The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry
Don’t judge a book by its cover, they say, but you would be wrong to pass this book by because of its sumptuous William Blake style cover. What is contained within the dust jacket is a wonderful novel. Perry’s second, exploring the clash between science, religion and superstition in late 19th century England. It is not too fanciful to think each of these competing points of view are represented by serpents – the one that coils itself around Asclepius’ staff, the one in the Garden of Eden and the Essex serpent.
Reports of a flying serpent with a forked tongue and wings circulated from the Essex coast in 1669 and a pamphlet entitled Strange news out of Essex described the beast and the consternation it caused amongst the denizens of the county. Perry uses the headings of the pamphlet as the titles to the four parts of the book. The plot centres around an earthquake which hits the Essex coastline around the imaginary village of Aldwinter releasing the mythical beast to the consternation of the peccatogenetically inclined locals. The vicar, William Ransome, tries his best to calm their fevered imaginations, even resorting to removing the carving of the serpent from one of the church pews.
Cora Seabourne, a widow from an abusive marriage and with aspirations to be the new Mary Anning, arrives in the village hoping to make her name by unearthing the beast as a relic from the Jurassic age. Having had a dalliance with a surgeon, Luke Garrett, who performed cutting edge surgery until his career was tragically cut short, Cora has a love-hate relationship with Ransome. Their relationship explores the dichotomy of the definitions of the verb, cleave – to separate from or adhere to. Meanwhile the vicar’s tubercular wife comes under the spell of the serpent and draws Cora’s strange son, Francis, into her web.
Mixed in with all this we have pioneering surgery, social reform and the fears and superstitions of the working class. For a relatively modestly sized book – it runs to 440 pages – it has a broad sweep and wide range of characters. But it doesn’t feel rushed in its telling or skimpy in its characterisations, although I for one found it difficult to sympathise with any of the protagonists. The book is the product of meticulous research but it wears it lightly and the mix of pastoral – Perry is particularly good at describing the subtle changes in the countryside as the seasons progress – and gothic generates a unique atmosphere.
Perry’s style is elegant and evocative, beautiful and delicate and for the most part the novel is well-paced and, for sure, is a page turner. Once hooked, you don’t want to put it down and there is an intense sense of disappointment when you realise you have reached the end. The mix of narrative and letters moves the story along and I will not spoil the denouement.
This is a stunning book that is more than a gothic thriller. It explores the impact on moral and religious certainties that a more assertive and pioneering scientific community had and the role, rise and social acceptance of a more independent woman. The hints of modernity do not devalue the Victorian atmosphere but rather enhance the feeling of the timelessness of many of the emotions that are involved in this intriguing tale.
A truly marvellous book.