GROWING up in the confines of the Ebenezer Strict and Particular Baptist Chapel, Chelmsford, in the 1980s would not be most people’s idea of the ideal spawning ground for a contemporary literary novelist. But it worked for Sarah Perry.
Her second novel, The Essex Serpent, published in 2016, when she was 37, was a worldwide hit, selling more than 100,000 in hardback alone, and widely recognised as a modern Gothic masterpiece (Reading Groups, 7 July 2017). The plot follows the newly widowed Cora Seaborne in a quest to explore the rumour that a mysterious sea creature was terrorising the Essex coast in the 19th century. Perry says that she wanted to talk about “moral responsibility, and faith, and reason, and madness”.
The Victorian setting has resonances for its author: “I often say I was born in about 1890, which sounds flippant, and indeed is, but anyone who has read Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son [would] know what I mean. The same hymns, the same language, the same forms of worship . . . the same saints and sinners, the same hatred of the Catholic Church.”
Although Perry admits to having felt occasionally “chafed” by not having access to such things as pop music, the cinema, and teenage fashions, she says: “I liked it.” To this day, “my idea of a good afternoon would be sitting quietly doing watercolour copies of terrible Pre-Raphaelite paintings while listening to the wireless. . . It suited me, and it’s an excellent intellectual training-ground to have vast ideas introduced to you virtually in the cradle.”
She reminisces with affection and irony. The community was strong: “You’ve never eaten until you’ve had a Strict Baptist anniversary chapel tea,” and the theology had a stark beauty: “It seems to me, for instance, that Romans 8 is one of the most beautiful chains of logic and reasoning in all philosophy.”
But she has since left that particular fold. Intellectually, things began to rub. “I had been brought up to believe that any questioning of the last jot or tittle of scripture was the devil’s temptation, and that you had to subjugate your entire intelligence, intellect, to these words; and I gradually began to resent that, powerfully.”
Christian resistance to the Civil Partnerships legislation made the final blow. “I describe it as being a chip in the windscreen of a car. Every time it goes over a bump, it gets a bit bigger, and then it hits a really big bump, and the windscreen shatters.”
She still calls herself a Christian, but has qualifications. “Whereas I was brought up to believe that Christianity was a destination, where you stayed, bolstered about by scripture and ritual, I think I see it more now as a path — which is a very, very cheesy line, but I’ve failed to come up with a more satisfactory one.”
WHAT she always believed, from an early age, was that she would be a writer. “The full idea of myself and the relationship with the world, and my sense of purpose, my means of existence, was all that I would be a writer one day,” she says.
Despite having invented stories in her head, however, she could not get much on paper. In her twenties, she found herself in the Civil Service, needing proof for herself that she could actually write. She entered the 2004 Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for travel writing, and won. With her travel essay in her pocket, she was accepted on an MA course in creative writing at Royal Holloway University of London.
She started a first novel, After Me Comes the Flood, but abandoned it because she felt that she lacked the required literary skills. Recalling how she had learned to play the piano, using études, she decided to learn to write a similar way, “not as some mystic art, but as a craft, that you can learn, that you can practise”.
She moved on to a practice-based Ph.D. in creative writing, supervised by the former Poet Laureate Sir Andrew Motion. The course required that she write a novel, and she picked up After Me Comes the Flood again. For her thesis, she chose the origins of the Gothic, and how the Gothic is found in a sense of place: “One of my big interests.”
After Me Comes the Flood tells the story of a man who becomes lost, and finds himself knocking on the door of a remote country house, where he is welcomed by a strange community who not only know his name, but say that they have been waiting for him to arrive.
“My supervisor tapped my manuscript and said, ‘You are a Gothic novelist.’” She was “completely appalled”, because, at that stage, she thought it was about “girls in nightgowns running away from a villain with a widow’s peak.
“He said, ‘You need to study the Gothic and find out where you sit in this legacy.’ The more I studied, the more I became completely transfixed by everything about it. I realised that, quite unwittingly, I was writing in the Gothic tradition, and began to understand myself, my style, my preoccupations as all being very much in that tradition.”
After Me Comes the Flood was published in 2014. It was positively reviewed and widely read, during which process she came across a pamphlet printed in 1669 which related the appearance on the Essex coast of a “monstrous serpent”. For reasons that she cannot explain, the idea took hold.
Second novels, like second albums, can disappoint, but The Essex Serpent blew the myth apart. The 2016 novel was a worldwide chart-topper: TV rights have been sold, and a six-part series is in the offing. Perry is mystified by its success. “Nobody — least of all me — had any idea that this would happen. This is a novel that has an entire chapter in which there’s a discussion about the nature of sin, and that is unashamedly a novel of ideas.”
AND so to Melmoth. In 1820, the Church of Ireland priest and writer Charles Maturin wrote Melmoth the Wanderer, which became a Gothic classic. Perry read it while was studying for her Ph.D. “I was completely transfixed by it.” In Maturin’s angry and satirical novel, the scholar Melmoth sells his soul to the devil in exchange for a longer life, but is sentenced to a wandering existence. Perry says it made her think that “I would really like to try and write some sort of homage in a way that casts Melmoth as a woman, and replicates his anger to what’s happening now.”
As she was mulling this over, world events took a hand: “The day of the launch of The Essex Serpent was the massacre at the Orlando nightclub . . . and, around that time, IS were just beginning to get into the headlines. Syrian toddlers were getting washed up on Mediterranean shores, and I wanted to give up. I really did. I felt that I should be doing something useful with my life. And the only way for me to carry on writing was to write a book that mattered. So I began to conceive the idea of Melmoth’s being a witness, and about Primo Levi’s precept that we should be a witness.”
There are two main characters in the novel. The first is an English translator who lives in Prague, Helen Franklin. She dresses plainly and lives a life of monastic austerity, in penance for some dark past deed whose record is kept in a box beneath her bed.
The second is Melmoth, a mythical but, none the less, real figure who roams history, dressed in ragged black, her feet bloody from her travels. It is said that she was present at Christ’s resurrection, but denied what she saw. Somehow — although this is not clear — she is cursed to appear wherever there is misery or injustice, holding out her hand to their perpetrators to join her in her journey, bearing witness to folly and failure.
FOR Perry, the genesis of Melmoth tied in with severe illness. In the autumn of 2016, weakened by the ravages of the auto-immune condition Graves’ disease, a disc ruptured in her lower spine. Intense pressure on her sciatic nerve meant months of almost indescribable pain, only partially relieved by a pharmacological catalogue of powerful drugs. She has written elsewhere, “I was — for the first time in my life — and for some weeks, if not constantly — more or less out of my mind.”
Haunted both by pain and the grim research she had already undertaken, Perry felt as if she was being given a life lesson in the suffering that is at the heart of her book. She had herself become a witness. Eventually, surgery released her sciatic nerve and delivered her back to her desk.
“I wrote Melmoth during the period of the illness, and I’m still not entirely sure how I did it,” she says. “Periods of lucidity and periods of being free from pain, and then the long recovery period after surgery, is when I did it.” To complete the novel, she had to return to a kind of sobriety: “I had to be weaned off three types of addictive medication . . . and the manuscript had to be carefully and soberly edited.” The main thing that had to be dealt with, she says, was “an absence of hope”.
In the novel, Helen Franklin is handed an archive of material on Melmoth, cataloguing the figure’s grim appearances throughout the ages. So, within the overarching story, there are (echoing Maturin’s original) nests of other stories. These accounts — vividly told in Perry’s characteristic style — lead the reader to the substance of Helen’s own dark secret and encounter with Melmoth.
The lonely wraith Melmoth is an enigma, even to her creator: “It’s the first book I’ve written which you can’t — to my mind at any rate — pin down the cogent Christian ontology. She doesn’t fit anything. She’s not a redemptrix; she’s not mere conscience. She’s not just a judge. But she’s all of them, and she’s a witness.”
Perry is content with her creation. “The great Gothic villains are always both seductive and repulsive, and she needed to be that, but in a female way. Her quality of saying, ‘I know everything you’ve done. Nobody else would want to have anything to do with you, if they know what I knew, but I love you. Come with me.’”
She hopes, in her “slightly priggish Strict Baptist way”, that the novel will provoke her readers to ask, “What is our obligation to bear witness? How do we take an active moral role in the world, even if all you can do is look?”
The figure of Melmoth, she says, is “an instrument forcing people to take a choice. . . Do you give up, and assume that there is no light or grace available to you any more? Or do you believe that you can find redemption on the path that you’ve taken?” She believes that we can sleepwalk into evil: “What I wanted to write about, above anything else, was the idea that you can be a fairly dull, basically well-meaning person, and, by little failures of moral courage, be instrumental in appalling wickedness.”
This requires moral courage. As one of her characters says, “If there is only us, we must do what Melmoth would do: see what must be seen; bear witness to what must not be forgotten.”
Melmoth by Sarah Perry, published by Serpent’s Tail, is reviewed here.
Listen to the whole conversation on the Church Times Podcast: www.churchtimes.co.uk/podcast.
Malcolm Doney is a writer, broadcaster, and Anglican priest.