REVIEW: The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
Dear Ms. Perry,
Your novel first came to my attention when Robin, posting as Janet, reported that it won both Fiction Book of the Year and overall Book of the Year at the British Book Awards. I waited impatiently for it to be published in the United States and then checked it out of the library, since my success at finishing literary novels has been spotty in recent years.
The Essex Serpent caught my interest because it sounded like it had a lot of elements in common with what might be my favorite literary novel, Possession by A.S. Byatt. The reality was completely different from Possession, despite the presence of letter exchanges, romantic triangles, naturalism and a sea serpent, as well as a Victorian setting.
Set in late Victorian England over the better part of a year (1893), this is an observant novel, with a lot of interesting historical detail. The main characters are Cora Seaborne, a politician’s widow from London, and William Ransome, a married vicar from Aldwinter, a village in Essex.
Cora’s late husband, Michael, was abusive, and his death has freed her. She and her companion, Martha (a socialist feminist who loves Cora), as well as her young, neuroatypical son, Francis, come to Essex and are introduced to Will, his wife Stella, and their three children, by mutual friends.
Besides these, residing in London are the mutual friends, Charles, a middle-aged, complacent politician, and his wife Katherine, as well as Luke, the surgeon who operated on Cora’s husband and who is also in love with her, and his friend Spencer, who loves Martha.
Though Martha doesn’t reciprocate Spencer’s feelings, she is aware of them and uses them to encourage him to put some of his wealth and clout behind a humane solution to London’s urban housing crisis. Edward, one of Luke’s patients, whom Martha is interested in, is another London character the book follows.
In Essex, we encounter Thomas Taylor, a panhandler, and a few villagers—Bates, a fisherman, his daughter, Naomi, a friend to Will’s teenage daughter Joanna, Cracknell, who lives by the estuary, and others in the village of Aldwinter.
Most of the villagers fear that the Essex Serpent, a sea monster rumored for centuries to reside in the estuary, has returned and is responsible for a drowning and some other recent misfortunes. Will tries to steer his parishioners to be more rational, with little success; Cora, meanwhile, has a strong interest in naturalism and believes the serpent may be a living fossil (dinosaur) that she hopes to be credited with discovering.
Soon after Cora and Will meet, a friendship fraught with attraction develops between them. Stella, Will’s wife, is at first tolerant and later subtly uneasy with it, while Luke and Martha seethe with resentment.
Will and Cora’s romance is a quiet one, steeped in the details of their ordinary lives but also in their intellectual interests. You give a lot of attention to the setting, from the omnipresent mud to the blue flowers and trinkets that Stella collects, as well as to the scientific beliefs of the times, the London housing crisis, and to social interactions. The novel feels well-paced; it’s not rushed but nor does it drag.
The book has what I think of as the Midsummer’s Night’s Dream trope — most everyone is in love with someone who loves someone else — but unlike Shakespeare, you don’t play that for laughs. On the other hand, you don’t go as tragic with it as you could have either, and I was glad of it. The threat of tragedy is there, and it lingers over much of the book, but never quite envelops it. There are also occasional touches of humor, a nice sense of the absurd.
The main external conflict is between science and religion, reason and superstition. This is primarily reflected in Will’s struggle with his community, but Will and Cora’s internal conflicts parallels this conflict. Neither wants to feel the emotions they feel, but their feelings stubbornly stick around, driving them to make choices they don’t entirely understand and can’t reason away.
The strongest element in the book, for me, was the fervor in the villagers’ superstition, the infectious nature of their insistence that what they felt must supersede what rational logic or science might say. I was reminded of some of the issues our own society faces today.
Ultimately, The Essex Serpent wasn’t revelatory, but I did find it both interesting and quietly satisfying. B/B+.