The title of Joan Thomas’s Curiosity refers to the “snakestones” (see the gorgeous cover) and other curios that Mary finds and sells to wealthy visitors who arrive on the coach from Bath, as well as to the quickness of mind Mary displays throughout the novel.
The term "curiosity" could also apply to Mary herself. A woman who “would never truly be appreciated in a drawing room” due to her country ways and quaint accent, she grows from a bright, inquisitive child to an independent spinster who carves her own path in a world where female contributions to science are discounted.
For readers used to tales of courtship, fancy dresses, and elegant repartee in Regency England, Curiosity will present a refreshingly different side to the era. While the Napoleonic Wars rage elsewhere, practical, constant, and confident Mary pursues her passion with determination, despite discouragement from others and a family life plagued by malnutrition and misfortune. Her father dies relatively young, leaving enormous debts, and out of ten children, only she and a brother will survive to adulthood. She sells fossils to earn money to live on, but it's often not enough.
Her story is interleaved with that of Henry De la Beche, a man who in his own way is as much an oddity as she. The son of a Jamaica plantation owner, he is expelled from military college following a prank and discovers a scientific bent while examining the bones of birds caught in his chimney.
While staying with his unaffectionate mother and her new husband at Lyme Regis, he encounters Mary and thinks her a most unusual young woman, one of the only people with whom he's free to be himself. Little is known of Mary’s private life; while Henry’s support of Mary’s work is recorded, their gradual romance as described here is an imaginative re-creation of what might have been.
Both are trapped by the restrictions of their day: Henry by an unwelcome engagement to a society-minded girl, and Mary by her poverty and low place in a world that sees her interests as unnatural, and her fossils as possible manifestations of “the devil’s work.” Early 19th-century Britain sits at the cusp of scientific change, an era described in lucid and graceful language; no previous knowledge of paleontology is required.
At this time, with Darwin's Origin of Species some 40 years in the future, the ichthyosaur 12-year-old Mary so carefully excavates from limestone causes a flurry of questions to emerge. Did it perish in the Great Flood? Was coastal Dorset once a sea-bed, long ago? What is the meaning of a “day” in the Bible, if the specimens Mary finds prove to be much older than the accepted time of Creation?
One of Thomas’s greatest strengths is her ability to depict an entire realm of scientific debate and vigor through the seemingly limited viewpoints of Mary and Henry. Although her male peers in distant London take credit for her work, the novel rightly places Mary and Lyme Regis at the center of the activity. From the beautiful descriptions of the region – in which the area’s beaches and cliffs are layered with the remains of ancient creatures – to the characters’ dialogue, reactions, and social values, everything feels on point.
This is an invigorating and quietly compelling book, and while there are no dull or dry moments, some sections seem drawn out to a great degree. The depth of detail adds, though, to an extensive picture of the characters’ lives and times. While Mary’s story is sometimes a sad one, readers should leave it feeling great admiration for her accomplishments, as well as appreciation for how Thomas has fictionalized her life with such care and poignancy.
Curiosity was published in 2011 by Emblem, an imprint of McClelland & Stewart, in trade paperback and is available at $21.00 in Canada and the US and at £14.99 in the UK.