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The English seaside town of Lyme Regis is famous both as the site of Louisa Musgrove's fateful tumble in Jane Austen's Persuasion and as the partial setting of John Fowles's windswept romance The French Lieutenant's Woman.

Now it assumes the spotlight once more, a dramatic backdrop to - almost a character in - Tracy Chevalier's Remarkable Creatures, an engaging, vividly recreated fictional account of real-life 19th-century amateur scientists Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot, two doughty women surrounded by fossils - and not just of a reptilian kind.

It's hard to believe today what circumscribed lives women once lived. (And yes, of course, still do in some places.) When in 1915 Virginia Woolf wrote that "she saw her life … a creeping hedged-in thing, driven cautiously between high walls, here turned aside, there plunged in darkness, made dull and crippled for ever," she was speaking not just of (and for) her protagonist but for an entire segment of English society: the educated, unemployed, proper upper-middle-class woman otherwise known as "a lady."

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Born in 1799 to a poor cabinetmaker, Mary Anning was neither educated nor a lady, and that was undoubtedly the making of her. Brought up almost literally on the shale and limestone cliffs of Lyme Regis, she became a fossil hunter almost as soon as she could walk. Like her brother and father, she had "the eye," and it was as well she did, for the strangely whorled and ribbed "curies" (curiosities) she found there were saleable commodities and kept the family in food and coal. (Anning is said to be the inspiration for the tongue-twister, "She sells sea shells by the seashore.") They also turned the scientific world on its ear.

Elizabeth Philpot, on the other hand, was both educated and a lady, a spinster of reduced circumstances who with her two sisters came to Lyme Regis from London. Twenty years Anning's senior, unwaged, unwed and unwanted, Philpot was that rare and evidently most frightening of creatures: a woman with her own mind who was not afraid to speak it. She came to her fossil-hunting - her focus was fish, and her collection is in the Oxford Museum of Natural History today - as a hobby to fill her days. It was also a way to dodge convention.

Their friendship was unlikely but enduring, and, at least in this retelling, lasted, but for a falling out in the 1820s, until Anning's death from breast cancer in 1847.

The holes in our knowledge of Mary Anning are big enough to drive a truck through - or build a novel in - but certain facts are agreed upon. Already something of a local wonder since surviving a lightning strike as a baby, Anning made a place for herself in the fledgling field of paleontology when, a mere girl of 11 or 12, discovering (some accounts say with her brother) and assembling the bones of what would later be called an ichthyosaurus ("fish lizard"), the first dinosaur skeleton ever found. It was one of several groundbreaking discoveries she would make well into the 1820s, several years before a then-unknown biologist named Charles Darwin set foot on a navy ship for an around-the-world voyage that would change the world.

Unwittingly anticipating Darwin by a generation, Anning discovered, excavated, cleaned, preserved and drew her fossil finds without knowing what they were (no one did; being firsts, they had not yet been named), only that they had tremendous import. As they had: The fossils she collected - the plesiosaurus ("near lizard"), the fossil fish Squaloraja (a transition between sharks and rays) and the Pterodactylus macronyx, a flying reptile - can still be found in museums around the world, including the Natural History Museum in London and at Oxford University.

Chevalier is, of course, the author of the 2000 bestseller Girl With a Pearl Earring, made into a movie in 2003. The story of a Vermeer painting of the same name, the novel was in its way exquisite but to my mind suffered from the airlessness innate in so rarefied an atmosphere. Remarkable Creatures is much more robust; it is alive with the tang of the salt air … or maybe it's the salty reflections on her world that Philpot, in Chevalier's hands, does not stint to offer.

From the beginning, she is aware her interest in fossils is seen as "an unladylike pursuit, dirty and mysterious"; she knows she oughtn't go out unaccompanied ("only men walked on their own"); she chafes under the exactions of idiotic convention ("being agreeable but not too clever"); she is aware that while the scientific community profited from Anning's work, they rarely credited her ("most gentlemen viewed her as little more than a knowledgeable servant"); and she is livid when she discovers that these same gentlemen are reluctant to back Anning when she is accused, falsely, by French anatomist Georges Cuvier of fraud: "That is all she will get … a scrap of thanks crowded out by far more talk of glory for beast and man. … So be it. A woman's life is always a compromise."

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Whether Philpot really thought such things, we don't know, and Chevalier admits she "made up plenty." But - and this is her coup - she has made it entirely believable that Philpot might have. As women in a men-only profession, raising questions deeply unsettling to the pious, Anning and Philpot were a twofold challenge. Their sex was bad enough, but to suggest, as their fossil finds did, that there were once creatures alive that were now extinct - that God had allowed to die out - was to fly in the face of an almost universally held belief: that every living organism ever born still existed, according to a Divine and benevolent plan. They were more than a challenge; they were an irritant.

It's a wonderful story, and Chevalier tells it well. Of the fossils, Philpot says: "I tend to view them … as works of art reminding us of what the world was once like." So one might say of this book.

Kathleen Byrne is a Toronto-based editor and writer who suspects she has not evolved as much as she might have.

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