In a village in Victorian Essex, the terror known as the Serpent rears its (unseen) head and a man goes missing. Then arrives in the village Cora Seabourne — a Londoner, an outsider, a woman. As the presumed serpent continues to be a menace to the village, its increasing ferocity is inexplicably bound with the equally fierce Cora. Perhaps the only dissenting voices are those of village rector Will Ransome and his family. In Sarah Perry’s novel The Essex Serpent, the mythical story of the woman egging on the sinful, the untamed woman being a portent of disaster and consequently divine punishment, finds a retelling that is sweeping in the breadth of its intellectual and emotional exploration. In a generous gesture of inclusiveness, it ambles easily between the bleak, marshy landscape of Aldwinter, the residence of the unholy serpent, and the uplifting freedom found in conversations out on its open common. It meanders through its characters, Cora and Will most prominent here, on the wisdom found in science and religion — of the vicissitudes where the two meet uneasily. It gives voice to socialism through Martha, Cora’s proud working-class companion whose fanaticism lives and breathes amongst us. Most meaningful, though, is the subtext, the unsaid things that tease the reader between the lines: the love shared between members of the same sex which is more fulfilling than the lust felt towards the other sex; the bald yet completely reasonable approach of an autistic child whose diagnosis is many years away; and the deeply immersive spiritual experience that the physical world offers to its children.
In many ways, The Essex Serpent is a very modern work, both in its sensibility and — even though it doesn’t seem so at first — in its narrative structure. Cora is a damaged woman, released from an abusive marriage by the death of her menacing husband. Yet, she defies most Victorian customs, takes up palaeontology, happily settles for being “striking” rather than pretty, wears a man’s coat with aplomb while walking miles in muddy Essex, and is unapologetically progressive in her views. The supporting characters are fantastic. There is surgeon par excellence Luke Garrett, an “imp” both physically and in demeanour who is in love with Cora; his friend Spencer who is embarrassingly rich and equally devoted to Luke; complacent Charles and Katherine Ambrose who are affluent and serve as excellent foils to Cora and Will who are the ultimate seekers — never content and always wondering. Martha is the very definition of modernity, her identity made up of many ruptured pasts. Francis, Cora’s son, is autistic, but given the constraints of the times is seen as embarrassingly “different.” He is a true treasure — straight as an arrow and with piercing observations to boot. And at the other end of the spectrum (if you choose to see it like that, but it can equally be seen as a circle, which ends where it begins), is Will.
A novel that is fairly modern despite its Gothic subject and style
Will wears his clerical collar with great pride, but like Cora, defies stereotyping. He is a thinking priest whose religion has come to him not through blind belief, but through reason. As he says, the Dark Ages have passed and the Age of Enlightenment has furnished religion and spirituality with the crucial tools of reasoning and knowledge. He alone in his parish does not believe in the serpent. Will and Cora can be seen to represent religion and science, village and city, convention and revolution, and many other such contrasts, all equally valid. They represent the idea that contrast and difference do not necessitate alienating conflict, but can, in fact, lead to a unique meeting of the minds. This in turn engenders friendship, respect, even intimacy.
While the book mainly follows the Victorian style of third-person omniscient narration, in some scenes it zooms in, very much fly-on-the-wall. It draws the reader in, not just because the dialogue is crisp or the writing hypnotically immersive, but also because each little detail is recorded. There is an intimacy so vulnerable that it seems almost impolite to intrude, but intrude we do and eagerly so, in most part thanks to the two protagonists whose deep self-awareness and pathos is enthralling to behold. Description-heavy narration tends to be weighty and dull, but Perry creates a compelling story that drives through despite the narrow focus during the scenes. The emotional lives of the characters seem very real, in some parts tinged with excellent dark humour, and in others with purity of the rawest kind. The narration is broken regularly by letters which are engrossing character voices in themselves. Never is Cora’s plea for friendship, Will’s scepticism, Stella’s delirium, or Luke’s vulnerability so apparent as in these letters; they form a world within a world, self-contained and secure.
Will and Cora represent the idea that contrast and difference do not necessitate alienating conflict, but can, in fact, lead to a unique meeting of the minds.
The world Perry creates is decidedly wholesome, even with all the Gothic nuts and bolts. The Ransome household is homely and safe, so is wherever Cora is with her friends. The only truly unnerving episode in the book — where a class of schoolgirls experiences frenzied laughter with their necks snapping The Exorcist-style — is quietly punctuated by the information that the girl who started it all hadn’t had anything to eat all day nor had she been sleeping well. Her hallucination, which then ensues in the hysteria, is almost written away, but the horror remains as we see it through Cora’s incredulous rationale. The serpent is dredged up from the river twice, to much comic effect. However, the fear experienced and the climactic reveals are fraught with terror. We see Essex in its dreary blackness as well as in its clean, open fields. The plurality of perspective is one of the most fundamental blocks on which this book is written — where there is tragedy, there is also heartening optimism just behind it. Similarly, relationships between characters are tested and despite conflict, they ultimately settle agreeably in unexpected ways, most notably Luke and Spencer who become “a couple” in the loosest sense of the term and Will and Cora who occupy the electric space between friendship, desire and love.
The Essex Serpent is a generously inclusive work that is not afraid to question received beliefs or gently assert the insufficiency of limiting oneself to one school of thought. It throws out volleys of perspectives and then dutifully hops through them all with equal composure. It has unexpected wisdom and wonderfully human characters and most of all, it is an excellent story.
The reviewer is a Lahore-based freelance writer
The Essex Serpent
By Sarah Perry
Serpent’s Tail, UK
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 16th, 2017