What is the Essex Serpent? A magical beast? A wonder of science? A judgement from God? William Ransome, vicar of the parish of Aldwinter, where the legendary serpent is said to have been sighted, is reluctant to give any credence at all to the rumours, viewing them as a distraction from the religious faith he is trying to instil in his parishioners. Cora Seaborne, however, is fascinated by tales of the fearsome sea monster lurking in the marshes of Essex, stealing away livestock and claiming human lives. Unusually for a woman in 1893, Cora is an amateur naturalist, with a particular interest in the work of the fossil collector Mary Anning. When she hears of the Essex Serpent, she wonders whether it could be an undiscovered species – or some sort of dinosaur?
Cora will have plenty of opportunities to test her theories and investigate further; having been recently widowed, she and her son Francis have moved from London to Colchester in Essex. It is on a visit to nearby Aldwinter that she meets William Ransome. Although their views are very different – not just on the serpent, but also on science, religion, and just about everything else – the two find themselves drawn together and a friendship begins to develop; a friendship which could become something more, if it wasn’t for the fact that Will is already married and that his wife, Stella, is dying of tuberculosis.
Although it is the relationship between Cora and William which drives the novel forward, there are many other subplots involving a large number of other characters. There’s Cora’s companion Martha, for example, a socialist who is campaigning to improve the living conditions of London’s poorest people, and Luke Garrett, a surgeon who closely follows all the latest advances in medicine and is itching for an opportunity to try them out for himself. A lot of time is also devoted to Francis, a serious, solitary boy who would probably be diagnosed today with a form of autism, and to Stella who, as her health declines, develops an obsession with collecting anything blue. I couldn’t help feeling, at times, that Sarah Perry was trying to do too much – trying to include every possible social issue of the 19th century – but on the whole I thought this was a fascinating, intelligent novel, with ideas spilling out of every page.
The Essex Serpent is one of those novels which is not only set in the Victorian era, but also attempts to capture the tone and style of a Victorian novel – while at the same time, being written in the modern day, bringing a new perspective to topics and themes which Victorian authors had less freedom to explore. The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles is a good comparison – although I have to say I enjoyed this book a lot more than Fowles’. I thought Sarah Perry’s writing was excellent, especially her descriptions of the landscape and the natural world, but occasionally her choice of language (particularly the use of contractions such as I’d’ve and shouldn’t’ve) pulled me out of the 19th century world she had otherwise so carefully created.
The criticisms I have of this book, though, are just minor ones; overall I was very impressed and can certainly understand why it has been so popular and so successful. It’s also nice to find a book that lives up to the promise of its beautiful cover!