Joan Thomas’ Curiosity relates the love story between two historical figures, Mary Anning and Henry de la Beche. Mary, a cabinet maker’s daughter who sells curiosities by the seashore unearths the intact skeleton of a prehistoric creature. This was almost half a century before Darwin published On the Origin of Species so Mary’s town still finds it difficult to believe the idea of a creature that existed pre-humanity. They are absolutely certain that creatures have always existed in their current form, and so are uncertain about how to deal with her discovery.
Mary meets and falls in love with Henry de la Beche, the son of gentry and a military college dropout who now enjoys sketching bird skeletons. I like that their attraction is primarily intellectual — both are very interested in exploring cutting edge scientific theories. Mary wants to escape her social limitations as a poor woman and the idea that all the education she needs is in the Bible, and Henry wants to escape the empty life of socializing that his wife finds satisfactory. They find this escape in each other, and yet can’t be together, not only because of Henry’s marriage but also because of the wide gulf between their social classes.
Thomas writes well; she keeps the old-fashioned language consistent throughout and in doing so, keeps us as readers firmly within the mindset of the novel. Her choice of Lyme Regis as a setting is also a smart move — it has as much atmosphere and romance here as it did for Austen in Persuasion.
While ostensibly a love story, the romance doesn’t really kick in until about halfway through the novel. Most of the book’s focus was on Mary’s scientific discovery and her and Henry’s struggle for intellectual freedom. I like how Thomas expanded her focus to much more than just a romance; even before they met, Mary and Henry’s intellectual compatibility and shared passion are evident. The romantic tension is therefore mostly external, and it’s just a matter of whether circumstances allow them to be together or not. As such, the wider story arc about scientific curiosity was more interesting.
Curiosity is a good book, very well-written, yet it didn’t really grab me. To be honest, I’m not sure why. It ticked off all the boxes of a good book — interesting characters, relationships complicated by circumstance, consistent, solid writing — but I mostly just found it unexceptional. It was okay, it was solid, but it wasn’t great. In this case, I’m not sure if it’s the mood I was in when I was reading it, or if the narrative pace just felt too constant. If you’re interested in historical, scientific romance with a touch of social commentary, this book may be worth checking out.