by Tracy Chevalier
I was anxious to begin my first Christmas read, a novel by Tracy Chevalier, who also wrote Girl With A Pearl Earring, because of the time period: early nineteenth century, the place: Lyme, England, and the topic: women in the sciences, as rare as the fossils these women discovered. And although the back cover blurb promised the characters, “… forge a path to some of the most important discoveries of the nineteenth century” I felt the book didn’t deliver what it promised.
Miss Elizabeth Philpot, at twenty-four, understands her place in the world as a spinster, and lives with two of her unmarried sisters in Lyme Regis,a seaside town in England. The sisters settled into their husbandless lots by developing eccentricities: Margaret mixed herbal tonics and salves, Louise gardened avidly, and Elizabeth had “the eye” for finding fossilized ichthyosauri, Counterpoint to Elizabeth is the younger Mary Anning, who also has the eye–but is the daughter of a widowed laundress who sometimes resorts to burning the furniture for fuel. Despite the class differences the two women form a fast friendship, begin working together to hunt for the next big find. Even as Mary sells her finds to support the family, the two accompany growing number of treasure hunters, collectors, and geologists who begin to flock to the area once the discoveries are made public. Elizabeth and Mary have a falling out over the affections of one of these gentlemen, and they cease to work together.
The story touched lightly on the effect the fossils had on religious beliefs of the time, the constraints of spinsterhood in the nineteenth century, and the exclusion of women in any intellectual endeavor. Any of these enormous themes could have driven an insightful novel. What I found most disappointing was that the how of Elizabeth and Mary’s expertise was wholly ignored. The women might read Cuvier, a French fossil expert, but the ideas and their thoughts on their reading weren’t relayed or discussed in any meaningful way. It was almost as if their knowledge was innate–although the novel covered many years the reader sees no building of ideas. I felt this gave the women’s scientific “knowledge” less weight. Quite frankly, I didn’t fully believe they were experts.
That said, I did find the book readable and it was a pleasant, though not altogether fulfilling, way to begin my reading holiday.
Next up: Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin. I’m reading a thriller? By choice?!