Award-winning novelist Joan Thomas blends fact and fiction, passion and science in this stunning novel set in 19th-century Lyme Regis, England — the seaside town that is the setting of both The French Lieutenant's Woman and Jane Austen's Persuasion.
More than 40 years before the publication of The Origin of Species, 12-year-old Mary Anning, a cabinet-maker's daughter, found the first intact skeleton of a prehistoric dolphin-like creature, and spent a year chipping it from the soft cliffs near Lyme Regis. This was only the first of many important discoveries made by this incredible woman, perhaps the most important paleontologist of her day.
Henry de la Beche was the son of a gentry family, owners of a slave-worked estate in Jamaica where he spent his childhood. As an adolescent back in England, he ran away from military college, and soon found himself living with his elegant, cynical mother in Lyme Regis, where he pursued his passion for drawing and painting the landscapes and fossils of the area. One morning on an expedition to see an extraordinary discovery — a giant fossil — he meets a young woman unlike anyone he has ever met…
From the Hardcover edition.
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Joan Thomas’s debut novel, Reading By Lightning (2008), won the Commonwealth Prize for Best First Book (Canada/Caribbean) and the Amazon.ca First Novel Award. Joan has worked as a teacher, group-home worker, editor, and as the Writing and Publishing consultant at the Manitoba Arts Council. She was a books columnist and longtime contributing reviewer for the Globe and Mail, and in 1996 won a National Magazine Award (Silver) for Creative Non-Fiction. Joan's second novel, Curiosity, was published in March of this year. Joan lives in Winnipeg.
From the Hardcover edition.
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, a useless, daylight 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.”
She watched the moon impale itself on the steeple of the shambles, and then she bent back over her wares: Devil’s toenails, sea lilies, thunderbolts, brittle stars, verteberries, snakestones. Mary had lined them up in rows by kind. The loveliest were the snakestones, coiled serpents in gold and bronze – missing their heads, though, in their natural form. Mary’s brother Joseph had come home on his dinner break expressly to rectify this. He used a tiny stone chisel to make a pointed smile on the outer coil of each snakestone, unconsciously holding his mouth in the shape he was aiming for. Then he took up a drill to make the eyes. Six snakes had been so improved before he ’d had to pelt back up Church Street to work. On second thought, Mary slid these six out, and made a separate row for them at the front of the table.
Just as the moon freed itself from the steeple, a silver bugle sounded from the top of the hill. This was the signal for every peddler in town to pour into the square. Then there was the coach itself, plunging down Broad Street in heavy pursuit of its wild-eyed horses, and in a flash it sat, a black and gilt cage, gleaming in front of the prison. The footman had a stool at the ready and the door burst open. First out were two small dogs, touching smartly down on the footstool, and then a collection of gentlefolk, dazed by their harrowing descent and by the brouhaha of the men in the prison, who stuck their arms through the beggars’ grate and set up howling at the sight of strangers. Last off were the poor, struggling down a ladder from their perch on the roof.
In a trice, the visitors were set upon. Mary got to her feet but she did not call out. It was not in her nature to hawk, and in any case, buyers always came to the table on their own. The curiosities drew them – Mary had often experienced this power when she collected on the shore. And indeed, two ladies strolling over to look at Annie Bennett’s lavender had spied the curiosity table over Annie ’s shoulder. And then Annie lost them, they were making their way eagerly towards Mary.
“What curious stones!” said the larger of the two, picking up one of the snakestones with her gloved fingers. “What on earth are they?”
“They were living serpents one day, but Saint Hilda turned them to stone. She were clearing the earth of serpents for the protection of innocents.” As she spoke, Mary deftly turned her boot to hide the clot of mud on the hem of her skirt.
The lady wore a red and blue braided jacket, all in vogue with the high-born since the war began. As though these ladies fancied they might be called upon to fight Bony! She held the snakestone up to the light, admiring the way the snake rested its chin on the round coils of itself with a smile.
“King George himself would be proud to wear such a beauty on a sash on his belly,” Mary offered. “If he had the wits to know it.”
“If he had the wits,” cried the large lady to the other, as though a dog had made a jest, and Dick Mutch in the prison stocks (as mad as the poor king himself ) set to cackling, so that Mary must smile and say, “Pay the poor lummick no mind.” The lady set the snakestone back on the table and made to open the reticule on her arm, but her companion leaned in and said something Mary could not hear, and without another word or even a glance at Mary, the two of them went off across the square with their dogs running behind them. It was foolish to mind the discourtesies of the high-born, but Mary did mind. I should have spoke of blindness, she thought.
The square cleared, and it seemed she would have no luck at all that day, but then a man with a dirty blue bag tied to his saddle rode up on a horse. After he had gone, Mary was burning to go down to the cabinetry shop and tell her father what had transpired, but first she must pack up their wares. Sliding the curiosities onto the tray, she named them all to herself, using the queer words the stranger had used for them: the ordinary snakestones he had called ammonites, and the beautiful snakestones worked in gold and bronze, pyrite ammonites. But then, before she could go downstairs, Mrs. Stock from Sherborne Lane came bustling up to the house, and Mary must stay in the kitchen with her mother.
Mrs. Stock came inquiring after Percival, who lay like a wax doll in his cot by the cold hearth, hardly bigger than the day he was born. She was a widow with an ardent, reproachful manner that implied she would one day be more than she was, and should be heeded. She sat on the rush chair in the kitchen and darted her hungry eyes around the bare cottage as though their misfortune was secretly to her taste. Percival began to make his mewling cry. Molly picked him up and sat down in the chimney corner, opening her blouse and inching her shift down on the side away from Mrs. Stock. She spread her fingers so a leathery nipple popped out in the crotch between them, and stuffed it between Percival’s lips. He gave a tiny cry of helplessness and Molly tipped her head, resting it against his.
Mary sat on the bench and willed Mrs. Stock not to see her mother’s breast, which had been full to bursting when Percival was born and hung slack now like an empty bladder. This was down to Percival, who, for all he was an infant, had a part to play in maintaining his own keep and did not seem inclined to play it. At the end, the second Henry had been ill and thin like Percival was now, although Mary remembered him as having a queer smell to him that Percival did not have, a smell of chaff or uncured hay. The doctor came and gave him a medic, and just before he died, he coughed up two worms, both of them dead. It was the medic that killed them all three, Mary’s father said.
Mrs. Stock sat talking, talking, puffed up like a rooster with news. She had learned of a lad who had the power to heal, by virtue of being a seventh son. “The seventh son of a seventh son has the power to raise from the dead,” she explained, with the air of a teacher instructing the dim-witted. “But this boy is purely a seventh son.” The lad was only twelve, not much older than Mary, and already he ’d healed boils, dropsy, a child with a withered foot, and a woman vomiting black bile. He lived in Exeter, not so very far away.
Mary’s mother hated Mrs. Stock (she had privately said so more than once), but she couldn’t help but listen – she was a slave to the hope Mrs. Stock carried into the kitchen. They had no coals, so she sent Mary next door to the Bennetts’ to boil the kettle for tea. Mary measured out just two dippers of water so the kettle would boil quickly. When she came back, her mother was still nursing Percival and Mrs. Stock was working her way through a list of questions. She inquired as to the exact date Mary had turned eleven, as though she was hatching a plan for her. Then she turned to Lizzie, who was playing with oyster shells on the floor. “And you’re three now, my pretty one?”
Lizzie kept her head down and did not reply. “Four,” Mother said.
“And your big lad? Fourteen, I reckon? And he’s well? You had good success with the onion?” This last in a clever voice.
So then Mary saw why Mrs. Stock had come, and marvelled that she had waited this long to ask. A few weeks before, word of the pox had spread up the Dorsetshire coast, and Mrs. Stock had advised peeling an onion and hanging it from a string in the doorway to draw the pestilence to it. Mary’s mother had followed the advice, and she told Mrs. Stock so now. She had peeled the onion and hung it in the middle of the lintel. It was Richard who made her take it down – he had no use for jommetry. “He’s a history and a mystery, my Richard,” Molly said, laughing in a shamefaced way. “He will always strike his own path.”
“So I’ve heard said,” said Mrs. Stock grimly. “Well, give us a look, then.” Molly told Mary to roll up her sleeve and show Mrs. Stock the three little circles at the top of her arm. They were healed now, as dry as fairy rings in grass. “God forgive and protect us all,” Mrs. Stock cried, closing her eyes and crossing herself. “There were many who told me, but I swore it could not be true.”
It had been early morning when they first learned about the pox – Mary’s father was going out to the latrine on the bridge when a man came up from the Cobb and told him. Six dead in Bridport, he said. At first, there was excitement in the town, people standing in the square going over who had told them, and what exactly was said. But at noon Mrs. Bennett came running up Marine Parade and announced in a shrill voice that the isolation hut on the Cobb was being turned into a pesthouse, where you could pay to have a bit of pox put into your arm and lie between life and death while the contagion was sweated out of you. Mary saw her mother’s face and then she grasped the terror the pox brought with it, although it seemed her mother dreaded the cure more than the disease. “It’s one thing to wait till the pox comes to you,” Molly said. She was standing in the workshop in the cellar of their house with Percival slung over her shoulder. “It’s another thing altogether to go to the pox, and die in a hut with strangers for your trouble.” In the light from the high window, her own pox-marks showed on her white cheeks like discs drilled lightly into chalk.
“The beast in the field waits,” said Mary’s father.
It was an empty argument, thought Mary, sitting on the workshop steps. Where would the Annings find the coin to take themselves off to the pesthouse?
That night, Richard went out to the Three Cups. He was redcheeked and singing when he came home, lit up by cider and by his bright new idea. He had taken a pint with Farmer Ware and they’d fallen to talking about the pox visited on cows at Ware Manor Farm. He was at the bottom of his third pint, he said, when the idea came to him: he would try his own version of the pesthouse cure, a barnyard version inspired by the fresh cheeks of milkmaids everywhere. Molly kept them awake with her crying, but the next day he took them anyway, just Mary and Joseph, took them out to Ware Manor Farm with its mossy yard the colour of the limes you saw loaded into ships in nets. The farmer led them into the cowshed, where a boy mucking out the stalls was made to put his fork down and pull up his smock. Red sores bloomed across his belly. They used the point of a clasp knife to scrape the boy’s cowpox into Mary’s and Joseph’s arms, three cuts each for good measure. In payment, Richard Anning gave Farmer Ware a thunderstone for the dairy, to keep the milk from souring.
“We be all one in nature,” Molly said vaguely. Mary rolled her sleeve back down. She kept her dark eyes fixed on Mrs. Stock. Mary was a healthy, God-fearing girl with a drop of animal humours in her, and if asked, she would assure Mrs. Stock that she felt better for it, although in truth she would have favoured a livelier animal than a cow – a fox with its dashing ways, or maybe a magpie.
Mrs. Stock finally fastened her crimson shawl with a clasp pin and took her leave, and Mary, almost choking by then with impatience, tried to slip down to the workshop. But her mother called her back. She had put Percival on his side in the cradle and she was at the chimney corner, prying the loose brick out to get at her leather pouch. She spilled the coins on the table – it was all half-groats and farthings. “Count it, Mary,” she said.
Mary slid the coins into rows by kind. The shillings the strange man had given her were pressed into her waistcoat pocket. “One shilling thruppence,” she said, keeping her voice flat.
“What is the fare to Exeter?”
It was sixpence to Axminster and Exeter was ten times as far. “Five shillings, if you ride outside,” Mary said.
Molly picked up the baby again and cupped his little head, straightening his cap. Then she carried him down into the workshop and Mary followed. Mary’s father was standing at the workbench fitting a dovetail join in a drawer. Molly went over all boris-noris and said, “Pray let me see the cash box.” Mary’s father laid the two parts of the join side by side on the workbench with a thunk. He reached the cash box from the cupboard shelf and handed it to her. He would suffer her to count the money, but that did not mean he would suffer her to spend it.
With her free hand, Mary’s mother slid the top off the cash box and moved her fingers over the coins inside, not really counting. “There be more than enough,” she said. Richard did not say what she wanted him to say, he did not ask, For what? “That were the Widow Stock upstairs,” she said in a heated-up voice. “There be talk of a healer in Exeter. A seventh son.” Richard turned back to his drawer and pressed his lips as he wedged the join together. He reached for his felted hammer and tapped at the join, and its two sides squeaked into the perfect little dovetail cells they made for each other. Her mother waited in silence another minute and then she turned and climbed back up to the kitchen.
Mary sat down on the workshop steps, her excitement about the gentleman on the horse suddenly falling away. She took off her bonnet and set it on the step. By what arithmetic did you compute which child was a seventh son? she wondered. They were four just then – Joseph, Mary, Lizzie, and Percival. Mary herself was either the first daughter or the third, depending whether you counted the dead in with the living. Or possibly she was the fourth: between her and the second Henry, there had been a babe that opened its eyes once on the world and shut them again, too early to say whether it was a boy or a girl. The parts were not made yet, Mary’s mother said (although, Mary noted, it had eyelids to close). Mary could hear the cradle rocking on the floor above, and her mother’s tread. Molly would be making a soft mush to try to get into Percival. Two shillings sixpence weighed still in Mary’s pocket. She had not offered the money from the curiosity table and her father had not offered the money from the cash box. There would be no help for Percival in Exeter; it would have to come from another quarter.
Mary sat and watched her father as he took up the second drawer and began to fit it to...
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Book Description Penguin Random House. Book Condition: New. Brand New. Bookseller Inventory # 0771084188
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Book Description McClelland Stewart Inc., Canada, 2011. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Reprint. 201 x 132 mm. Language: English . Brand New Book. Award-winning novelist Joan Thomas blends fact and fiction, passion and science in this stunning novel set in 19th-century Lyme Regis, England the seaside town that is the setting of both The French Lieutenant s Woman and Jane Austen s Persuasion. More than 40 years before the publication of The Origin of Species, 12-year-old Mary Anning, a cabinet-maker s daughter, found the first intact skeleton of a prehistoric dolphin-like creature, and spent a year chipping it from the soft cliffs near Lyme Regis. This was only the first of many important discoveries made by this incredible woman, perhaps the most important paleontologist of her day. Henry de la Beche was the son of a gentry family, owners of a slave-worked estate in Jamaica where he spent his childhood. As an adolescent back in England, he ran away from military college, and soon found himself living with his elegant, cynical mother in Lyme Regis, where he pursued his passion for drawing and painting the landscapes and fossils of the area. One morning on an expedition to see an extraordinary discovery a giant fossil he meets a young woman unlike anyone he has ever met From the Hardcover edition. Bookseller Inventory # BZV9780771084188
Book Description Emblem Editions, 2011. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Reprint. Bookseller Inventory # DADAX0771084188
Book Description Emblem Editions, 2011. Paperback. Book Condition: New. book. Bookseller Inventory # 0771084188
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Book Description Emblem Editions, 2011. Paperback. Book Condition: Brand New. reprint edition. 409 pages. 8.00x5.25x0.75 inches. In Stock. Bookseller Inventory # zk0771084188
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