Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent

Last summer we weathered the first heat wave in air conditioning. This summer we are sitting in front of fans and drinking bottles of water. We are environmentally correct, but it’s just a matter of time before we turn on the AC.  Perhaps we should build a windmill in our yard to generate electricity.

And what did we read this weekend?

Longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize this year,  Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent   was the Waterstones Book of the Year in 2016.  Just published in the U.S., it is dazzling, witty, pungent, and almost magical.   Set in 1893, it chronicles a year in the lives of a group of eccentric characters who search for, or are affected by, the mythical Essex Serpent.  Part traditional narrative, part epistolary novel, it is beautifully crafted.

The  heroine, Cora Seaborne, a feminist widow, reads Darwin and scientific journals.  Relieved that her sadistic husband is dead (and she has the scars to prove it), she is  fascinated by the myth of the Essex Serpent, first spotted in Essex in 1699. When the serpent is rumored to be haunting Colchester, she and her companion, Martha, a passionate socialist, and Cora’s young  son Francis (who probably has Aspergers), move from London to a hotel in Colchester where Cora gathers fossils and searches for the monster.  She hopes to find an antediluvian beast that survived extinction.  And as you can imagine, such a beast will cause havoc.

Love and sexual triangles are meshed in with the serpent myth.  Charming, spiky, sexy Cora is surrounded by romantic acolytes. Luke Garrett, a brilliant surgeon of short stature, nicknamed the Imp, and Martha, who sleeps with Cora, are both in love with her. And Martha has her acolyte, too:  Garrett’s friend Spencer, a wealthy doctor, is so smitten that she persuades him to fund a new housing project in a slum.

Sarah Perry

But what of the Essex Serpent?  It is wreaking havoc, they say, in  Aldwinter, a village near Colchester.  Cora falls in love with the fetching vicar of Aldwinter, William Ransome, who is married to a beautiful, fairy-like woman with tuberculosis.  You can feel the heat between Cora and William, but one cannot help but pity Stella.  Something about romantic heroes…I’m beyond them, even if they are not that romantic, and personally preferred Luke Garrett.

In the village, an unhappy girl, Naomi, jealous of her best friend Joann’s friendship with Cora, starts a rumor that Cora has brought the serpent to the village.  And Naomi causes mass hysteria among schoolgirls in the classroom; they all laugh and can’t stop and snap their necks like eels.  One girl falls down and breaks her arm.  It is The Crucible all over again.  But the adults prevent a witchhunt. There’s that.

This historical novel with its spiky, willful characters, reminds me of John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman rather than of actual Victorian novels. And that is intentional: it is a 21st century interpretation of 19th century novels.  Cora is more independent and hands-on in her quest for knowledge than, say, Dorothea in Middlemarch, who must work second-hand through her old-fashioned scholarly husband’s study of mythology. On the other hand, both Cora and Dorothea may be New Women, but don’t have a shot of being taken seriously as scholars. It takes George Eliot herself and Sarah Perry to achieve that;  their heroines fall a little behind.

Truly a lovely, lyrical book.  Am so glad I read it.

9 thoughts on “Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent

  1. I liked this but didn’t love it as much as I expected…though it came together more by the end for me. “Spiky, willful characters” is a good way to describe them. I found them a bit TOO 21st century for plausibility, but it is an interpretation. We can’t actually see into the past, so we have to make our own windows.


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