Beth Granger from O'Fallon, Missouri, USA on January 17, 2013:

I have enjoyed several of Tracy Chevalier's books. I look forward to reading this one. Thanks for the review.

knitstricken on January 02, 2013:

What a remarkable lens! You've really pulled it all together and done justice to the subject and the platform! I am nothing short of inspired, now more than ever to read this book, now more than ever to make great lenses. Thank you!

Barbara Walton (author) from France on March 05, 2012:

@julieannbrady: Thanks Julie. I'll be looking out for it too!

julieannbrady on March 05, 2012:

What an interesting and captivating subject ... I will watch "this space" for that film of the book ... sounds like something right up my alley!

Barbara Walton (author) from France on February 27, 2012:

@BarbRad: I do think schools go out of their way to stifle interest! Put all the little dears onto Squidoo and lt them earn a few bob doing their homework. That would teach them a thing or two! Do read the book, though Barbara. It's a lovely read as well as being 'educational'.

Barbara Walton (author) from France on February 27, 2012:

@fugeecat lm: Thank you all so much for your kind comments. It's so nice of you to take the time.

Barbara Radisavljevic from Paso Robles, CA on February 26, 2012:

What a well-written, informative, and beautifully illustrated lens! I wish my palaeontology professor had been able to make fossils sexy, but even interesting would have made me happy. I might, perhaps learn more by reading this book than I did in his class.

fugeecat lm on February 26, 2012:

I love her books. Her stories are great.

DrIntrepid on February 24, 2012:

This is really in depth. I'm going to have to come back and read more!

MelonyVaughan on February 21, 2012:

What a fascinating and well-researched lens! Bravo!

dwnovacek on February 20, 2012:

Wonderfully informative and enhanced by lovely photos. I had never heard of these women and now I'm hooked! Angel Blessed!

SayGuddaycom on February 20, 2012:


anonymous on February 20, 2012:


Nice information and really great knowledge share by you.

Ellen Gregory from Connecticut, USA on February 20, 2012:

Nice done. Great information. Fascinating.

Teri Villars from Phoenix, Arizona on February 19, 2012:

Interesting subject. I like the Folk Art style photos. Very cool and Squid Angel blessed!

RetroMom on December 27, 2011:

Fascinating stuff, thank you so much for such a great lens.

moonlitta on November 12, 2011:

This is the real history! Blessed!

SilmarwenLinwelin on November 02, 2011:

Very interesting lens!

TeacherSerenia on October 31, 2011:

I have a lens about Mary Anning as well. My lens is called The Jurassic Coast. I have added this lens to my Jurassic Coast lens.

Barbara Walton (author) from France on October 28, 2011:

@traveller27: Thank you for dropping by Heidi. Pleased you liked it.

Barbara Walton (author) from France on October 28, 2011:

@anonymous: I'm not sure that she was the first one to find a fossil, JziE, but she was one of the key figures in putting together the bits of the jigsaw. Thanks for your message.

Barbara Walton (author) from France on October 28, 2011:

@AlleyCatLane: Thank you so much for blessing and for taking the time to read it and jog my arm re typos. Much appreciated.

Barbara Walton (author) from France on October 28, 2011:

@Scarlettohairy: Many thanks for your visit. I like her work too. Friends have told me that Burning Bright isn't so good though. Have you read it, Scarlettohairy?

traveller27 on October 28, 2011:

This sounds very interesting - great lens!

anonymous on October 27, 2011:

love the story. I didn't know she was one of the first to found a fossil , even better a complete fossil

AlleyCatLane on October 27, 2011:

This is a fascinating lens, Babara. Very well written. I may have to find time to read the book. Sounds very interesting. Blessed!

Peggy Hazelwood from Desert Southwest, U.S.A. on October 27, 2011:

Oh, I love Tracy Chevalier's books. I will be sure to put this one on my list.

Barbara Walton (author) from France on October 27, 2011:

Thanks for visiting, Lisa. I love it when I find a whole lot of great stuff done by women that the men have carefully swept under the carpet. Get spring-cleaning, I say (metaphorically speaking only!)

Lisa Auch from Scotland on October 27, 2011:

How absoloutely fascinating! and to think it be women who rock the whole foundations of belief! Great job here. Blessed by a passing angel who is definitely going to check this out!

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