From the moment she's struck by lightning as a baby, it is clear Mary Anning is different. Though poor and uneducated, she learns on the windswept, fossil-strewn beaches of the English coast that she has a unique gift: "the eye" to spot fossils no one else can see. When she uncovers an unusual fossilized skeleton in the cliffs near her home, she sets the religious community on edge, the townspeople to gossip - and the scientific world alight with both admiration and controversy. Prickly Elizabeth Philpot, a middle-class spinster and also a fossil hunter, becomes Mary Anning's unlikely champion and friend, and together they forge a path to some of the most important discoveries of the 19th century.
I’ve just recently read a non-fiction book about Mary Anning (The Fossil Hunter: Dinosaurs, Evolution, and the Woman Whose Discoveries Changed the World by Shelley Emling) and I was anxious to read this fictional account of Anning’s life before the details had faded too much in my mind. Chevalier sticks to the big, important details, but takes the liberty that those who write fiction often do, to write in drama and make a better story.
It’s always a tricky business, writing fiction about real historical figures. I appreciated Chevalier’s depiction of the friendship between impoverished, working class Mary Anning and genteel spinster Elizabeth Philpot. It was a real friendship, made across class boundaries and well documented in the written records of the time. What either woman was actually like personally is an unknown quantity (to me at least), but well filled in by Chevalier.
The official record doesn’t offer much drama beyond Mary and her family being on the edge of going to the poor-house most given days. Very suspenseful if you are experiencing it, but not the most riveting plot for the reader. So I completely understand why Chevalier creates the rivalry between the two women for the attention of one un-noteworthy man. Still, it disappoints me. One the main ribbons running through this book is the changing role of women during this time period—getting recognition for their minds, not just their appearances, and loosening some of the conventions that bound them to child-rearing and household roles. Both of the main characters and all of the marine reptiles are indeed remarkable creatures.
Some details are extremely fictional—there’s no indication that Mary’s mother, Molly, ever set foot on the beach or ever searched for a fossil. She was only reluctantly won over to fossil selling as a way of earning cold, hard cash. I know Mary’s dog, Tray, was killed in a landslide, but I don’t think that Mary herself was caught in it (although it made good, dramatic sense in this version). I also wish that Chevalier had captured more clearly the intellectual achievements of Mary and the expertise that she drew on to educate many of the fossil-hunting men who came to her for assistance. There was definitely an auction by Lieutenant-Colonel Birch to fund the Anning family, but no indications that it was Elizabeth who shamed him into it or that he was romantically involved with either woman.
In short, this was an enjoyable, dramatic telling of a famous woman’s life, but don’t take every detail as gospel. As they say of movies, “Based on a true story.”