Remarkable Creatures is based on the true stories of Elizabeth Philpot and Mary Anning. These were two women of the early 19th century who collected fossils along the sea near Lyme Regis, beginning before fossil collections became wildly popular. Some of their finds resulted in discoveries about evolution and extinction. The novel is told in alternating chapters from the point of view of the educated upper-class Elizabeth and the uneducated working-class Mary.
Elizabeth Philpot already realizes she will be a spinster when her newly married older brother nudges her and her two sisters to look for a less expensive place to live away from the family home in London, perhaps in some genteel seaside resort. The women choose Lyme Regis, and their brother soon finds them a comfortable but small stone cottage.
Louise Philpot becomes interested in gardening and Margaret busies herself with the town’s social scene, but Elizabeth realizes she must find something to occupy herself. When visiting a carpenter’s shop, she meets Mary Anning, at the time a child, and sees the fossils Mary has collected and is trying to sell. She is fascinated particularly by the fish and decides to look for fossils herself, doing much to help label herself and her sisters as eccentric.
Mary Anning finds and sells fossils to support her family, but she is also fascinated by them. After she begins her acquaintance with Elizabeth, she starts learning more about the scientific theories behind her work. When she discovers the fossil of a previously unknown animal, she does not know that her discovery challenges the beliefs of conventional religion that every animal created by God is currently alive on Earth.
Philpot and Anning, who made significant contributions to the science, both eventually find themselves frustrated by the lack of recognition for their contributions. It is worse for Mary, for she is not only a woman and uneducated, she is considered just a fossil hunter.
I found the subject matter of this novel interesting but feel Chevalier was probably struggling with the difficulties of depicting real people in fiction. Although she depicts two distinct women, they do not seem fully formed to me. I couldn’t help contrasting this novel with the wonderful The Signature of All Things, which is a similar story although completely fictional. There I got a sense of a strong, fully realized individual. To contrast, Chevalier gives each of her main characters a few signature traits—for example, Elizabeth judges people by what part of their physique they “lead with”—and we don’t get a sense of fully formed individuals.