I did say I’d be writing more about Fowler. From the past weekend’s column.
Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures begins with a superhero origin story. A baby is in a field with a crowd of people watching a performance. A storm blows up, and one woman picks up the baby and shelters under a tree. The tree is struck by lightning, and lightning runs through the child’s body—and the body of the woman holding her, who is killed along with others standing nearby. The child survives, but from that day is marked out as different. The child has powers that no one around can understand.
The child is Mary Anning, self-taught palaeontologist and fossil-collector and remarkable creature herself. Her superpowers (somewhat less spectacular than invisibility or unnatural strength but no less world-shattering) were finding fossils, understanding fossils, and making a huge contribution to the nineteenth century’s overturning of what was known about the world, while being lower-class, not very educated, and female.
I read Chevalier’s book about Anning shortly after another writer’s depiction of her—Karen Joy Fowler’s short story “The Science of Herself” which I found, coincidentally, a few days after Anning’s 215th birth anniversary. One of the (many) things I love about Fowler’s writing is her constant questioning of how a story is being told even as she tells it. It’s a question that comes up frequently even in this short piece; what are the ways in which we create a narrative of Mary Anning’s life? It’s this question that makes Fowler’s story work so well in conjunction with other accounts of that life, such as Chevalier’s. What choices have been made, we’re forced to ask, what forms do we try to fit this story into?
“Austen would have seen the possibilities”, Fowler says, as Mary meets the geologist Henry de le Beche for the first time when both are in their teens. “[T]he older boy, in disgrace, but with the confidence of wealth, education, and good looks. Then Mary, who should have been quiet and deferential in his company, but was not.” We know this story. It isn’t Mary Anning’s.
Austen and Anning have an unlikely connection. Austen visited Lyme Regis, Mary’s town, more than once, and in 1803 called in Mary’s father to fix a cabinet. She thought the price he quoted too high and refused it, and wrote about it in her diary and that was that. Fowler imagines a teenaged Mary selling ammonites on the beach in 1814, the year in which the characters in Persuasion visit Lyme Regis, three years after Mary and Joseph Anning unearthed the first ichthyosaur, unnoticed by Anne Elliot. Unnoticed by Austen too, but it’s hard to see what Austen would have done with her.
Among the other narrators of Anning’s life whom Fowler quotes is the teenaged Anna Maria Pinney. “Had she lived in an age of chivalry she might have been a heroine with fearless courage, ardour, and peerless truth and honour.” But Pinney was sixteen, and she relates a story of Mary’s own teenage years, and “[t]he romance may well have doubled in the double adolescent telling of it.”
Chevalier splits her story into two voices; Mary’s own and that of her mentor of sorts, Elizabeth Philpot. Mary speaks in an odd mix of registers, presumably to indicate her incongruous position; Elizabeth provides the (excessive) period detail. There is a definite narrative arc.
Fowler, on the other hand, resists trying to capture Mary’s voice or story, and when she does, she immediately undermines herself. On noting that Mary was “a complete romantic” and had a Byron poem copied into her commonplace book, she suggests that the lines she’s quoted as significant might not have been the ones that mattered to Mary. She acknowledges the temptation to give her a secret sorrow (“The world dislikes a story in which a woman is merely accomplished, brave, and consequential”).
So what can an author do with another person’s life, particularly such an extraordinary one? Struggle, perhaps and remind herself constantly that people’s lives don’t fit neatly into narrative tropes. Turn it into a famous tongue-twister (she sells sea shells etc). Tell the truth slantwise; read Anning’s monsters into Verne’s science fiction, as Fowler does. Or write superhero stories.