The Essex Serpent is a novel by Sarah Perry. It was published a couple of years ago. The cover, which is in a style I would classify as decorative medieval tapestry, was an early example of a look which is now common. The story is a multi-layered tale that explores the aftermath of grief, the making and breaking of friendships, the mysterious nature of human attraction and the fragility of life.
It is firmly rooted in time and space and evokes both effortlessly whilst at the same time achieving transcendence from both. Set in the late Victorian era, it has trains, but not cars, letters, but not phones, whilst the Essex coast is still far enough from London to still be a separate world of its own. A particular feature of the novel is the pairing of opposites. The sense of time gives us one such; tradition vs modernity. There is a definite sense that tradition is fighting a losing battle.
Sarah Perry, like me, is a child of the East coast. Her evocation of an Essex estuary, with its mudflats, east wind and fog banks felt like home to me. She captures the sense of a world apart both through physical descriptions and the exposure of the locals state of mind and beliefs. Geography matters, with the action ( and it is sometimes is genuinely exciting and disturbing) unfolding in London, the hamlet of Aldwinter and the intermediate town of Colchester. Aldwinter and London are another pairing of opposites, in size, social make-up and culture, with Colchester a half-way house where characters meet.
Talking of characters, it’s time to meet them. The central character in the story is Cora Seaborne, recently widowed, a woman of means with an interest in science, especially geology and paleontology. Cora is an unconventional woman living in a time when the opposite is expected of a woman of her station. An outsider herself, she attracts, and is attracted by, other outsiders.
Her son Francis clearly has traits of ASD and OCD. Her companion Martha, originally employed as his nanny, is a fierce advocate for social justice. Her friend Luke is a doctor with modern radical ideas of treatment that his medical colleagues look sideways at. Another friend, Spencer, is a social dilettante in search of a purpose, whilst Charles Ambrose and his wife, though part of the rich establishment, are happy to mix beyond their narrow layer of society.
Luke, who first met Cora when treating her husband during his terminal illness, is struck by her physical appearance:
“She was dressed in grey, and simply, but her skirt’s fabric shimmered like a pigeon’s neck.”
Martha is aware of the changefulness of Cora’s persona:
“Infuriated and entranced, Martha found that no sooner had she grown accustomed to one Cora, another would emerge”
One way and another, Cora holds them all in thrall.
This London-based cast of characters are brought into contact with the inhabitants of Aldwinter, an edge of the world sort of place, by Cora. She has heard tell of the Essex Serpent, a persistent myth that the locals see as a judgement from God, or possibly a pagan monster from the past. Cora, given her interests, is hopeful of a pre-historic survival, a plesiosaur or something like it- a rational explanation that would nonetheless contain its own kind of wonder.
On her way to the village, walking the last stretch, Cora encounters a man she takes for an agricultural worker, but who, it transpires, is the local vicar. Their friendship and growing relationship provides the arc of the main part of the story. Cora Seaborne and the Reverend William Ransome are another pair of opposites, the one a scientific rationalist, the other a religious believer in providence. Their friendship is often spiky and argumentative, yet underlying it is an attraction that they initially refuse to admit, to themselves or each other.
That’s as much plot as I can give away with spoiling the story. As it unfolds, the delight of this novel comes from the vivid earthy descriptions, the subtle changes of character and the subtle interplays between people. Another device that increases the immediacy of the story is the way it moves between tenses. Sometimes events are described in the past tense, but then it switches to the present, which makes the reader a witness of events unfolding, as in this passge from the opening phase of the book:
“But something alters in a turn of the tide or a change of the air: the estuary surface shift- seems (he steps forward) to pulse and throb, then grow slick and still; then soon after to convulse, as if flinching at a touch”.
I read this book slowly, in no particular hurry to finish it. Its that kind of book, not a page turner but a thought provoker. Are the mores of metropolitan London superior or inferior to those of rural Aldwinter. Is attraction worth the pain it brings? Is science really just another set of beliefs, a form of religion?
At its heart, the book is a celebration of the fact that whether you live in a mega-city like London or a Hamlet like Aldwinter, what really matters to you is the circle of family, friends and acquaintances in your immediate orbit.
My final observation is a comment on the magnificent literary creation that is Cora Seaborne. She is by turns inspiring in her independence, infuriating in her selfishness and fascinating to the reader as much as to the characters that revolve around her. But don’t take my word for it- read it yourself.