It’s London, 1893. Cora Seaborne has just buried her husband, a highly regarded professional well-known for his expertise in the halls of Parliament. He was also something of a sadist; he liked to inflict pain upon his wife. Cora is not exactly sorry to see him gone.
Left well-off by her husband’s death, she moves with her rather odd 10-year-old son Francis and her companion Martha to Essex. She throws herself into the countryside. She walks, she hikes, she digs, she explores. The local inhabitants take Cora in their stride, although they wonder at her rather odd behavior, which includes wearing an overlarge coat and men’s boots. She throws herself into the natural world and all things of science related to it. When she hears rumors of a beast the locals call the Essex serpent, a demon-like thing that lives in the marshes and is responsible for missing pets and livestock, she decides to find it.
One of the local families she meets and becomes good friends with is that of the vicar, William Ransome. He is rather taken by Cora, even though she holds views that he clearly rejects. He also thinks the stories of the serpent are nonsense. And while he is devoted to his wife Stella, who’s increasingly beset by consumption (tuberculosis), he enjoys Cora’s company and the two talk many long walks together. And they argue about the serpent.
The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry is many things. It is first a historical novel, and Perry captures the countryside and the London of the 1890s extraordinarily well. Second, it is a different kind of historical novel in that it does not play to the standard picture we have of the late Victorian period. Or as Perry points out in an afterword, she discovered that the Victorian period, once you moved beyond the caricatures, was a period not unlike out own.
Third, the novel is about science and religion. It is not a story of the battle between the two, although there is clearly conflict. But just as two dissimilar people as Cora and William come to realize they need each other, so, too, does science and religion.
And then there’s that serpent, which comes to represent far more than a local folk tale or a possible prehistoric beast or fish that has somehow managed to survive.
Perry’s first novel, which received a wide array of literary recognitions, was After Me Comes the Flood (2014). She’s also received awards for travel writing. She received an M.A. degree in creative writing and a Ph.D. degree in creative writing and the Gothic at Royal Holloway, University of London. The Essex Serpent was a No. 1 bestseller in hardback in Britain, was named Waterstone’s Book of the Year for 2016, and was nominated for a slew of literary awards. Perry lives in Norwich, England.
It’s easy to see why The Essex Serpent has gained so many recognitions and so many accolades. It’s well written. It has a fascinating story and recognizable characters, characters that the reader takes to and sympathizes with. And it’s powerful: it starts slowly and carefully, and you wonder where all this is going. But then you’re caught, and you realize that this story simply won’t let go, even after the last page.
‘I was wonderstruck; transfixed by strangeness’ – Sarah Perry’s account in The Guardian of seeing a mirage (the Fata Morgana); a similar sighting involes a key scene in The Essex Serpent.
Twenty Questions with Sarah Perry – The Times Literary Supplement.
Top photograph: Salt marshes in Essex, England, via CoastalCare.org.