The three Philpot sisters are bony, plain, and have no dowries to tempt a swain – yet an amazing fate awaits one of them. Their parents have died, so when their brother marries they are forced out of the family home in London to live in a tiny stone cottage overlooking the seaside town of Lyme Regis in Dorset. Squeezed in, they battle to adjust. ‘Morley Cottage was a lady’s home, the size of a lady’s character and expectations’ we are told. A man would bump both his head and his dignity on the low beams.
One of the two narrators, twenty-five-year-old Elizabeth Philpot, is very bright. She makes a few local friends, but misses the intellectual stimulation of her London life. She craves an interesting hobby and a companion who will understand her curiosity about the natural world. Meanwhile, younger sister Margaret dives into the social whirl of twice-weekly balls at the Assembly Rooms with a small raft of admirers.
As she did in The Girl with the Pearl Earring, Tracey Chevalier has chosen real historical characters and events as the focus of her imagination. Elizabeth, and her younger friend, Mary Anning, are to discover some of the very first dinosaur skeletons ever found by mankind. Yet they struggle to be taken seriously. In those times, very few people are aware that these finds are other than just crocodiles – and the world of collectors is still dominated by wealthy men.
The other narrator, illiterate Mary Anning, is only a child when her father is killed by a drunken fall. Collecting ‘curies’ (fossils) on the beach and cleaning them up for the tourist trade becomes even more crucial to the survival of herself, her mother and the younger siblings. An unlikely, but often troubled, friendship grows between this working-class child and the educated Elizabeth Philpot, daughter of a solicitor.