Richard and Judy Review The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
" I can’t remember reading a story where the characters, the landscape (and seascape) and the period are so beautifully interlocked. The Essex Serpent is indeed a thing of beauty"
As a proud-to-be-an Essex boy, Sarah Perry’s intriguingly titled novel had my attention from the start. And I’m glad to say it held it to the final page – this is one of the most unusual and distinctively-voiced books either of us have read in a long time. My goodness, the woman can write.
In fact it’s Perry’s second novel – her first, After Me Comes the Flood, won high praise and awards – but this is a shift into a higher gear altogether. I can’t remember reading a story where the characters, the landscape (and seascape) and the period are so beautifully interlocked. The Essex Serpent is indeed a thing of beauty.
Well, not the creature itself, depending on your perspective. Perry’s tale is founded on a genuine medieval legend that the Blackwater estuary and its surrounding fields and marshes was menaced by a fierce creature; a sort of Loch Ness Monster with wings and teeth; a Jabberwock of a thing. Google a woodcut from a 1669 pamphlet titled ‘The Flying Serpent or Strange News Out Of Essex’ and you’ll literally get the picture. Now, more than 200 years later, rumours abound that the foul thing has returned. Essex is in uproar.
It’s a terrific premise for a story and Perry wrings every drop of potential from it. We are in 1890s London and our heroine, Cora Seaborne, has just been widowed. Her late husband, a high ranking civil servant ‘more powerful than the politicians he served’ was something of a serpent himself, slithering through Westminster’s house of cards and constricting and poisoning Cora herself in what has become a controlling, abusive marriage. Now he’s dead, she is free. Free to hunt a serpent of a very different kind.
"Sarah Perry has created something of a masterpiece."
I LOVED Cora. It may be the end of the 19th century but she is such a modern woman, fiercely independent, wickedly clever, and brimming with self-confidence and purpose. She arrives in the wilds of Essex with her son Francis, who is what we would describe now as being on the autistic spectrum, and companion Martha, a trenchant socialist deeply devoted to civil rights but even more devoted to Cora.
Cora believes passionately in modern science. When she hears about the Essex Serpent, she immediately decides that in reality it must be what Victorians called ‘living fossils’ – a surviving member of a so-called extinct species which is in fact anything but. Is this a living ichthyosaur? Cora is determined to prove that it is, the descendant of the same animal that terrorised medieval Essex centuries earlier.
Science clashes with religion, however, when she meets and falls into an intense relationship with charismatic William Ransome, rector of the village of Aldwinter, who thinks the serpent is nothing more than a myth fed by public hysteria. And religion clashes with superstition and paganism, when Ransome’s so-called Christian congregation turn to pagan rites and ceremonies to rid themselves of the fearsome beast. Horsehoes are festooned from the local ‘traitor’s oak’; children perform strange rituals out in the marshes.
But there are real casualties. A man is found drowned, ‘naked, his head turned almost 180 degrees, a look of dread in his eyes’. Livestock are discovered inexplicably slaughtered.
Has ‘it’ returned?
Sarah Perry has created something of a masterpiece.
Quite a legend you’ve created here, Sarah! Was it based on any similar real-life myth or myths?
Yes, it’s based on a real legend from the seventeenth century. I first got the idea for the novel when I was driving with my husband in the Essex countryside, and we passed a sign to the village of Henham-on-the-Hill. He asked if I had ever heard of the Essex Serpent – I hadn’t, and so he told me how in 1669 a mysterious serpentine beast was seen out in the Essex woods and marshes. Rumours of the serpent were so rife that they produced a beautiful pamphlet warning villagers nearby what to look out for. The pamphlet is called Strange News Out of Essex, and includes a wonderful engraving of the beast itself. You can go to the British Library and hold the real 1669 document for yourself.
You description of landscape is breathtakingly beautiful. Where did you learn to write so evocatively?
This is a wonderful thing to hear, thank you! I am not sure how or why I respond to landscape in the way that I do, but I have always been really besotted with the natural world and always far more at ease there than in the built environment. If I am away from the landscape of Essex and East Anglia I always feel a little off-kilter, even when I am in other beautiful places. The strange mists and eerie marshes, huge skies and ancient churches of Essex are part of my DNA, and I think that’s perhaps why I write about them so attentively. When I was growing up I read a lot of Thomas Hardy, including his poetry, and was also very influenced by Charlotte Brontë’s nature writing in Jane Eyre. Both Hardy and Brontë use the natural world to create different kinds of atmosphere that can arouse deep and profound emotions in their characters, and I think I have always felt that a good novel is able to do this.
How important is the period setting to this story? It’s hard to see it working in, say, the 1930s.
It’s really essential. I wanted to write about a time when debates around science, faith and reason were really fervent. Ordinary middle-class women and men were very aware of the influence of Darwin and what that meant for conventional Christianity, and I wanted to explore how a mysterious beast would be treated in that era. I have also always been fascinated with the Victorians and in particular not how different they were from us, but how similar. I wanted to write a book that paid tribute to nineteenth-century fiction, but emphasised that really it was a very modern age. By the end of the nineteenth century, you could travel by Tube, drink Cadbury’s chocolate, join a thriving trade union, read feminist literature, have your tooth out under anaesthetic and walk along streets lit by electric lights. I found it very exciting to try and write about the Victorian age in a way that made it seem strangely familiar.
As we’ve said, this was an instant bestseller when it was first published in hardback. Were you prepared for such overnight success?
Not at all! Of course every writer dreams of having lots of readers: it’s why we write. But I could not have predicted that it would be so warmly received, both by booksellers and by readers. I recall spending a great deal of the summer of 2016 absolutely stunned by beautiful displays in bookshops, and by glorious posters on the Tube. No writer could have hoped for a warmer or more generous reception to their book; I’ll always be grateful.
- Cora seems to know that at one level she married Michael for his money. Martha is faced with a similar choice, though Spencer is much kinder than Michael. Many of the characters have unequal relationships: Cora and Martha, Spencer and Will. Do you think that viewing someone as a means to an end necessarily precludes loving them?
- Cora survived her horrible marriage, but was definitely damaged by it. How do you think that the experience has shaped her character?
- Will is at odds with the superstitious villagers, who insist the Serpent is a message from God and want him to preach fire and brimstone to them. However, he is also wrangling with Cora, who is more interested in science than faith. Do you think he believes faith is more about the following the words of the bible or more about personal belief?
- The novel sets up Cora to choose between two men and in the end she chooses neither. Do you think this is a comment on traditional literary plots? Do you think the novel sees friendship as more valuable and enduring than romantic love?
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