This is one of those delightful historical novels that casts a warm light on a forgotten byway of the past. Author Tracy Chevalier ("Girl With a Pearl Earring") takes us to the town of Lyme Regis on the English Channel. It's early in the 19th century and the scientific world is abuzz with discoveries of ancient creatures, and in the process of finding and studying them, rattling the doors of faith. If they no longer exist, what happened? Are we to conclude that God created them only to reject them as a mistake?
At the center of the novel are two real historical figures who share the narrative in alternating chapters. Forty-something upper-class spinster Elizabeth Philpot forms an odd and unlikely friendship with an uneducated 11-year-old from a working-class family, a girl named Mary Anning. What unites them is a passion for fossil hunting.
Elizabeth and her sisters have been exiled from London to Lyme Regis when their brother marries. Elizabeth has forever been too smart, too plain and too sharp-tongued to be marriage material. She reflects on this with black-humored bitterness. She refuses to submit to the judgment -- failing grade -- she sees in men's eyes and is not above calling the local luminary, Lord Henley, a "bloody idiot" for condescending to her and treating Mary Anning's groundbreaking fossil discovery as a mere amusing toy to add to his collection.
Mary "leads with her eyes," as Elizabeth notes with admiration; she sees the tiny creatures embedded in beach rocks that no one else discerns. Her first major discovery is an almost intact "croc" with most of its vertebrae, or "verteberries." Chevalier wisely doesn't try to mimic an unschooled dialect, but subtly suggests Mary's voice in a wobbly use of tenses and the occasional mispronunciation.
As Elizabeth watches Mary grow, she realizes that the girl is as much of an outsider as she is. When geologists come flocking in the wake of her discovery of what will be classified as an ichthyosaurus and have her guide them on the beach, malicious rumors circulate about her doings. Poor Mary, unaware of her unchangeable station in life, falls in love with a Col. Burch, a dashing amateur collector of the "curies" (curiosities) she finds for him. She mistakes his attentiveness for love and won't listen to Elizabeth's warnings that a gentleman would never think of her as marriage material.
What incenses Elizabeth above all is that Mary gets no credit for her discoveries. When another of her major finds, a plesiosaurus, arrives at the London Geological Society, a leading expert in the dinosaur business, the eminent Georges Cuvier, accuses her in a letter to the society of fraud, of cobbling together parts of disparate creatures.
In a tense but also comical scene, Elizabeth storms a major colloquium at society headquarters (where women , of course, are not admitted) in defense of Mary's probity.
Mary Anning's name is first mentioned in print in 1825, fittingly enough by Georges Cuvier. She gets the full recognition due her in Chevalier's novel, a rich and appealing portrait of her and that other "remarkable creature," Elizabeth Philpot.
Brigitte Frase is a Minneapolis-based writer.