The Essex Serpent
By Sarah Perry
Published 2 June by Serpent’s Tail, £12.99 hardback & ebook
If you love strong heroines, historical fiction that wears its research lightly, authors who handle large casts as adeptly as DeMille behind the megaphone, and novels with a vivid sense of place, then The Essex Serpent is your dream date.
TES takes place over the best part of a year in the 1890s, and it’s set in London and around the marshes outside of Colchester. Young, affluent widow Cora Seaborne moves here with her son and a female companion. Having downplayed her scientific ambitions throughout her marriage, she’s keen to return to her studies and dreams of becoming the next Mary Anning. She hopes to cement her reputation by finding something ancient and wonderful in Essex’s primeval ooze. Her chances seem good, for a mysterious ‘sea serpent’ that first terrorised this corner of England in the 1600s, has allegedly returned. The locals, impervious to logic, are convinced of the monster’s existence, certain that its reappearance is punishment for their sins. Reason tells Cora this isn’t so, but she can’t erase the hope that something does lurk out there, and that she’ll be the one to identify it.
Perry’s writing occasionally reminds me of Dickens, especially when she starts small — a time ball dropping at Greenwich Observatory, for example — then pans out, and still further out, until, in the space of a page or two, she’s conjured an entire, vibrant city full of things to see, smell, hear and taste. She seems to soar over the landscape, catching each of her characters mid-activity, reporting back with the utmost fluency.
She also has Dickens’ knack for humour, poking gentle fun at her characters. (Later I detected a salute to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, and saluted right back.)
Perry employs language deftly and beautifully. For example, when Cora hears about a recent earthquake, she’s amused “to think that modest little Essex, with barely a pleat in its landscape, should have shuddered and broken!” Also typical is this gorgeous description: “Midsummer on the Blackwater, and there are herons on the marsh. The river runs bluer than it ever did before; the surface of the estuary is still. Banks gets a good catch of mackerel early in the day, and notes with pleasure the rainbows on their flanks. Leviathan is decked with spikes of rosebay and willow herb and a rosemary wreath, and a patch of samphire grows at the prow.”
We learn that Cora’s was an abusive marriage, and that her son, Francis, is “odd” — likely on the autistic spectrum, although that term didn’t exist. Thus the two male figures who should love Cora the best have proven incapable of it for their different reasons. If that makes her heartsore, there is solace to be found in the adoration of others. She enchants physician Luke Garrett, Martha, her companion, Essex vicar Will Ransome, and also his wife, Stella. Their love — and the love Cora reciprocates — takes many forms and causes numerous ructions. Perry excels at depicting jealousy with sharp concision.
Essex restores Cora to herself. She goes for long rambles and explores nature with equal parts scientific curiosity and poet’s delight, finding magic in coral-coloured fungus, chattering thrushes, and the wet bark of trees. Out in the landscape she needn’t pretend to be ladylike. She goes without jewellery or stays, gets covered in mud, and eats like a horse. She’s the kind of woman happiest flopping on a sofa grabbing cake with her hands rather than sitting up primly while balancing a teacup.
In Essex she befriends Will and Stella Ransome, and as was normal in those days of frequent mail and no Twitter, their interactions consist not only of face-to-face visits, but an ongoing exchange of letters that read, in the effusive language of the era, like billets-doux. Though the attraction — intellectual as well as physical — between Cora and Will is immediate, they clash continuously. She believes in science and he is a man of God. She often acts without considering the consequences or other viewpoints. They fight bitterly and often, but are always remorseful afterwards.
Wouldn’t they make a great couple, we think? But to his credit, Ransome loves his wife, telling Cora, “I’ve never been a man and not loved her. I can no more imagine life without her than without my own limbs. . . . If she is not looking at me — will I still be here?”
It’s a dilemma and our loyalties are divided, not least because Stella Ransome is good-hearted and intelligent. I defy any reader to wish her ill. On the one hand, Luke Garrett wants Cora badly and is able to offer marriage, but Ransome, despite their ideological clashes, feels the better, if next-to-impossible, fit. He shares Cora’s elemental link to the land; they are both forces of nature.
How can this possibly be resolved if we’re to have a happy ending? Then again, what would a happy ending consist of? Perry puts herself into a tricky situation but resolves it with finesse, bringing to mind the poignancy of E.M. Forster’s admonition: “Only connect.”
The Essex Serpent is equally a novel about change. It’s a snapshot of a world in flux, full of medical advances and social reform, new ideas and new people — women — promoting them. Yet while it’s chock full of ideas, it’s never polemical or less than readable.
It is pacy. There are missing children, murder attempts, surgical experiments, mysterious sightings, parties, and much more. These twists and turns are always character-driven, so they do not feel contrived. Perry deftly juggles perspectives and tenses to give us a full and complex picture of her protagonists and their preoccupations.
(If these descriptions sound at all hazy, it’s my way of avoiding spoilers. I don’t want to tell you what happens, I want you to read the book to find out.)
It’s a relief to sink into an author’s embrace when their arms feel strong and capable. Let The Essex Serpent wrap itself around you — and surrender to its charms.