“Lightning struck me all my life.”

History, as we all know, has given women a rough ride of it. One could read through numerous history books and believe that, aside from the occasional queen or witch, women hadn’t appeared until the 1920s. This inequality is the reason that Watson and Crick are considered the discoverers of DNA leaving out Rosalind Franklin who did most of the preliminary research, or why Charles Babbage is hailed as the first computer scientist, leaving Ada Lovelace often ignored. Fortunately, we are now righting these wrongs, and one of the women who, after her death, achieved great notoriety is the fossil hunter Mary Anning, whose discoveries shook the scientific community to its core. Tracy Chevalier explores her life in this novel.

Anning shares the duty of narration with Elizabeth Philpot, another fossil hunter who specialises in fossil fish (and was also a real person, but whose story has been eclipsed by that of Anning). When Elizabeth’s brother marries, she and her sisters Louise and Margaret are sent to live in Lyme Regis, a quiet coastal town, because that’s what happened in the early 1800s. There, Elizabeth discovers she has a love for finding fossils on the beach, but her skills are nothing compared to that of young Mary Anning who, despite the age gap of twenty years, she strikes up a curious friendship with.

As the two women grow, they make more discoveries and when Mary’s brother encounters a fossil of a creature unlike anything anyone has ever seen, it becomes the talk of the world and centuries of religious doctrine begin to look a little shaky. Is it possible that animals can go extinct? Did God make some creatures only to kill them off? Is it possible that God made a mistake? The ideas are sacrilege to many, but Elizabeth and Mary are determined that the world should see their fossils and hear the theories. Unfortunately, they’re women, but their passion and loyalty to the fossils ensure that the truth will out.

As they grow, they find much more than just fossils, learning about their places in the world, the meaning of heartbreak and how friendships can be as brittle as any of their findings.

I knew a little of Mary Anning before beginning the book – her face and her fossils are all over the Natural History Museum – but Elizabeth Philpot unfortunately was new to me, although no less interesting. Neither she or Mary ever married, and instead dedicated their lives to their fossil hunting even though, because of their sex, they would never be welcomed into the Royal Society or be allowed to write scientific papers. Philpot, in fact, discovered fossilised ink sacs inside belemnite fossils and even worked out how to revive the ink for use. Anning had the harder life, arguably, being from a very poor background and losing her father at a young age. She however became the first person to find skeletons of both ichthyosaur and plesiosaur skeletons, and the first pterosaur skeleton in Britain. Her legacy is one that should be heralded for what it did to science and the advancement of knowledge.

The story itself adds much colour to both ladies, as well as the scientific men around them, and Chevalier freely admits that she has embellished much of what happened in their private lives, but that’s not a fault, as it just gives the women more depth. Parts of the story do drag a little, I can’t deny that, but in general it’s an interesting read featuring two remarkable women. Chevalier has a good eye for metaphor and the two narrators are wonderfully distinct in their styles.

A fascinating and thoughtful look at some figures many may not have heard of, but should have.

Advertisements