Chevalier on Jane Austen and Dinosaurs
One, I don’t know if either of our readers are committed enough to remember the original Nonfiction of Fiction post, which discussed Dave Eggers’ What is the What.
Two, who would click on anything titled Revisiting the Nonfiction of Fiction?
Everything about that title bores me, and I wrote it. You can bold it, italicize it — nothing makes it interesting.
Instead, I went with the unpretentious Chevalier on Jane Austen and Dinosaurs, even though it’s factually incorrect for reasons that become clear by the end of this post.
I’ve now wasted four paragraphs without explaining the purpose of this post. Let me take it from the top: I read Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures and it’s another one of those let’s-turn-history-into-fiction novels.
I already explained in my Eggers post that I don’t care for the tactic, but it bothers me less in Chevalier’s case, because there is no charity attached. (Not that I think the Valentino Achak Deng’s charity is an unworthy cause. I just question using a fictionalized account of your life to promote it.)
Instead, Chevalier only wants us to enjoy her story and once more ponder how unfair the Victorian era was to women.
Chevalier writes the story of Mary Anning, Elizabeth Philpot and their friendship. Anning is a fossil hunter in the early 1800s who discovered the first complete skeletons of an ichthyosaur and plesiosaur (neither of which were dinosaurs, rendering my headline incorrect.) Anning is a working class gal with little formal education. Yet most of the paleontologists of the day sought her specimens and advice.
Philpot is another fossil hunter. She is older, richer and from a more respected family than Anning, but the two became friends because of a shared hobby.
Chevalier said it was Philpot and Anning’s friendship that drew her to the source material, but she doesn’t emphasize it. Instead, her focus meanders between the fossils, sexism, science vs. faith, and the romantic mishaps of the characters.
Though there’s no hard evidence for it, Chevalier decides to link Anning in an ill-fated romantic relationship with Colonel Birch, one of her collectors.
(Chevalier explains in her afterward: “Of course, I made up plenty. For instance, while there was gossip about Mary and Buckland and Mary and Birch, there was no proof. That is where only a novelist can step in.”)
More than anything, Chevalier seems to want to write Anning’s life as a Jane Austen novel, one in which the heroine does not get her man. Chevalier echoes her tone and language, and her version of Elizabeth Philpot shares some attributes with Elizabeth Bennet. Both struggle with a culture that marginalizes women and both suffer from presumption. Philpot’s relationship with Birch is very Bennet-Darcy.
That’s interesting; because Philpot, who Chevalier writes as a pragmatist, makes a point of disparaging Austen and her happy endings. I’m not suggesting Chevalier has a problem with Austen. Not every opinion espoused by a fictional character is one the author endorses. If anything, I wonder if Chevalier felt the need to differentiate between Austen’s stories and her own.
It’s true that Chevalier’s story is more firmly based in reality. There are no improbable marriages in Remarkable Creatures, but that doesn’t make it better than a weel-written, if frivolous, love story.
Chevalier is a good writer. Her language flows; but her focus meanders, and she’s unable to build any momentum. If we were to break out the old Jason Lea Rating System [seen below], I’d rank it as a 3. Remarkable Creatures will not be anyone’s favorite, but it would be too harsh to call it bad.
Jason Lea Ranking System:
5 - Wu-Tang Clan
4 - Delonte West YouTube interviews
3 - Celebrity guest appearances on sitcoms
2 - Olive Garden commercials
1 - New York Yankees
-Jason Lea, JLea@News-Herald.com
P.S. In light of Delonte West’s recent personal and legal struggles, it seems tactful to take him off the scale. Likewise, the Olive Garden commercials that offend me no longer air, so it’s a dated reference. It may be time to revise the ranking system.