THE Blackwater estuary, in Essex, is well-named, especially at low tide. The dark, squelching mud left at the ebb is the quality of molasses, but it reeks of slowly rotting vegetables. The Essex wetlands, with their reedy saltings, are not conventionally picturesque, but they do have a stark, windswept drama.
I have spent many bracing weekends with youth groups on sailing expeditions around Tollesbury, Bradwell, and Mersea, and always thought that the area was an ideal setting for fiction. In fact, I once had an (unsuccessful) go myself. I did well to leave the proper writing to Sarah Perry.
The Essex Serpent is probably the best novel I have read this year. It is the right kind of literary fiction: full of ideas, challenge, and intrigue, but with a compelling narrative that tows you through the pages like a freight train.
Set in the 1890s, the central character is the newly widowed Cora Seaborne, a handsome woman with ferocious intelligence, and hungry for the independence that a constricting marriage and gender stereotyping had denied her. Her obsessive fascination with the new science of palaeontology — and a belief that some creatures of the ancient past might yet survive — means that, when she hears rumours of a mysterious sea creature terrorising the Essex village of Aldwinter, she is determined to find out more.
This puts her in the orbit of Will Ransome, the embattled young Oxford-educated village rector who is trying to quell — with the voice of common sense — the apocalyptic fears of his flock, who are imputing sudden deaths, agricultural calamities, and mysterious local events to the malign (but unproven) presence of the serpent in their waters. They consider themselves a village under judgement, for some unspecified misdoings.
This is set against a vivid backdrop of late Victorian intellectual, scientific, medical, and social ferment. It knowingly mirrors our own time, with conflict in Afghanistan, a housing crisis in London, and medical ethics in the headlines. The cast of characters are drawn into exploring, and living out, issues of science and faith, gender equality, sexual fidelity, and social stratification.
And what a cast! Perry has created an ensemble of characters so richly drawn that each could warrant a novel in his or her own right. These include: Luke, a pioneering surgeon with Richard Dawkins tendencies, who is miserably in love with Cora; Cora’s bosom companion Martha, who has a socialist drive for the welfare of the poor of London; Stella, the beautiful, almost transparent wife of the rector, who is the novel’s centre of good. They all become absorbingly enmeshed in a web of friendship, rivalry, love, and jealousy which makes for a complex and nuanced human tale elevated far beyond a study in Victorian manners and preoccupations. Dickens, with a wry Gothic twist.
My mother-in-law used to talk of “the love that blunders”, referring to her sometimes clumsy, affectionate enthusiasm, which could accidentally injure her children: for instance, squeezing them too hard. It would make a fitting sub-heading for The Essex Serpent. So many of the individuals in this novel prove so inept in their ability to express their innermost feelings that they bruise the very people they intend to cherish.
“[Cora] has gone blundering about, wishing no harm and causing much,” the novel’s narrator remarks. As Dr Luke Garrett muses: “If love was an archer someone had put out its eyes, and it went stumbling about, blindly letting loose its arrows, never meeting its mark.”
The relationship at the heart of the novel is that between Cora and Will. The myth of the Essex serpent entwines them in its scaly coils, and creates an unlikely partnership, which is, in turn, sibling love, teenage crush, intellectual combat, and animal passion. “They sharpen themselves on each other; each by turn is blade and whetstone.”
Cora dwells in her head: “My body only ever betrayed me: I don’t live in it, I live up here, in my mind, my word. . .”. And as for the Church: “I gave all this up a long time ago.” But Will challenges her to be both more physical and more spiritual. “Give me an evening with the Psalms on the saltings and the sky breaking over a thousand walks in Regency Park,” he tells her. He is no Puritan, however: “Far from there being one truth alone, there may be several truths, none of which it would be possible to prove or disprove.”
Their turbulent relationship is elegantly summarised by Cora, in the double-edged meaning of the verb “to cleave”: She writes to Will: “We are cleaved together — we are cleaved apart –— everything that draws me to you is everything that drives me away.”
It would be unfair to reveal how this relationship, or the other tantalising relationships in the novel, transpires. Suffice it to say that I found their engagement in big ideas and intimate connections — amid the messiness, the mud, and the raw Essex landscape — invigorating, fascinating, and hugely enjoyable.
The Revd Malcolm Doney is a freelance writer, editor, and broadcaster.
The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry is published by Serpent’s Tail at £8.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.10); 978-1-78125-545-2.
THE ESSEX SERPENT — SOME QUESTIONS
“You are not at all what I expected!” What surprised you about The Essex Serpent?
How far do you think that this book is a conversation between science and faith?
Do you agree that Stella is the novel’s “centre of good”?
Which of the physical senses does this novel most appeal to?
“My body only ever betrayed me”. To what extent are the female characters trapped, or liberated, by their womanhood?
What did you make of The Essex Serpent’s depiction of communities in crisis?
What links can be drawn in the novel between Aldwinter and Bethnal Green?
How did you respond to the novel’s portrayal of children and childhood?
Early in The Essex Serpent, Luke Garrett says that “causing or experiencing pain is the most repulsive of human experiences.” Having read the novel, do you agree?
What did you think of Cracknell’s death scene, and the part that Francis played in it?
Did you enjoy the novel’s exploration of the interrelations between friendship, desire, and love?
How has The Essex Serpent made you think about the relationship between God and nature, and our experience of both?
IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 4 August, we will print extra information about our next book, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë. It is published by Oxford University Press at £7.99 (Church Times Bookshop £7.20); 978-0-19-920755-8).
The arrival of a mysterious widow at Wildfell Hall arouses the interest of the local community, including the young farmer Gilbert Markham. As gossip intensifies about the reclusive Helen Graham, Markham is compelled to discover the unhappy truth about the past that she has escaped. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall deals unflinchingly with drunkenness and marital strife, in a manner that was shocking to its Victorian audience — so much so that Charlotte Brontë prevented its being reprinted after Anne’s death. It has been called “the first feminist novel”; it is an intense exploration of love, redemption, and the choices available to women.
Anne Brontë (1820-49) was the youngest member of her illustrious literary family, and spent most of her life at Haworth Parsonage on the Yorkshire moors. She published her poetry and novels under the pseudonym Acton Bell, beginning her career in print with a book of poems published with her sisters, Charlotte and Emily, in 1846. Agnes Grey followed in 1847, before The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was published a year later. The novels were well received, but Anne’s promising career was cut short by her death from tuberculosis, months after the deaths of her siblings Branwell and Anne. Somewhat neglected after her death (Margaret Lane described her as “a Brontë without genius”) she is undergoing something of a revival, spearheaded by Samantha Ellis’s biography Take Courage.
Books for the next two months:
September: Becoming Friends of Time by John Swinton.
October: East West Street by Philippe Sands.