The Essex Serpent has danced on the edge of my consciousness for a long time but I only recently sat down to read it. Strangely, the fact that I lived in Essex for a couple of years and did not particularly take to the place put me off it as a setting. (Disclaimer: I am incredibly fortunate to have found so many fantastic friends during my sojourn in Essex – if you are one of them and reading this, you understand what I actually mean.) Still, I had heard enough positive buzz around Serpent that I decided to look past my prejudice and find out more.
Central character is Cora Seagrave, newly widowed after the death of her thoroughly unpleasant husband and setting out to indulge her passion for palaeontology. It is the 1890s and London is in the middle of science mania but Cora travels from this metropolitan setting to the remote Essex village of Aldwinter. With her she brings her autistic son Francis and the boy’s socialist governess Martha, who also harbours a passion for Cora.
In contrast to the city, Aldwinter is a world reliant on superstition rather than science. The locals fear the mythical Essex Serpent following the discovery of a drowned man at New Year, the body found ‘naked, his head turned almost 180 degrees, a look of dread in his eyes‘. The children perform rituals to keep it away, the adults string up dead animals and horseshoes to ward it off. Local rector William Ransome is at his wits end trying to contain the panic and preach against the paganism. When Cora arrives, her excitement at the potential scientific find clashes with his determination that faith should be at the forefront. The conflict between the two is further complicated by their unspoken chemistry and fireworks inevitably occur.
Perry is making use of the true legend of the Essex Serpent, last seen in 1669 but immortalised in the pamphlet ‘The Flying Serpent or Strange News out of Essex‘. Why has the Serpent returned two hundred years later? There is some obvious symbolism – the serpent in the rural idyll means that evil is afoot. Its threat must be vanquished for paradise to return again. Perry is pastiching the Victorian novel, where threats such as Dracula and Lady Audley’s Secret posed similar menaces to domestic security. Of course here the danger comes not from blood-sucking female vampires or fair-haired devil women but from something with a rather more phallic symbolism.
Perry’s prose is rich and vibrant and The Essex Serpent is also one of those rare pieces of historical fiction which feels like it just might have been written at the time it was set. However, despite all of these elements that meant that I should have loved it, somehow I did not. I had to think for a while about why this was. Was it my Essex prejudice? No, Perry’s novel bore very little resemblance to the Essex I knew. One reason that I could not warm to it was because the book itself lacked warmth. The characters pass by each other unfeeling. Cora struggles to love her son, she spurns those who love her unless she can make use of them, Reverend William is indifferent towards his creepy wife, their daughter turns against her friend – the list goes on. The one couple who do get together seem to do so only due to shared feelings of rejection. The book glittered but felt cold.
More than that though, I reached the end of the novel in surprise because not an awful lot appeared to have happened. After so much build up, suddenly the threat was over and life went back to what it was before. If my grandmother had had to sit through Serpent, I can guarantee that she would have sniffed and muttered that it was a ‘knotless thread’. Akin to my experience of The Miniaturist, I was left unreasonably irritated at having been drawn in by a plot with so little resolution. Serpent deals with a lot of big ideas, medicine versus ritual, superstition versus science, the decline of the Empire, rural poverty versus urban squalor, social injustice, female subjection. Still, for all this, with a cast about whom I cared so little, none of it really caught fire. Sarah Perry is a ridiculously talented writer with an amazing gift for conjuring up an intriguing setting, but this was a book which is clever rather than compelling.
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Published by Serpent's Tail on May 27th 2016
Genres: Fiction, Literary, Romance, Historical, General
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