Curiosity, by Joan Thomas

Review copy courtesy McClelland and Stewart

Joan Thomas is an author who has arrived on the Canadian scene with some panache. Last year, her debut novel — Reading by Lightning — was Giller longlisted (I’ll confess it was the only longlist title that I did not read, as the description convinced me it just was not my kind of book). Historical fiction is not my favorite genre, so I will also admit that this year’s selection of Curiosity to the longlist did not have me particularly enthused. Still, given that Thomas is now two-for-two (and in only two years) a read did seem to be worth the effort. And while Curiosity did not totally overcome my lack of enthusiasm, it is a significant achievement. I am sure that those with a keener taste for historical fiction will find more than I did in this novel.

Curiosity is based on the real-life story of Mary Anning, a Lyme Regis scavenger and “curiosity” seller who became a self-taught paleontologist in the 1820s, more than 40 years before publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species. She discovered and catalogued fossils from the cliffs of Lyme Regis that suggested the Biblical view of creation, the science of the time, was faulty and that species had evolved or become extinct over long periods of time. Lower-class women — indeed, all women — were not eligible to be considered as scientists in that era, but she sold her finds to artistocratic gentlemen who in turn brought them to the attention of the scientific community. It was more than a century later that science scholars began to document her contribution (many of her finds are in the Natural History Museum in London) — while my knowledge of paleontology is almost non-existent, I am willing to accept Thomas’ premise that Mary made a significant contribution, despite her humble background.

That science is only part of Thomas’ interest, however. Just as last year’s historical blockbuster, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, explored in depth the back story of Thomas Cromwell in the reign of Henry VIII, this novel is equally consumed with contemplating what life — and perhaps love — was like for the Lyme Regis’ scavenger whose self-curiosity and discipline led to her becoming what we would now call a paleontologist. Like Mantel, Thomas has done an impressive amount of homework. Her conclusions and the resulting story are speculative, but the author’s conjectures are realistic enough that I was quite willing to go along for the ride.

Here are the book’s opening, framing paragraphs:

They were powerful charms, curiosities. The people who came to Lyme Regis to take the waters would pay sixpence for the meanest little snakestone, and carry it for luck. Mary’s mother had worked the curiosity table until lately, and if a customer had trouble parting with his coin, she would fix a soft look on him and offer a charm against wizening. She was not bold in her manner and the gentleman would startle and wonder at her meaning. But usually he bought, after that.

Now that her mother had the baby to look after, the curiosity table was Mary’s job. Mary had come out early to get set up for the coach from Bath. Her wares were all organized on the table, and the square was still empty. There was just the brown hen tethered beside her, and the pauper Dick Mutch lying in stocks a few feet away in front of Cockmoile Prison. Mary sat deep in thought, her eyes on the moon, floating in a blue sky.

Wizening — it was a complaint particular to men. She needed a more general charm. Blindness, she finally decided. She tried it out in a low voice: “They be a powerful charm against blindness.”

That introduction is a telling example of the effective economy of Thomas’ prose that will be a feature of the entire book. The conflict between old wives’ charms and science (the “science” of the day was equally based on a different kind of “belief”). The class conflict between the destitute commoners and the gentry. And the never-ending conflict for the poor of finding a way to get by, cadging sales at the curiosity table when the coach from Bath drops its rich passengers at the coast.

To develop those conflicts, the author needs to introduce other elements into her story and history has supplied her with a supporting cast of real-life characters. Most important is Henry De la Beche, a gentleman officer cadet from Great Marlow, who has been kicked out of the school because of a prank. He makes his way to London and his Uncle Clement. Henry is heir to a sugar plantation in Jamaica but even at this stage returns are not good and anti-slavery rumblings are being heard in England. He may be landed gentry overseas, but he is effectively destitute and, worse yet, ruined by scandal. After some aimless wandering and hanging about, he eventually arrives in Lyme Regis, dependent for survival on his mother (who does not like him much) and her new husband. Alas, during that period he stole a kiss from a lass of his class in a garden — in the mores of the time, that has been interpreted as a binding marriage proposal.

Henry does have skill as an artist. The real Henry De la Beche did as well — the dust jacket cover drawing of Curiosity is detail from one of the works he sketched while in Lyme Regis. Mary’s ability to find things and Henry’s ability to capture them in artistic versions inevitably bring the two together; Thomas’ speculation is that that led to more than just science, but that class distinctions and prejudice would end up proving more powerful than romance in the final analysis.

There are a number of other real life characters who play significant roles in the book — collectors and “scientists” like William Conybeare, Thomas Birch (whose generosity enables the Annings to survive) and William Buckland. They got the official credit for Mary’s discoveries at the time; their main scholarly interest was in developing theories that fit the discoveries into the Bible’s description of how the world was created. The rumblings of the inevitable arrival of the theory of evolution are a constant presence in the book.

It is a complicated story, but Thomas tells it all in crystal clear, straightforward prose, which would be my explanation for why the last two Giller juries recognized her work. She is certainly more interested in clarity than drama — there are no surprises in the book and major developments, even on the romantic front, are all presaged. Readers of Jane Austen’s Persuasion (which also features Lyme Regis) will have heard some echoes in this review and, I am sure, will find even more in Thomas’ novel (I’ve read the Austen but confess I don’t remember it well enough to spot many beyond the obvious). There is an Austenesque quality to Thomas’ writing: both authors are more interested in making sure that they get all the details right than they are in producing drama. The ordinary stuff of life, and its problems, is more than enough drama for both.

While it doesn’t have the “epic” quality of Mantel’s Wolf Hall (nor its length — 400 versus 700 pages), Curiosity has an equal feality to detail that I am sure would have appeal to those who like historical fiction, particularly the variety that explores relatively obscure figures whom official history has overlooked. The science is kept simple enough that it is interesting, even to those of us whose going-in knowledge and interest is minimal. The characters may have existed in real life, but the author does an excellent job of making the fictional versions complete, whatever speculation she may have required. And while I don’t know the shores and cliffs of Lyme Regis well, the physcial geography is equally convincing. While I won’t be heading back for a reread in short order, Thomas did a very good job of maintaining the interest of a somewhat unenthusiastic reader — as I said at the start, I am sure that those who like this kind of work will find it even more rewarding than I did.

As a final bit of tease for visitors here interested in folk history and fiction, Thomas concludes a five-page Author’s Note at the end of the book with a statement that I found intriguing. It’s a minor spoiler so I’ve included it as a comment for those who want to avoid it until they, too, get to the end of the book. The curious (the book is called Curiosity, after all) might want to go there right now.

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18 Responses to “Curiosity, by Joan Thomas”

  1. KevinfromCanada Says:

    MINOR SPOILER

    Here’s the quote: “The efforts to establish Mary Anning’s scientific credentials did not begin until the 1930s, but Mary Anning was never really lost to local lore — the well-known tongue twister “She sells seashells by the seashore” is almost certainly about her.”

    I’m not sure that I believe that, but a part of me certainly wants to.

  2. Wandering Coyote Says:

    Great review! I ADORED this book and couldn’t put it down. Interestingly enough, I read it shortly after reading Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures, which is also about Mary Anning & some of the other characters in Curiosity. The two make great companion books as they tell different stories with similar themes. This is my first Thomas book and I look forward to reading more of her stuff.

  3. pburt Says:

    I too am leery of historical novels but you make this one sound like a great read. I will have to wait for it to be published in the US.

    Thanks for a great review.

    PB

  4. Sunday Caught My Interest « Reflections from the Hinterland Says:

    [...] the Booker Prize list but I am unsuccessful.  Kevin from Canada writes a wonderful view of Joan Thomas’ Curiosity an historical novel based on the real life of Mary Anning, a curiosity seller and self-taught [...]

  5. Mystica Says:

    Thanks for a great review.

  6. Crake Says:

    Thanks for the review, Kevin. I’m looking forward to this novel.

  7. Kirsty Says:

    I am fond of historical fiction, and I like the sound of this. But really I wanted to be very superficial and say – lovely cover!

  8. Gavin Says:

    I really liked Reading by Lightning and am looking forward to reading Curiosity. Thanks for a wonderful review

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks for the comments, all. I’d say Wandering Coyote’s comment confirms my feeling that those who like historical fiction will find a lot to like in this book — I certainly enjoyed it, even if that really isn’t my genre.

  10. Shelley Says:

    Hi Kevin,

    Just wanted to make sure that you know there’s an admiring reference to your blog on dovegreyreader!

  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Shelley: I did see it and am quite chuffed, I must admit.

  12. Fran Says:

    Having been taken “fossilizing” by my mother, an amateur geologist. when a child I know of the excitement when you split open a rock and discover a perfect specimen. To realise you are seeing something which has not seen the light of day for maybe millons of years is a thrill.
    Understanding the significance of the fossil creatures such as those Mary Anning uncovered, in an age which still believed the bible word for word has only recently dawned on me, prompted by my recent read of Remarkable Creatures. I look forward to this novel when it is more easily obtainable in GB.

  13. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Fran: I have to believe that some UK publisher will be signing Joan Thomas up since both her style and story seem ideally suited for the market (and last year’s Death by Lightning would be an attractive addition to the package. As some who knows at least a little bit about “fossilizing”, I think you will find it an intriguing read when it gets there — that excitement of discovery that you describe is very much a part of the story.

  14. Linda C Says:

    Great review. I have been interesting in Mary Anning for a few years and did not know of this book. Unfortunately, copies of the book are “out of print,” “not available,” or frightfully expensive. Hopefully, it will win the Giller and become more widely available.

  15. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Linda: I am not sure where you live, but copies are still available in Canada and a paperback edition is scheduled for March, 2011. I would suspect by then that it will have attracted some UK interest and would imagine that that edition would be available in the US. Alas, it cannot win the Giller since it did not advance to the shortlist.

  16. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I have much the same taste for historical fiction as you do. It’s an interesting subject, but “there are no surprises in this book” coupled with a focus on clarity makes it sound like a book that simply tells a story.

    Now, that’s a distinctly underrated quality and one I respect, but it’s not what I’m looking for as a rule. When I want that I read genre, which tends to do it better than quasi-literary fiction.

    It sounds efficient rather than inspired, is that unkind do you think? It sounds fair that it didn’t make the shortlist, though admittedly your own biases (the same as mine) might mean that others would find strengths where you (and probably I) wouldn’t. As I suppose the comments here demonstrate.

  17. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: I agree that it is very much a taste issue (and don’t think you would want to spend time on the book). Thomas’ strength in this book is very much her ability to extend what is known about Mary Anning with some speculation — that’s why Austen came so readily to mind. And I would say that, like Austen, Thomas does use her straightforward story to explore some broader societal issues.

    I didn’t know about Remarkable Creatures until it was mentioned in a number of comments. It does strike me that a number of book clubs would find a two book, fiction/non-fiction read of that and this novel to be a very interesting experience.

  18. Max Cairnduff Says:

    For the right book club it’s a great idea Kevin.

    Oddly, my knowledge of book clubs is largely taken from the complaints of people I know who belong to ones they’re unhappy with. I suspect I know people in perfectly successful ones without my realising it, but they don’t feel the need to talk about them so much as those who’re more frustrated.

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