I first heard about Mary Anning by reading a (nonfiction) children’s book with my daughter called Mary Anning and the Sea Dragon by Jeannine Atkins. Mary was a young girl in early 19th-century England who dug for fossils and sold them. She discovered a dinosaur before anyone knew what such a thing was—in fact before the word “dinosaur” was coined—and spent the better part of a year at the age of 12 uncovering an entire skeleton. She never married, and she continued to make a living by digging for fossils in her native Lyme Regis.
When I saw Curiosity by Joan Thomas on the library
Other reviews of Curiosity:
shelf one day, I was immediately drawn to an adult version of the story, even though the subtitle, “a love story,” perplexed me somewhat, because Mary never married (not that love equals marriage!) and the Jeannine Atkins book suggested a quirky, possibly lonely character in Mary. Well, whatever the case, I definitely wanted to read more about this eccentric woman who was unusual for her time and place.
Before I had a chance to read Curiosity, I also came across Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier. Well, then I was doubly curious, to think that 2010 brought forth two books about Mary Anning! Chevalier’s take is a little different: she offers the story of an uncommon friendship between two women of vastly different backgrounds and classes: Mary Anning, who came from a family struggling to keep clothed, fed and sheltered, and Elizabeth Philpot, who, though on the downturn of a moneyed family, needed neither to work nor to marry to live comfortably. I was just as eager to read Remarkable Creatures, since women’s friendships are an even stronger draw for me than love stories.
I started with Curiosity, which didn’t draw me in right from the start, as I found it particularly cerebral and hard to follow. But after the first hump I was really caught up in the story, its characters and its detail. I can only describe it as elegant. Joan Thomas plumbs the depths of 19th-century English classism and sexism in this novel, and renders complex characters with conflicting motivations. Here’s an early passage in Curiosity to give you an idea of the language and richness of description that Thomas achieves:
Mary sat and watched her father as he took up the second drawer and began to fit it together. He was working from the light of the window, which showed the sky in three rows of its panes, and then the sea. In the soft sawdust on the floorboards, she could see his footprints like the tracks of animals on the shore. This was a collecting cupboard he was making, with shallow drawers for the curiosities. For the rich, who could afford to hoard what the Annings must sell. It was a strange passion with the high-born, filling their drawing rooms with thunderbolts and snakestones, although they could buy all the china figurines they chose. Richard was lining up the dovetails, bracing the drawer on the workbench. He needed a helper. But he’d apprenticed [Mary’s brother] Joseph to Armstrong the upholsterer on Dorcas Lane. (Curiosity, p. 13)
Remarkable Creatures is much more accessible—there was never a point in the text when I wasn’t sure if I understood what was actually happening—but it also had a tendency towards cliché. Chevalier, it seems, never has a character hold anything back. They speak out, they speak up, they make much drama, but ultimately this is neither very believable, nor in fact very interesting. Mary is constantly in need of rescue in various forms (and always from the more-than-obliging Miss Philpot).
Chevalier misses the boat completely as far as class analysis goes and almost has her own brand of classism towards the Annings: I was irritated that Mary’s father is depicted as a carpenter of poor workmanship, when, really, how long would you last as a craftsperson in a small town if your work was of poor quality? Was it just too hard for Chevalier to imagine that economic structures of the time, and not personal failure, were to blame for the Annings’ poverty? And then when Mary sells her first big find, Miss Philpot comes and instructs Mary’s mother and older brother to invest the money in an apprenticeship for him for a trade—as though only an educated, higher-class woman would have the forethought for such decision-making—and yet the likelihood of someone of a higher class speaking of such private matters with a family seemed quite low to me.
When Lord Henley paid us £23 for the whole crocodile, I wanted lots of things. I wanted to buy so many sacks of potatoes they’d reach the ceiling if you stacked them. I wanted to buy lengths of wool and have new dresses made for Mam and me. I wanted to eat a whole dough cake every day and burn so much coal the coalman would have to come every week to refill the coal bin. That was what I wanted. I thought my family wanted those things too.One day Miss Elizabeth come to see Mam after the deal had been done with Lord Henley and sat with her and Joe at the kitchen table. She didn’t talk of wool or coal or dough cakes, but of jobs. “I think it will benefit the family most if Joseph is apprenticed,” she said. “Now you have the money to pay the apprentice fee, you should do so. Whatever he chooses will be a steadier income than selling fossils.” (Remarkable Creatures, pp. 111-112.)
It was a strange experience to read two books with the same characters, not just Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot but a whole cast of characters in the town (with some exceptions) as well as the men who come from London to study the fossils. It’s a rare event to have two books cover so much of the same territory—I doubt both these books would have been published had they not come out nearly simultaneously, for whoever wrote the second book would surely have been accused of copying the first. (I do wonder whether Joan Thomas and Tracy Chevalier ever crossed paths in London or Lyme Regis while doing their research… that seems like a story in itself!)
I read Curiosity first, so it did feel to me like Joan Thomas raised the bar, and then Tracy Chevalier—for all that she may be the better known of the two writers—just didn’t hold a candle to Thomas’s achievement. I was interested, though, in the similarities and differences between each rendition. For example, the love story seemed so truncated in Joan Thomas’s book—were 19th-century men really so totally lacking in sexual imagination? However, when it was told in such a similar fashion in Tracy Chevalier’s book—though she chose a different character as the romantic interest—I felt more forgiving of Joan Thomas’s text. But perhaps it should just make me further question whether it’s 19th-century men who lacked imagination or rather 21st-century women writers when imagining 19th-century sex! The bigger question, of course, is about how sex is represented in literature and in our lives as women, which I can’t explain in more detail here without spoilers, but which I think deserves further exploration.
I would highly recommend Curiosity, even though I know it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, as it is quite literary and brooding; and I would not recommend Remarkable Creatures. If you’re into children’s books or have a child to read to (ages 7 to 10), Mary Anning and the Sea Dragon by Jeannine Atkins is a beautiful illustrated book and introduces several interesting topics for conversation._______________________________________________
Other reviews of Curiosity:
Books Under Skin • Curled Up with a Good Book and a Cup of Tea • Literary Treats • Reading the Past • The Overdecorated Bookcase