The Attic (a name which commemorates our first physical location) is, first and foremost, a site for the research students of the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester: a virtual community which aims to include all students, be they campus-based and full-time, or distance-learning and overseas. But we welcome contributions from students of museum studies - and allied subject areas - from outside the School and from around the world. Here you will find a lot of serious stuff, like exhibition and research seminar reviews, conference alerts and calls for papers, but there's also some 'fluff'; the things that inspire, distract and keep us going. After all, while we may be dead serious academic types, we're human too.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Novel Study: Curiosity (2010)


It's been all CFPs, all the time, lately on the Attic, so I thought I'd mix it up a bit and tell you about a good book I read recently. I was lent Joan Thomas's Curiosity, and although I was initially hesitant, I really enjoyed it.

I am not a fan of historical fiction, nor do I like it when authors insert a love story where there is dubious foundations for one. It all reads like fanfiction to me, and if I wanted to read that, I have my own sources! But the person who lent me the book vouched for its quality, and from the first page, I was a believer.

Curiosity tells the story of Mary Anning, a 19th century girl who, with her family, hunted and sold fossils in Lyme Regis. She is said to have been the inspiration for the tongue-twister 'she sells sea shells by the sea shore.' Anning was poor and uneducated, but had a talent for finding rare creatures, and was lucky enough to have the patronage of more educated and wealthy men of science and influence who purchased specimens from her. The novel traces Anning's early days, and her encounters with local fossil hunters; it speculates about a romantic relationship between her and Henry de la Beche, the president of the British Geological Society. It includes touching descriptions of her wretched family life, as well as vividly painting the closed circles of society in Lyme Regis and beyond. The author researched Anning's life in detail, but the book does not read like a dry biography, nor like a Mary Sue potboiler; it manages, through its rich language and poetic descriptions, to evoke the life of a woman, who through force of circumstance, was not able to achieve her potential. It is a fitting tribute to a talent that shaped modern understandings of natural history, and a timely reminder that the rights of women were hard-won.

A few weeks after I finished this novel, I chanced upon a more scholarly biography of Anning: Shelley Emling's The Fossil Hunter is just one of several books (including children's books!) on the topic. While normally, I would have relished the chance to learn more, I felt like Curiosity had covered the salient points, all in an engaging and informed way.

If you are interested in the history of science, paleontology, nineteenth-century natural history, or women's history generally, this is a lovely way to spend some time contemplating these themes while being entertained with a good story.


Next up from me: Orhan Pamuk's The Museum of Innocence (2010). What museum-related novels have you been reading lately?

2 comments:

Alex W said...

There's another Anning related book: Tracy Chevalier's Remarkable Creatures - in my bookcase, as yet unread. Might post about it - I imagine it'll be a nice easy read.
My all time favourite museum book is Giles Waterfield's 'Hound in the Left Hand Corner'. I also am about to embark on Orhan Pamuk (but have been meaning to do this for a year since my partner's Mum lent it to me - oops!) And that Edmund de Waal one looks good too - 'The Hare with the Amber Eyes' I think.

J said...

Tracy Chevalier wrote about Anning? Cool! I did not know that. I suspect it will be an easy read, you are right!

What is Waterfield's book about? I have read an interesting article about 18th century revivalism by someone of that name... perhaps it was the same man?

I got de Waal for Christmas from a friend, but haven't read it yet. My grandmother, who was staying over the hols devoured it and loved it. Not really a novel, though.

I like Pamuk a lot; my favourite is "My Name is Red" which I read parallel with Rushdie's "The Enchantress of Florence", though "The Black Book" was also excellent. I find his melancholia extremely affecting, though, and can only read a couple of chapters at a time to avoid being swallowed up!