Remarkable Creatures, by Tracy Chevalier


Mary Anning lived for her whole short life in Lyme Regis on the south coast of England. Born into a working-class family—her father was a cabinet-maker—Mary started while still a small child helping with the family’s sideline of gathering fossils from the cliffs that stretched along the shore. These were sold to tourists for much-needed income.

As a child, Mary’s claim to local fame was that she had been struck by lightning while only a little over a year old and survived, unlike the woman holding her or the two other children nearby. Chevalier imaginatively uses this incident as a source of much that is different about Mary, such as her remarkable eye for spotting fossils.

Chevalier’s novel is historical fiction, but Anning was a real person who lived during the first half of the 19th century. So was Elizabeth Philpot, a lady of limited means who moved with her sisters to Lyme Regis. While looking for the pretty stones she did not yet realise were fossils, Elizabeth became friends with young Mary even though she was 20 years older.

The story is really about their friendship, a peculiar one not only because of the difference in their ages and circumstances, but because of their shared rejection of the customs of the day. Climbing around on the cliffs digging out fossils and reading scientific treatises about them were not approved activities for women of any class. Mary taught Elizabeth how to recognize fossils in the shale and limestone of the cliffs, while Elizabeth taught her how to read and write and also shared with her the scientific papers that she found.

Gathering fossils was dangerous work because the cliffs were unstable. As the ground crumbled during storms, new fossils were exposed, but the two women were always in danger of being buried by a landslide. It was also dangerous because at the time the very existence of fossils was disputed because they repudiated the prevalent literal understanding of the Bible by suggesting not only that the earth might not have been created in a handful of days, but also that God may have allowed some of his creatures to die out. At that time it was believed that God watched over his creatures and could not have made a mistake or allowed any of them to become extinct.

Completely self-taught, Anning became a significant figure in the history of science. We follow her footsteps as she discovers an ichthyosaur skeleton—she was the first to suggest that it was not a crocodile, but something that must have lived long ago—as well as two complete plesiosaur skeletons and a pterosaur skeleton. She and Elizabeth also find important fish fossils. Elizabeth’s significant contributions later led her nephew to build a museum originally named after who her that later became the Lyme Regis Museum. Part of her collection is in the Oxford Museum of Natural History.

Amateur fossil hunters and prominent geologists of the day not only consulted Anning, and but also asked her to lead them on fossil hunting expeditions on the cliffs. Some of the men whom she helped took credit for her, finds but towards the end of her life this misrepresentation was corrected and her accomplishments began to be recognized.

While I’m delighted to have these two foremothers’ stories brought out of obscurity and introduced to a popular audience, I do have some qualms about historical fiction in general. Because so little is known about the details of their lives, there is ample room for a novelist’s imagination.

However, when we are talking about two women who actually lived, I have reservations about taking the liberty of adding to their stories. We can guess at their likely motivations, but the author herself admits that she made up some events that I believe the women would not thank her for. Of course, after we’re dead and have no one to speak for us, we have no control over our own stories. At least Anning has not been featured in a commercial dancing with a vacuum cleaner like Fred Astaire.

Still, Chevalier has done a great deal of research and written an engaging book. She has also done a great service in bringing out the inspiring story of these two women.

Have you recently learned about an area of women’s history that was new to you, perhaps through a book or a film?

The Man Who Knew Infinity, by Robert Kanigel


Subtitled “A Life of the Genius Ramanujan”, tthis dual biography tells the story of one of the world’s greatest mathematicians and the man whose support made him known to the world. Their stories raise questions pertinent to today’s societies about prejudice, privilege and education.

Ramanujan was born in southern India 1887. Although his family was Brahmin, they were not wealthy. Ramanujan’s mother treated him like a little prince, probably in part because he was her only child until he was ten. From his first experience with school at age five, he rebelled against its teachers and rules. “Even as a child, he was so self-directed that, it was fair to say, unless he was ready to do something on his own, in his own time, he was scarcely capable of doing it at all.”

Anyone with a gifted child in a bureaucratic school can recognise this situation, but Ramanujan’s gifts were so extraordinary that, once he discovered mathematics, he could not bring himself to work on anything else. As a result, he failed the all-important exam which dictated who could go to university.

Kanigel’s story details Ramanujan’s obsession with mathematics and subsequent struggle for recognition and for the means to support himself and his family. By the time Ramanujan came to Trinity College, Cambridge, as a result of a letter to G. H. Hardy, he’d reinvented much of the then-current mathematical theory that hadn’t been available to him at home and gone far beyond it. Even today mathematicians are building entire careers working on portions of the book of theorems he brought with him to England.

Caught by the Great War, Ramanujan stayed at Trinity from 1914-1918, working with Hardy and others. Kanigel details his difficulties with the cultural differences, the racial prejudice he encountered, and his own personality. Perhaps most significant was the problem of simply getting enough to eat. A devout Brahmin, Ramanujan would not eat anything with an animal product in it. Today that would not be a problem, but at that time there was little he could eat and even that diminished with wartime restrictions. The effect on his health from a poor diet, the cold climate, and his passion for his work was catastrophic. In 1918 he went home to India near death from tuberculosis.

As in other nonfiction, writing a biography presents certain challenges. You want to write an engaging story, but unless the subject has left revealing diaries or letters, you don’t have access to their emotions and motivations. Despite years of research, you may still be missing information about critical areas of your subject’s life, but you cannot just make up things to fill in the gaps. If you speculate about his or her feelings, you must be sure your readers know that’s what you’re doing.

If in the end I felt I knew more about Hardy as a person than about Ramanujan, that says more about me and my prior knowledge than the book. It was also probably unavoidable since Hardy lived longer and wrote and spoke much more than the man he championed. Given that Ramanujan’s only writings were professional papers and a few letters, Kanigel does a good job of teasing out the internal and external forces working on him. One of the most interesting aspects of Ramanujan’s personality that Kanigel brings out is the Brahmin’s blend of science and spiritualism.

An added difficulty is that your subject’s area of expertise may be too esoteric to easily present to a lay reader. Kanigel does an excellent job of presenting tidbits of mathematics in easily digestible chunks anyone can understand. The reader can certainly skip over them without losing the story, but reading them helps deepen your appreciation for Ramanujan’s extraordinary accomplishments.

The relevance of his story for us today is best captured in this quote from Nehru’s Discovery of India, provided by Kanigel:

Ramanugan’s brief life and death are symbolic of conditions in India. Of our millions how few get any education at all; how many live on the verge of starvation . . . If life opened its gates to them and offered them food and healthy conditions of living and education and opportunities of growth, how many among these millions would be eminent sceientists, educationaists, technicians, industrialists, writers, and artists, helping to build a new India and a new world?

It’s impossible not to apply Nehru’s words to our own slums and impoverished rural communities, plagued by poor education, food insecurity, vanishing job prospects, and often inadequate health care. What geniuses are lost to us? As Kanigel ably points out, we cannot rely on the bromide that genius will out. Ramanujan’s story shows how much was lost by his long obscurity and early death, how many times his eventual recognition hung in a precarious balance.

Today’s uber-wealthy, comfortable in their gilded fortresses, may write off great swathes of people, but by doing so they may be depriving themselves of the person who might one day have cured their cancer or discovered a new and more profitable energy source.

It’s no wonder Ramanujan’s story has gripped the imaginations of so many people. It is inspiring to see what a single mind may be capable of. And sobering to see how easily it could be defeated by society’s strictures.

Have you seen the film or read the book? What did you think?

Anything That Burns You: A Portrait of Lola Ridge, Radical Poet, by Terese Svoboda


How could I have never heard of Lola Ridge before? A central figure in Modernist poetry, she seemed to know everyone: from Robert Frost to Amy Lowell to H.D. Praised by people like Stephen Vincent Benét and Louis Untermeyer, she was considered one of the top American poets. Her fiery poems describe the real life of immigrants and others struggling to get by. A lifelong anarchist, she was devoted to the ideal of personal and artistic freedom. She worked for years with Emma Goldman and participated in many political protests, including the outcry against the Sacco and Vanzetti executions and the railroading of Tom Mooney.

I have become accustomed to the way once-popular artists and activists disappear from the cultural consciousness. I have heard the argument that the guardians of the Western canon needs to let go of the belief that only white men can write lasting literature, and add more women and minorities (and new majorities!). I’ve shaken my head at the way hysteria around World War II and McCarthy’s reprehensible anti-Communist tactics attempted to wipe out the memory of the social reformers, labor activists, anarchists, socialists and, yes, communists who were active in the first half of the 20th century. But I’m still surprised that I’d never heard of such a prominent figure.

This biography rescues Ridge from history’s dustbin. Svoboda embeds us in her life, from her birth in Dublin in 1873 through emigration to New Zealand as a child, then to Australia, and finally to the U.S. in 1907 where she mainly lived in New York City. Her travels didn’t stop there though. Always on the edge of bankruptcy and starvation, she scrounged money for trips to Mexico, Baghdad, Taos, and California. She was awarded residencies at Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony.

And always she wrote poetry. By including so many poems and fragments of poems, Svoboda give us what is truly a writer’s story: Ridge’s experiences and convictions drive her fierce work that captures the lives of the poor and disadvantaged, the dreams that possess them and the forces that beat them down. Here is a poem from her first collection The Ghetto and Other Poems:

I love those spirits
That men stand off and point at,
Or shudder and hood up their souls—
Those ruined ones,
Where Liberty has lodged an hour
And passed like flame,
Bursting asunder the too small house.

Described as fragile and intense, Ridge often invoked images of fire in her work. She went on to publish three more collections, each more popular than the last. She won awards like the Guggenheim, and edited the avant-garde magazines Others and Broom, as well as Margaret Sanger’s magazine on birth control. While editing Others and afterwards, she hosted weekly soirées in her one-room apartment to discuss art and freedom. These lively gatherings drew famous and not-so-famous writers and artists and activists, including William Carlos Williams, Hart Crane, Marianne Moore, Man Ray, Alfred Kreymborg, Mitchell Dawson, Jean Toomer, John Reed, Louise Bryant, and Evelyn Scott.

The New Critics, who rose to ascendancy during WWII and afterwards, insisted that poetry should not be political in any way and claimed that women, with their overactive emotions and weak intellect, were unsuited for writing anything but love poetry. Perhaps, then, it is no surprise that Ridge’s poetry, so famous in her lifetime, sank into obscurity after her death in 1941. Svoboda compares the way Ridge’s influence on Crane and others has been lost to the way few today know of how TS Eliot drew on Hope Mirrlees’s Modernist masterpiece Paris while writing The Waste Land.

I hope that Svoboda’s biography helps to bring her back into the light.

What early 20th century poet fires your imagination?

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a digital copy of this book free from the author. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.