Chevalier's ability to present historical events as if they're unfolding in front of us gives startling impact to the characters' bafflement at the 'monster' fossils Mary finds, seen through the lens of nineteenth-century religious belief. If they are God's creatures, why are none like them alive today? The concept of extinction barely exists - were these animals, then, among those on Noah's Ark, Mary asks at one point? A clergyman, faced with Mary's reasonable question that since God made the land before the animals, how could fossils be embedded in rocks, replies that God must have placed the fossils there to test our faith. The novel places us at the dawn of understanding the true age of the Earth, then believed - according to Bishop Ussher's calculations - to have been a mere 6,000 years old. (Indeed, Bishop Ussher concluded that Heaven and Earth were created on the night preceding the 23rd October 4004 BC: 'I had always wondered at his precision,' Elizabeth reflects.) Mary Anning's discoveries of ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs were significant in shaping evolutionary theory - leading to ideas which revolutionised our view of the human population just as surely as the discovery that the sun, rather than the Earth, is the centre of our universe.
Such big ideas could have overwhelmed the novel in hands less skilled than Chevalier's. We're left with the picture shown on the rather beautiful cover: a headstrong, unconventional girl and her older, more cautious friend, a windswept beach, a search that may prove fruitless or may unlock more of Earth's secrets.
Both Mary and Elizabeth are given recurring motifs. Mary's is the lightning, which she believes courses through her body at moments of revelation, love and - on one occasion - sexual ecstasy. Elizabeth's is her habit of defining people according to which feature they 'lead by'. Mary Anning leads with her eyes; her sister Margaret leads with her hands. Meeting the attractive but possibly manipulative Captain Birch, Elizabeth comments: 'I have never trusted a man who leads with his hair. Only a vain, overconfident man does that.'
I don't know who Tracy Chevalier had in mind when she wrote that phrase. But I know who I'm thinking of now.