It’s the late Victoria era and the citizens of a bloated British Empire feel confident they have mastered nature. The role of religion in everyday life is receding. More and more about the world is understood.
But then, on the banks of the Blackwater estuary in rural southern England, something seems to stir in the darkling waters, a terrifying Serpent. Is it something real, or something the community has only dreamed?
That question drives the key challenge of Sarah Perry’s hugely successful second novel The Essex Serpent. Should we fear the unexpected movement in the night, the half seen, possibly imagined, loose-formed shape in the dark? Should we flee from it? Or should we follow the Serpent and discover if it exists, understand its purpose, discern its true shape?
The Serpent, real or not, first emerged from the water in the 16th Century, a time of far greater credulity. Back then it inspired fear but eventually disappeared. It’s return in the 19th Century provokes scientific excitement for some but from others scepticism.
In the novel each response is given an avatar. Scientific excitement by happily widowed, upper-class Cora Seagrave, obsessed in her new freedom with evolution and palaeontology. Scepticism is embodied in the form of Church of England Minister William Ransome.
Of the two, Cora is the protagonist, freed from a constraining marriage by her abusive husband’s death, she sees the Serpent as an opportunity to make her mark on the world. Accompanying Cara in her adventure is her maid, Martha, and her young son, Francis. The former aches with an unrequited love for her mistress and spends her spare time campaigning for better accommodation for working-class families. The latter is very hard to reach, closed off. It is implied he has some undiagnosed, poorly understood, form of autism.
When he meets Cara, William is living a contented life, happy with his beautiful wife Stella and three charming , if slightly underwritten, children. He is determined to disprove the existence of the Serpent, partly due to a Victorian distrust of nature but also partly to-do with the a traditionally religious mistrust of challenge. Cora challenges both of these and they clash initially. However, as with so many stories this initial tension becomes something different over the course of the novel. Yet the change in relationship is tinged with horror as Stella contracts that most famous Victorian disease, tuberculosis, consumption.
Cora and William proceed to explore the reality of the Essex Serpent and at the same time each other, leading to a surprising, melancholic ending.
It is easy to see quite why the book has been so popular, Waterstone’s book of the year and on the Costa book award shortlist. It pulsates with energy and ideas while at the same time elegantly written, bright and amusing. The characters are delicately drawn. In the way Perry really seems to get below the skin of Victoriana it reminded me of Sarah Waters’ work.
Perry has been very clever in her choice of time-period. Late Victorian times represent a hinge point for scepticism, belief and fear, fighting with each other on the ascent. The setting is also similar enough to our time to feel immediate and relevant. Although, at times, I would argue Perry goes too far with this, is too determined to draw parallels between that time and ours, which can undercut some of the necessary strangeness of the plot.
There is possibly also a problem of excess with the book. It’s a credit to the writer how engaged she is with the Victorian period but at times you get the sense Perry is sidetracked by the many other issues of the period. At times the reader feels as if the central thread is lost, and you find yourself wondering if it’s a book about, for example, Victorian medicine, or class politics, or gender or even child abuse. It can get confusing, disorientating even.
These however are minor quibbles, and potentially ones other readers will not agree with. Despite them the book is a compelling read and one very deserving of its success.
Sarah Grace Perry (née Butler) is an English author, academic, and journalist. She was born in 1979 in Chelmsford, Essex. She has a PhD in creative writing from Royal Holloway University where her supervisor was Sir Andrew Motion. She has had two novels published, both by Serpent’s Tail: After Me Comes The Flood (2014) and The Essex Serpent (2016).
Photograph by Jamie Drew
The Essex Serpent was published by Serpent’s Tail (Main edition) on 27 May 2016.
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Review by Joseph Surtees
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