So while I was reading Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent I was loving it: fog-filled Essex streets where 19th-century characters fall in love and chase after a mythical-perhaps-actual serpent haunting the people of the seaside town.
After I finished it… I still love it. Not for the romance, or the haunting, but for the delicate and multi-pronged exploration of living in the era of a blooming scientific rationalism. Or put another way, the way the characters are living through a sea change in belief – from religion, to medicine, to urban-life, to gender and sexuality – all the while unaware that they are in the midst of this total transformation in a way of life. Sort of – you might suppose – the way a reader today could be forgiven for not noticing (or maybe not fully appreciating) the scale of change we are experiencing.
The novel achieves this web of change in the interwoven, and tightly connected characters and their particular preoccupations and love-interests. Our protagonist, Cora, finds herself widowed – happily so, her husband physical abused her for years – but while she is glad to be rid of him, she finds she is without a firm sense of herself, and sets off – with her son and ‘female companion’ to find herself. She quickly discovers her passions as a naturalist – fascinated by Darwin and intent on finding fossils. She ends up near Essex in a quaint-stuck-in-time-village, and encounters her antithesis in the form of the community Reverend, Will Ransome. Will, who believes, too, in reason, complicates Cora’s view of an absolute scientific explanation, by offering up faith and God as ideas worthy of contemplation, and necessary for a fully realized sense of self. The two quickly develop philosophical – and romantic – rapport, and the reader travels with them – and their pursuit of the Essex serpent – the lines of faith and reason.
Cora’s companion, Martha, has a passion for Marxism and social welfare. As well as a…. passion for Cora. Cora’s friend, the genius doctor, Luke Garret, pioneers the first open heart surgery. Her son, peculiar-without-a-name-for-his-peculiarity, troubles ideas of maternity and ‘wellness.’ Will’s wife, Stella, stands in for 19-century heroines of delicate beauty and in need of rescue – and, too, shows the shallowness of such simple representations. In them all we encounter the rush of the present running up against tradition and convention. Meanwhile, layered on them all is the hunt for the serpent, and the earnest debate among the townsfolk – less enlightened then our named characters – about how the beast can be assuaged.
The writing is lyrical (though at times I found the descriptions of the fog overly damp). The setting fully realized. It would be a great book to teach (if students could get past the 400 page threshold) and is a lovely book – I think – to read through a cold February. Which isn’t the same, really, as saying it will be deeply memorable, or is something urgent to add to your list. Rather, it’s a well-crafted novel doing good work at exploring what it means to be in the midst of a sea change. And I suppose there’s something timely in that.