Rating: 4 stars
Read for the Reader’s Room March Madness Challenge
Although the book opens with the mysterious death of a young man in a section of the Blackwater river that flows through Essex to the North Sea, possibly killed by an ancient creature freed from its riverbed prison, The Essex Serpent is a story about a woman and the life she chooses to lead beyond the constraints of conventional Victorian society. Cora Seaborne is a complex and strong willed woman who has had much to contend with in her life already. We meet her as her husband lies dying of throat cancer. A horrible death that is described without sympathy, Sarah Perry uses the circumstances to give a picture of life in that household. Michael Seaborne, older than Cora, a respected civil servant, is a coldly remote and violent husband. Cora is intelligent, full of life, with a dark sense of humour and a belief that nothing should be off limits to her. Widowhood is a kind of liberation. Her son, Francis, is an obsessive child who collects talismans and is kept in a room far away from the rest of the household, something that suits him rather than punishes him. He is cared for by Martha, with whom Cora has a complex but loving relationship.
Into the household during Michael Seaborne’s illness comes Luke Garrett, a surgeon who experiments on himself and his patients. He falls in love with Cora. What intense, scientifically minded Victorian man wouldn’t fall in love with a woman who knows her own mind and is different to other, more genteel, Victorian women? Cora plays with his affections. Of course she does. She’s just gained her freedom from an oppressive marriage. Why wouldn’t she toy with him like he was a puppy? She does it nicely, though, without malice.
This is the set up for what follows. I liked Cora Seaborne instantly. I was more than willing to find out where her independent spirit would take her. Essex is the answer. On the hunt for fossils, she heads for Colchester and the villages nearby, along the same stretch of river where the young man at the start of the book died. Here she encounters a country vicar, William Ransome. A mutual friend introduces them by letter, leaving both free to incorrectly imagine the other and draw up an image of someone they don’t relish meeting. She expects a fusty old man, he anticipates a dowdy old woman. We know where that’s heading straight away. Will is going to need all his powers of faith in God and inner resolve to resist the charms of such a woman as Cora. When they officially meet, it is a perfect romance of understanding and recognition without realisation. They become friends without noticing how important the other quickly becomes to them. They speak openly, frankly, and not as a married vicar and a recently widowed woman should do, by the rules of Victorian society. I loved how easily they fall into comfortable acquaintanceship, how natural they are together. I also loved their responses to the realisation that they feel a different love for each other to that of friends or brother and sister. Will, as a vicar, should be committed to the conventional view of monogamy. Some people are utterly monogamous. They can’t really understand how, if two people love each other, one or other or both could look at someone else, want someone else, love someone else. I can understand it. There are so many people on the planet, you see, and if you can randomly fall in love with one person, you can also randomly fall in love with another. For me, monogamy is about whether you choose to act on any random fallings for other people. It seems as though that’s Will’s view, as well. I liked the realistic creeping up, the dawning realisation, the anguish about what to do and how it feels to love two people, to love them for different but equally valid reasons, that overtakes Will. More than that, though, I loved Cora’s reaction. She’s supposedly the free spirit, and yet she’s the one who panics.
… she could not unravel things. She’d prized Will’s affection because it was impossible that he might want her … his affection was bounded off … by what she’d gratefully thought was his complete failure to notice she was a woman. ‘I might as well be a head in a jar of formaldehyde, for all he cares,’ she’d once said to Martha: ‘It’s why he prefers to write to me than see me – I’m only a mind, not a body: I’m safe as a child – don’t you see how I might prefer it?’
Oh, Cora. It’s when you think you’re safe to be yourself that you’re in the most danger of being attractive to another, to someone who finds you interesting.
Alongside the human element, in her descriptions of Victorian London, with its still relatively new Underground system, the slums of Bethnal Green, and the clearly separate and rural towns of Essex, Perry creates a vivid sense of place. Landscape is a character in this novel, every bit as vital as the people who move through it. Even though Aldwinter, the village where Will Ransome is vicar, is entirely fictional, it felt real. I could picture the single street leading down to the estuary, the buildings that line the street, the people who inhabit the village. I’ve never been to that part of Essex. My sister and her family live in the Essex that is almost London. The description of Will’s children enacting a ritual to bring the spring and assuage the beast that has awakened is set in the changing moonlit landscape of the tidal estuary. Light and shade touch the water so that it is palpable, leaping from the page with the menace of something stronger and more mysterious than its everyday familiarity should allow it to be.
In the plot and the natures of her characters, Perry has successfully created a late Victorian novel as well. Set on the cusp of the century’s turn, Perry has captured the sense of old traditions being challenged and a modern way of living coming in. Cora reminded me of the positive aspects of Sylvia Tietjens in Parade’s End. She made me think of the strong female characters in Hardy’s novels. She had something of Christabel LaMotte and Maud Bailey from Possession as well. Will is a vicar who has to contend with parishioners who believe in ancient legend and the protection of folk traditions more than they accept the sovereignty of God in their lives, as well as the challenges that science and Darwin are bringing to Christian faith. Cora’s companion Martha is another excellent female character. The radical daughter of radical parents, her father in a union, her mother supporting the striking match girls, Martha is raised to hold her head high and to challenge the old ways where they do nothing for the working class. She is like someone from an Elizabeth Gaskell book. Even Will’s daughter Joanna is a sparky one, choosing her own path, holding ambitions to be a vicar or a doctor, unaware that society holds those occupations to be the preserve of men.
The legend of the Essex Serpent is interesting. Last seen in the 17th century, during another period of social, religious and political turmoil, it is said by the people of Essex that a recent earthquake has set the beast free and it is responsible for a spate of inexplicable deaths and disappearances. Is the beast real? Is it an ancient creature from the prehistoric era, akin to the Loch Ness Monster? Or is it a legend being used to explain away the difficult and disorienting changes the people in these Essex villages are experiencing, as progress tries to wipe away an ancient way of life? And why does it cause a form of mass hysteria among the villagers that threatens the stability of their community while simultaneously bringing people together?
I loved this book. I didn’t want to let go of the characters. I wanted to walk with them through that austere coastal landscape for a while longer. I’m sorry that it didn’t make the jump from longlist to shortlist for the Bailey’s Prize. It isn’t the most innovative novel I’ve ever read, there are stereotypes among the characters and clichés within the action, but it is well written and believable, and those clichés and stereotypes are fun, executed with a twinkle, knowing nods to the style of Victorian novels. The characters and the episode they are living through are satisfying. It fed all my reading hungers, and what more can you ask of a novel?