Name: The Essex Serpent
Author: Sarah Perry
Number of Pages: 416 (Hardback)
Published: 27th May 2016 by Serpent’s Tail
Set in Victorian London and an Essex village in the 1890’s, and enlivened by the debates on scientific and medical discovery which defined the era, The Essex Serpent has at its heart the story of two extraordinary people who fall for each other, but not in the usual way.
They are Cora Seaborne and Will Ransome. Cora is a well-to-do London widow who moves to the Essex parish of Aldwinter, and Will is the local vicar. They meet as their village is engulfed by rumours that the mythical Essex Serpent, once said to roam the marshes claiming human lives, has returned. Cora, a keen amateur naturalist is enthralled, convinced the beast may be a real undiscovered species. But Will sees his parishioners’ agitation as a moral panic, a deviation from true faith. Although they can agree on absolutely nothing, as the seasons turn around them in this quiet corner of England, they find themselves inexorably drawn together and torn apart.
Told with exquisite grace and intelligence, this novel is most of all a celebration of love, and the many different guises it can take. – from Goodreads
What a wonderfully woven tale The Essex Serpent is.
Cora Seaborne takes to life after widowhood with surprising ease, but then her husband Michael doesn’t exactly seem a nice character. Whilst not delving into great depths there’s enough to make you feel that he’s no great loss to his wife, who can find her way in the world perfectly well on her own, or with the support of her companion Martha and some close friends. Cora seems truly in her element wandering the countryside in mens clothing, always in search of something new and interesting.
Cora is fascinated by the natural world, especially fossils and the discoveries of Mary Anning. When she hears tell of the Essex Serpent, some kind of monster from the deep set on making Aldwinter it’s hunting ground, she is fascinated, determined to find a new species not yet recorded and make her name.
And so Cora goes to Aldwinter with he young son Francis and friend Martha and gains an introduction to the local vicar and his family by way of mutual friends.
The Reverend William Ransome is not one to indulge the rumours, scare-mongering and collective fear raised in the village by talk of the ‘Trouble’ as he calls it, and would be glad for day to day life to settle down and the serpent to be forgotten.
Initially you would think there would be little to encourage friendship between this man of faith and the woman of science in Cora, yet the two strike up an intriguing friendship which I found a joy to read.
From their very first unanticipated meeting (I loved this scene) I couldn’t wait to see the situation develop between them. They clash almost constantly, their viewpoints so opposed so often, yet they can speak openly to each other.
Will and Cora are drawn to each other in a way even they probably don’t understand at first. They part and miss each other, yet know on the surface there should be nothing between them for they are so different. Is it friendship? Is it love? Maybe it’s both. It’s great to read.
There are gothic and almost supernatural elements to the story, in that fear and paranoia over the supposed sea serpent seems to overtake rational thought, leading to all manner of odd behaviour among the locals, including the school children.
Every animal that meets an unfortunate end of course becomes the work of the serpent, and even a death or two among the local populace adds fuel to the fire of this legend/rumour/superstition, until the whole place is convinced there is something lurking out on the estuary just waiting to drag some unsuspecting person out into the depths.
There are also more everyday and real world themes, as shown through some of the other characters.
Luke Garrett is a doctor who attended Michael Seaborne in his final illness, and has since fallen in love with Cora, although she sees him as a friend and fondly names him the Imp. His ambition and drive to perform complex medical procedures such as heart surgery make him a man beyond his time, and he comes up against resistance from those who don’t believe it can be done.
Martha becomes interested in social change, and the living conditions of the poor, wanting to make a difference to those who live in the poorest areas through little fault of their own. Her quest throws her into the path of Edward Burton, and the two becomes friends, an association which may lead to tragic consequences for one acquaintance.
Stella Ransome is Will’s wife. I loved the way the friendships and relationships developed between Cora, Martha and Francis and the Ransome family.
The Essex Serpent is wonderfully written, from the landscape and the changing of the seasons, or the possible sighting of a ghostly ship out on the water, to the ruined house in Colchester where a man spins tales of an earthquake and the ominous Essex Serpent. Aldwinter is at times warm and inviting, at others eerie and ominous as the fogs draws in off of the water and envelops the community.
This is the first book by Sarah Perry that I’ve read, but I’ll certainly read more by this author.