Novelist Tracy Chevalier has made a career of bringing history to life. She has written books set in medieval France, 18th century London and 17th century Holland — specifically, in the home of painter Johannes Vermeer.
That book, her most famous, tells the story of a Dutch teenager who became a maid in the Vermeer household — and the subject, as Chevalier imagined it, of one of his most famous works, Girl with a Pearl Earring.
Chevalier's newest novel is called Remarkable Creatures. At its center is a pioneering 19th century fossil hunter named Mary Anning, whom Chevalier first encountered one day while visiting a small museum about dinosaurs.
"I had never heard of her," Chevalier tells Mary Louise Kelly. "I learned from the display that she was a working-class girl who had lived in Lyme Regis, which is on the south coast of England, and had been fossil hunting with her father, and one day she and her brother discovered a huge specimen of what turned out to be an icthyosaur, an ancient marine reptile about 200 million years old. [She] had no idea what it was — thought it was a crocodile — and went on to discover another ancient marine reptile called a plesiosaur."
Despite her amateur beginnings, Anning became an important figure in the world of paleontology.
"She was really quite an amazing woman," Chevalier continues. "She was completely self-taught, never had any formal education, was very poor [and] found these things for a living."
Chevalier says that she knew she had to write the novel when she discovered an incident from Anning's childhood: "Maybe most important to me as a novelist, she was struck by lightning as a baby and survived it and lived to tell the tale."
(Read the opening of Remarkable Creatures, in which Anning describes the lightning strike.)
Making Anning's story all the more remarkable is the fact that her discoveries took place nearly 50 years before Charles Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species, during an era when scientists were still trying to figure out what a fossil was.
"It was prime Jane Austen territory," Chevalier says. "It was early 19th century. Most people believed that the world was 6,000 years old and had been created by God in six days and set to run and if you looked around it was exactly as God had made it. They took the Bible as literal history. And scientists were very slowly starting to examine that. And when Mary discovered this specimen of an animal that clearly didn't exist now — at first they called it a crocodile, but they really quickly realized it couldn't be because it has this huge bulbous eye like a doughnut, and it has paddles rather than claws and legs — they quickly figured out that it was extinct. And that was like setting off a little bomb in this cozy idea that the world was 6,000 years old, because suddenly people realized, actually the world isn't just as God made it."
The fact that Anning made all her discoveries in spite of her lack of education made room in the story for another important point of view, says Chevalier. She got a little gift, she says, when she discovered a friend of Anning's named Elizabeth Philpot.
"They used to go out fossil hunting on the beach every day," Chevalier says. "Elizabeth was 20 years older than Mary, a middle-class woman who had moved with two sisters down to Lyme Regis from London in 1805. And they never married, any of them, and they became quite interested in fossils."
Chevalier says that because of Anning's limited point of view, she needed someone who could stand in for the reader, who would understand and comment on Anning's discoveries. In Chevalier's telling, Philpot narrates sections of the story.
"It's a book that becomes more about their developing relationship. It's about fossils but it's also about friendship. And in a way this book tries to answer that question, 'What do women do who don't find the Mr. Darcy of the Jane Austen novels?' "
Though Anning may not be as familiar to contemporary audiences as Mr. Darcy or Elizabeth Bennet, she may have inspired at least one well-known cultural trinket.
"She sells seashells by the seashore," recites Chevalier. The tongue twister, she believes, was created in 1908 as a tribute to Mary Anning, even though Anning sold mostly fossils.
"But she did indeed sell seashells by the seashore," Chevalier says. "The funny thing was, I was originally gonna name the book She Sells Seashells, and then I thought there's no way I'm gonna do that because I'll have to say it so many times."
The large audience that will come to Remarkable Creatures following the success of Girl with a Pearl Earring makes Chevalier protective of her newest heroine.
"I'll tell you, what I feel pressure most is getting things right," she says. "Most people aren't going to read a biography of Mary Anning or read scientific books about her. They're going to read this book and think it's exactly how it happened. I had that feeling after I wrote Girl with a Pearl Earring, people took it as that's exactly how it happened with Vermeer the painter, when actually I made most of that up."