Paleontologist, fossil collector and dealer Mary Anning and her dog have long been a staple of the English school curriculum. Her history is perfect for authors of basic readers: Children! Doing marvellous things! With a faithful animal in tow!
Despite repeated exposure to such famous stories, the actual information readers retain can usually be summed up in a short tweet (girl finds giant fossil, leaves dog to guard it, excavates it single-handedly). So being able to sink fully into a novel-length, fictionalized exploration of Mary Anning's life is a bit like eating comfort food at a high-end restaurant. The familiarity makes you feel like an expert, but the quality of the ingredients and the subtleties of the experience raise you to a new level of knowledge, one that elevates you above your peers.
In Curiosity, Joan Thomas imagines an impossible romance between two people from vastly different social classes. Mary Anning lived in Lyme Regis in Dorset, the site of many important fossil discoveries in the early 19th century. Mary's early life was hard. Her father died following a lengthy illness after a fall on the cliffs while out collecting curios, and she had already lost several siblings. The whole family lived on the brink of penury much of the time.
Her first major discovery, when she was 12, was of the entire skeleton of an Ichthyosaurus. She sold curios to tourists visiting the town as well as rarer fossils to collectors and gentlemen scientists, one of whom auctioned off his entire collection to save Mary and her family from imminent eviction.
When the novel opens, the love interest, Henry de la Beche, has just been officially expelled from Marlow (a military school) for insubordination and has run away before he can be sent away. The disgrace is damaging to his future prospects, so when the neighbour of the uncle he is living with sets his daughter up as a trap, Henry is quickly caught while imagining that he is the one doing the trapping. His fiancée has money, importantly for Henry's family, since when he comes of age he will inherit a sugar plantation that is likely to be nothing but debt. He and Mary don't meet until almost halfway through the novel, but from the beginning, they each recognize in the other something they have been searching for.
But class is everything, and the very idea of love is impossible. Henry and Mary continue to collaborate on their work, tormenting each other by their presence, never really able to communicate except in snatched moments in public spaces. Thomas is interested in the language they use and the coded meaning behind it. She especially notices how Mary's intellectual development and ambition mean she fits in nowhere, having gentled her speech for her work until she is, "like the Ichthyosaurus[,]neither fish nor fowl." She cannot be with Henry, but neither can she marry someone from her own background.
Curiosity is a much more focused book than Thomas's 2008 novel, Reading by Lightning, and unlike the earlier work it trusts readers to understand a message from the briefest of sketches. Social class and the position of women are pointed up through Mary's own disgruntlement. When one of the collectors publishes a book about every fossil ever found in England, along with the names of the gentlemen credited with the finds, Mary is angry that her own name does not appear, even though she discovered and excavated many of the fossils listed. Even her friend Elizabeth Philpot is mentioned in the book, for a fossil that Mary identified and showed her how to clean.
A short while later, when Mary has stopped selling the men her fossils and has an agent in London working for her, the collectors allow their bitterness and hostility to overflow. Henry steps in to defend her: "It is Mary Anning's superior knowledge in all subjects related to her field [that accounts for our discomfort with her] It is her refusal to pander to male vanity and pretend that the gentlemen with whom she discourses have come to this knowledge before her."
Ultimately, Mary can spend her life doing the work she loves, but not without great personal sacrifice. Despite some satisfying flights of authorial fancy, Thomas cannot bend the rules far enough to free Mary and Henry from the restrictions of their place and time. The known facts about our heroes' lives intrude, and the novel ends soberly, if not sadly, for both of them.
J.C. Sutcliffe is a writer and translator who lives in Canada and England.