The Essex Serpent
Sarah Perry, Serpent’s Tail, 2016, ISBN 978-1-78125-545-2, 441pp
I found this novel during one of one my periodic trips to Moruya Books. The novel was the Waterstone’s Book of the Year for 2016 and one of the reviews at the front of the book proclaimed that “had Charles Dickens and Bram Stoker come together to write the great Victorian novel, I wonder if it would have surpassed The Essex Serpent”? This sort of hyperbole would normally make me put the book back on the rack but something about the book — perhaps the cover or just the heft and feel of it — made me add it to my heap to buy. I am glad I did buy it for I found it neither Dickensian nor Stokerian, although I can see why one might so describe the book. It is set in the late 19th century, a period with which its author, Sarah Perry, has some affinity. Now in her 30s, she was brought up in a home with no television or pop music. An interview with her is included in the book where she is reported as saying that she thinks she “will only ever be comfortable in about 1895.”
There are few if any romantic notions of the period in this book. In an author’s note Perry refers to a book by Matthew Sweet, “Inventing the Victorians” which challenges our notions of a prudish era. This is what Perry does in this book. Far from scenes of piano legs being covered to avoid offence to the ladies, the book’s narrative backdrop is surprisingly modern, though through its references are unmistakably Victorian. The heroine is Cora Seagrove who, at the start of the book, has been liberated by the death of an unpleasant husband. She travels to Essex to look for fossils and ends up in a village called Blackwater. There, the local residents are convinced that a macabre and evil beast, the Essex Serpent of the title, is on the loose and is baiting them. The local vicar, Will Ransome, is less convinced although he is clearly rattled by the fears of the community. At one level the book is about the development of the relationship between Cora and Will. But the book is full of other characters each drawn with painterly skills.
The clever part of this novel is the way that the serpent takes on a reality of its own, even though we know it’s a fiction, a creation of the superstitious community. The narrative is crafted around the certainties that science was offering the late Victorians and the traditional comfort of religion. The relationship between Cora and Will in some ways is a metaphor for the conflict that lies at the intersection of these two sometimes conflicting approaches to explaining the human condition. But the book is about so much more than the relationship between Will and Cora. This is a book full of relationships, none of which seems surplus to the requirements of the plot. Cora’s companion, Martha, is an early socialist. Her son, Francis, is autistic at a time when that condition wasn’t recognised as such. Luke Garret is a doctor at the forefront of medicine; his unrequited love for Cora is an interesting foil for Cora’s lust, physical and intellectual, for Will. Perry’s descriptive powers are remarkable; she describes a bleak Essex landscape in a way that draws you in not just to the story itself but also to its physical surroundings. This is a novel worth reading.