Sarah Perry describes the writing of her second novel, The Essex Serpent, as ‘a kind of joyous outpouring’. The result of this is an elegant, historical narrative with a contemporary appeal. Set in 1893, Perry’s richly descriptive language is quick to evoke a dark, gothic Victorian era that fans of Sarah Waters or A.S. Byatt are sure to revel in. The novel begins in London, and Cora Seaborne – a passionate, amateur naturalist whose heroine is Mary Anning – has just been liberated from the pearls and petticoats of high society by the death of her abusive husband, Michael. Together with her son Francis and companion Martha, Cora relocates to Essex where there are rumours that a mysterious serpent creature is resurfacing from the ominous Blackwater Estuary.
In the parish of Aldwinter, the infamous Essex Serpent is being accused of abducting children, murdering men and causing general panic. It is in the middle of this hysteria that Cora encounters Aldwinter’s vicar, William Ransome. Will dismisses talk of the Essex Serpent and is firm in the belief that it is symptomatic of his parishioners’ wavering faith in God: ‘Our God is a god of reason and order,’ Ransome insists, ‘not of visitations in the night!’ (p.123). Despite their opposing views, Cora and Will develop a bond that tests the limits of their reasoning and beliefs. The push and pull between these two characters and their conflicting opinions is one of the main triumphs of this novel, which won Book of the Year at the 2017 British Book Awards. Perry forces her characters to address what is real and what is imagined and, in doing so, impartially highlights the complexities involved in separating the two.
The Essex Serpent is a dense novel, clocking in at 418 pages, all contained within a striking book cover that features a design by the Essex born Victorian William Morris. Perry’s use of language is just as intricate and stunning; her detailed and observant descriptions both fascinate and unnerve. The sense of place that Perry renders also effectively alludes to Edmund Burke’s treatise on the sublime and the beautiful. In Essex, nature is simultaneously treacherous and picturesque: ‘Had it always been here — this marvellous black earth in which [Cora] sank to her ankles, this coral-coloured fungus frilling the branches at her feet?’ (p.74). Meanwhile, back in London, ‘the slums and rookeries’ of Bethnal Green (p.279) draws attention to the rapid urbanisation of the city and the subsequent housing crisis.
Critics have called The Essex Serpent a ‘compulsive novel of ideas’. Arguably, this is a result of the historical setting: the Victorian era was filled with scientific discovery, societal reform and medical advancement. But perhaps it is a novel of too many ideas, all of which are hungry for attention that both Perry, and subsequently the reader, are unable to give. Cora and Will are the backbone of the plot and tension builds as their avid debating swiftly transforms into a passionate and sensual desire for one another. Nonetheless, the original dispute remains a constant: ‘We both speak of illuminating the world,’ Cora expounds, ‘but we have different sources of light, you and I’ (p.124). However, over the course of the novel these lights, which illuminate the plot to begin with, flicker and fade until they are outshone by the overwhelming number of subplots and additional socio-political themes.
Perry’s use of a third person omniscient narrative is characteristic of many nineteenth-century novels, but this stylistic choice is sometimes detrimental to clarity, plot and pacing. ‘What use was it to observe the human species and try to understand it?’ Cora’s son wonders (p.242). Over the course of the novel, Perry attempts to illustrate this value through the insights of an ensemble cast of characters. We meet with Stella, Will’s wife who is dangerously ill with tuberculosis; Francis, Cora’s compulsive, distant and autistic son; George Spencer, a rich man who admires Martha and her socialism; Luke Garrett, a young surgeon tormented by his unrequited love for Cora; Charles and Katherine Ambrose, an upper-class, conservative couple with kind hearts and generous dispositions. They are a well-rounded, dynamic group of characters, their development stunted only by the sheer number of them.
For a narrative entrenched in folklore, religion and scientific innovation, Perry’s focus is remarkably quotidian. Ultimately, this is not a novel about the Essex serpent, although the title suggests otherwise. It is a narrative that explores passion, discovery, and relationships. Perry’s characters weave in and out of each other’s lives: in as little as one paragraph the reader is forced to adopt three different points of view. It is a risky technique that has the power to confound. However, it does provide the novel with a didactical quality that might otherwise have been lost. As Perry alters the reader’s perception they are forced to walk a mile in another’s shoes – whether that be through the boggy Essex marshes or the poverty-stricken streets of London. Ultimately, although The Essex Serpent is a novel branded as historical fiction, it contains a message that is pertinent to a modern readership: Difference is not always destined to divide.