The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
This exquisite work of historical fiction explores the gaps – narrower than one might think – between science and superstition and between friendship and romantic love. The Essex Serpent was a real-life legend from the latter half of the seventeenth century, but Perry’s second novel has fear of the sea creature re-infecting Aldwinter, her invented Essex village, in the 1890s. Mysterious deaths and disappearances are automatically attributed to the Serpent who dwells in the depths of the Blackwater. This atmosphere of paranoia triggers some schoolgirls to erupt in frenzied delusions as in The Crucible. It is unclear whether the Church should tolerate a source of mystery or dismiss it all as nonsense – after all, there’s a winged serpent carved onto one of the pews at the parish church.
In a domestic counterpart to all these supernatural goings-on, we gain entry into two middle-class households. Cora Seaborne’s abusive husband, Michael, has recently died of throat cancer, leaving her to raise their odd (autistic, I wondered?) eleven-year-old son Francis on her own. She has an amateur interest in fossils to rival Mary Anning’s, so when she hears of a cache near Colchester she leaves London for Essex, bringing along Frankie and her companion, Martha. Mutual friends put her in touch with Will Ransome, the vicar of Aldwinter, sure that he and his family – consumptive wife Stella and children Joanna, James and John – will be able to show her around the coast.
Despite an inauspicious first meeting, which sees Cora and Will, still unknown to each other, hauling a drowning sheep out of a lake, theirs soon becomes a close, easy friendship. Cora feels she can speak her mind about the faith she lost and the new marvels she finds in nature:
I had faith, the sort I think you might be born with, but I’ve seen what it does and I traded it in. It’s a sort of blindness, or a choice to be mad – to turn your back on everything new and wonderful – not to see that there’s no fewer miracles in the microscope than in the gospels!
She holds her own in cerebral debates with Will as he deplores his parishioners’ fantasies about the Serpent. Is there really such a big difference between his faith – “all strangeness and mystery – all blood, and brimstone,” Cora teases – and the Serpent legend? In seeming contradiction to his career path, Will is more suspicious than many of the other characters of things he doesn’t understand and can’t explain away, like hypnosis and a Fata Morgana.
The novel’s nuanced treatment of faith and doubt is enhanced by references to Victorian science, including fossil hunting and early medical procedures. Dr. Luke Garrett, Michael’s surgeon, is one of Cora’s best friends back in London; she calls him “The Imp.” In one of the most striking passages of the entire book, he performs rudimentary heart surgery on the young victim of a stab wound. Perry fills in the novel’s background with a plethora of apt Victorian themes, including housing reform and London crime. For a book of 440 pages, it has a large cast and a fairly epic scope. Although there are places where subplots and minor characters might have been expanded upon, Perry wisely refrains from stuffing the novel with evidence of her research. Indeed, it’s a restrained book overall, yet breaks out into effusiveness in just the right places, as in Stella’s mystical adoration of the color blue.
Descriptive passages and the letters passing between the characters give a clear sense of the months passing, yet there is also something timelessly English about the narrative – Dickensian in places (Our Mutual Friend) and Hardyesque in others (Far from the Madding Crowd). I especially loved this picture of the June countryside:
Essex has her bride’s gown on: there’s cow parsley frothing by the road and daisies on the common, and the hawthorn’s dressed in white; wheat and barley fatten in the fields, and bindweed decks the hedges.
Cross this cozy pastoral vision with the Gothic nature of the Serpent craze and you get quite a unique atmosphere. The vague, unexplained sense of menace didn’t work for me at all in Perry’s previous novel, After Me Comes the Flood, but here it’s just right.
It was no doubt true in the late Victorian period that “men and women can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way” (as famously declared in When Harry Met Sally). No one is sure what to make of a sexually available, self-assured female like Cora. The different kinds of Greek love, from philia to eros, keep shading into each other here. Like the water that forms the book’s metaphorical substrate, the relationships ebb and flow. Yet there’s no denigrating any connection as just friendship; in fact, friendship is enough to rescue one character from suicide. Like Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, the novel asks whether love is ever enough to save us – and gives a considerably more optimistic answer.
The fact that I have an MA in Victorian literature means I’m drawn to Victorian-set novels but also highly critical about their authenticity. While reading this, though, I thoroughly believed that I was in 1890. Moreover, Perry adroitly illuminates the situation of the independent “New Woman” and the quandary of science versus religion (which were the joint subjects of my dissertation: women’s faith and doubt narratives in Victorian fiction).
I’m delighted, especially having seen Perry speak at Bloxham Festival in February (see my write-up for more on her background and the inspirations behind this novel), to have liked The Essex Serpent three times as much as her debut. It has an elegant, evocative writing style reminiscent of A.S. Byatt and Penelope Fitzgerald. Something holds me back from the full 5 stars – too diffuse? Too much staying on the surface of things? Not quite intimate enough, especially about Cora’s inner life? – but I still declare myself mightily impressed. The Essex Serpent counts as one of my favorite novels of 2016 so far. You can see why Serpent’s Tail (how perfect is her publisher’s name?!) rushed this one into publication a few weeks early. Expect to see it on the Booker Prize shortlist and any other award list you care to mention.
With thanks to Anna-Marie Fitzgerald at Serpent’s Tail for the free review copy.