Book Review: The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

Set in Victorian London and an Essex village in the 1890’s, and enlivened by the debates on scientific and medical discovery which defined the era, The Essex Serpent has at its heart the story of two extraordinary people who fall for each other, but not in the usual way.

They are Cora Seaborne and Will Ransome. Cora is a well-to-do London widow who moves to the Essex parish of Aldwinter, and Will is the local vicar. They meet as their village is engulfed by rumours that the mythical Essex Serpent, once said to roam the marshes claiming human lives, has returned. Cora, a keen amateur naturalist is enthralled, convinced the beast may be a real undiscovered species. But Will sees his parishioners’ agitation as a moral panic, a deviation from true faith. Although they can agree on absolutely nothing, as the seasons turn around them in this quiet corner of England, they find themselves inexorably drawn together and torn apart.

Told with exquisite grace and intelligence, this novel is most of all a celebration of love, and the many different guises it can take.

Another book where I’ve chosen to use the blurb to introduce it, as I couldn’t decide what it was really about, as much as I can’t decide where I am with it. The introduction would suggest that it is about these two people, but there is so much more – the much more being as engaging as the sparks that fly between the mutual attraction of Cora and Will.

What I loved about The Essex Serpent was the boldness and intelligence of the themes – Darwinism and the march of science (London, and its characters from here), compared to pious and/or pagan beliefs (village Essex, and its characters). The advance of socialism, through the radical Martha (Cora’s companion), and the insights into slumland London of the Victorian age. Within all of these tangled love stories – but not all in a conventional sense. They were as gritty as the streets of London, or the swirling mists over the Essex waters. These themes were cleverly layered in plot and sub-plot and sustained my reading and enjoyment of the novel.

What stops me from outright loving this book is that this earthy, gritty feel, gothic in nature at times was at odds with the characters. That’s not to say that the characters were well-defined. Perry is a brilliant observer of people, and this made for compelling, believable characters. However, early in the book I had to check the jacket cover to work out what the historical period was meant to be – there was something that stopped convincing me that it was entirely historic, and I think that was in the treatment of its female protagonist, Cora, and certainly Martha. Their views, dialogue just seemed too modern. What also flummoxed me was how nice the characters were to each other; really? There was little tension between the characters, particularly the sweet Stella, wife of the vicar. It just didn’t stack up enough. Perry chose a multiple viewpoint, so you know, you are inside the head of different characters. They just seemed very understanding. And you can’t tell me that a village in 1893 would be scandalised by the ‘carrying on’ of their vicar and a widow.

Perry used letters between Will and Cora, and also Luke Garret, a radical doctor, who is in love with Cora from the opening of the book. Will and Cora’s correspondence was rather ‘light’ and surprisingly open in affection (isn’t that the antithesis of a Victorian way of being?). Cora’s spitefulness is revealed in an exchange of letters between her and Luke, and she deserved everything as a result.

There are curiosities throughout the book. Was Martha Cora’s lover? I think so. How the abuse suffered by her husband (dead at the beginning of the book) shaped her, and their child. The strange relationship with her child, and whether that was nature or nurture that shaped him.

When I thought about this book, I was surprised at my own reflection that it is ‘gentle’, despite the gothic feel and the tensions around the serpent (as felt by the locals in Aldwinter). This is the rub: the tension doesn’t translate to the characters, and as they breathe the life through the book, this is what I was left with.
The Essex Serpent is a compelling read, delicious in prose (sense of place and setting is rich and glorious), and I would recommend it. The cover alone is makes the purchase worthwhile; a bit crass, but it will stay on my bookshelf because of it. Well done Profile Books Ltd.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry”

  1. I absolutely loved this book. I thought there was plenty of tension between the characters, and also that the portrayal of Cora and Martha was a reminder that our idea of Victorian womanhood is rather stereotypical – after all these women were the forerunners of the suffragette movement. I think they were more ‘modern’ than we often realise. I agree about the splendid jacket! I normally wait for the paperback but this was so gorgeous I couldn’t resist.

    Have you read On Golden Hill by Francis Spufford? Another unusual historical novel which I was entranced by.

    1. Ah Lesley, I wish I could have discussed with you it during my reading. Really keen observation on walking into a stereotypical view. Haven’t read On Golden Hill – will add it to the long list.

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