Much has been said about The Essex Serpent, and I doubt I will add anything more of value to it other than another enthusiastic voice recommending that you GO OUT AND READ IT IMMEDIATELY because it is brilliant. That could pretty much sum up my blog, but I have a word quota to fill and whilst I’d rather like to just type out some quotes to allow the book to speak for itself I should, perhaps, instead tell you something about it. But bear with me. I broke my tea flask and slashed my finger open earlier this week (probably three weeks ago by this point) and typing remains difficult. I appreciate you won’t notice this, but if The Essex Serpent has taught me anything it is that little is ever as it seems and our expectations are defied so often that it is barely worth holding them at all.
The story, set in the Victorian era, revolves around Cora Seabourne and beginning with the death of her husband, an event about which she is conflicted having loved and feared him. Yet the overriding sensation is that she is free. She fancies herself a budding Mary Anning, taking a keen interest in archaeology, particularly in the discovery of fossils. Cora is much loved by those around her; a woman not beautiful but sparkling from the inside, she attracts the love of Luke Garrett (the Imp, as he is known) a surgeon obsessed by the emerging possibilities of surgery and uncovering the frail beauties of the human body. Martha, Cora’s companion (maid, helpmeet, or word to that effect), a woman raised from the slums who never forgets her background or the appalling conditions the poor (but not unworthy) live in. Martha herself, too, is loved by the Imp’s wealthy friend George Spencer as well as Edward Burton, a young man stabbed in the heart by a bullied co-worker who is ably saved by the Imp’s hand. Katherine and Charles Ambrose, friends of Cora’s, who lead Cora to Essex where she meets the local pastor William Ransome, his wife Stella and their family with whom she becomes entwined. The one person who does not appear to love Cora is her son Francis, a strange boy (autistic, perhaps) who collects and covets strange objects and is prone to walking in the night. It is a complex cast of characters, yet each one is distinct and fully fleshed out. Real enough to touch (another thing being not what it seems). Characterisation is a definite strength of Perry’s writing.
The village of Aldwinter, home to the Ransomes, is being terrorised by a mythical beast. The Essex serpent (of the title) seeps into the local psyche spreading terror and fear like a plague. Reverend Ransome has little patience for it, as he has little patience for the idea of entertaining Cora who is thrust on him by the Ambroses, as he describes here:
“He could picture her as precisely as if her photograph had been included in the envelope, entering the lonely final stages of life bolstered by yards of taffeta and a half-baked enthusiasm for the new sciences. Her son was doubtless down from Oxford or Cambridge, and would bring with him some secret vice which would either thrill Colchester, or make him completely unsuited to civilised company. She probably lived on a diet of boiled potatoes and vinegar, hoping Byron’s diet might improve her silhouette and would certainly have Anglo-Catholic tendencies, and deplore the absence of an ornate cross on the All Saints altar. In the space of five minutes he furnished her with an obnoxious lap-dog, a toadying companion with no flesh on her bones, and a squint.”
His expectations, as ours are, are quite wrong. Cora is nothing like what he imagined, and neither is Will to Cora. They become friends quickly despite being at polar opposites in terms of belief. Each tries to convince the other of their rightness, that the other is somehow deluded or missing something. They argue, they disagree, they fall out with each other. This is friendship, or is it love? Both are confused by the other. Meanwhile, Will’s lovely wife, Stella, is sickening. She is consumed by all things blue – cornflowers, violets, bits of blue glass and stone – and in her lungs a disease is consuming her. And the serpent threatens them all.
There is so much going on in this book, it is as dense and intricate as its gorgeous cover. It pulls in science, religion, mythology, medicine, optical phenomena (noctilucent clouds, the fata morgana phenomena), poverty, inequality, feminism. The list goes on. It feels like a gothic romance, but it just isn’t. At its heart, I think, the book revolves around two key things: friendship and the fruitlessness of expectation or prejudice (pre-judging). Friendship and love in its many and complex forms plays a starring role, but just when you think you’re understanding where the book it going it diverts, leads you astray. It makes for an exciting read, and I yomped through the pages as a result thinking of phrases like ‘rip-roaring’ and ‘a romp’ and all those things that it is and is not. It’s a very clever book, woven beautifully and there must be a prize out there somewhere with this book’s name on it because the more I think about it the more impressed I am. It is never boring, never predictable, it doesn’t end where you expect it and the characters behave like people following their own paths and lives and we’re just sitting here watching it unfold beautifully. Is the serpent real? I can’t answer that question, but if you want to know I recommend that you go out and acquire a copy and devour this complex piece of brilliance for yourself. You won’t regret it.
The Essex Serpent is published by Serpent’s Tail