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418 pages, Paperback
First published May 27, 2016
‘Sometimes I think I sold my soul, so that I could live as I must. Oh, I don’t mean without morals or conscience—I only mean with freedom to think the thoughts that come, to send them where I want them to go, not to let them run along tracks someone else set, leading only this way or that…’ Frowning, she ran her thumb along the serpent’s spine and said, ‘I’ve never said this before, not to anyone, though I’ve meant to: but yes I’ve sold my soul, though I’m afraid it didn’t fetch too high a price. I had a faith, the sort I think you might be born with, but I’ve seen what it does and I traded it in. It’s a sort of blindness, or a choice to be mad—to turn your back on everything new and wonderful—not to see that there’s no fewer miracles in the microscope than in the gospels!’The Essex Serpent is a magnificent work that uses the form of the Gothic novel to explore real-world and very human concerns. It may be set in the late 19th century, but it resonates with issues just as compelling as those of the 21st. Superstition and faith versus science and fact. The nature and limits of friendship, the moral limits of medicine. Sarah Perry has said, “What most interests me about the past is not its otherness but its sameness.” One manifestation is a concern with the housing horrors of the poor in 19th century London, being squeezed by landlords, and their residences being replaced by more posh lodgings.
‘You think—you really think—that it is one or the other: your faith or your reason?’
I wanted to portray a late nineteenth century which was in many respects ‘modern’, rather than a sort of Victoriana theme-park of pea-soupers and smelling-salts. By the 1890s you could travel by Tube and walk along an Embankment lit by electric lights, you could have a tooth pulled under anaesthesia, join a union, read the Times, buy frozen lamb shipped over from New Zealand, and so on. I suppose the obverse of saying 'they were rather like us' is to say 'and we are rather like them', and I do fear that we are regressing to a decidedly Victorian state when it comes to housing, and a tendency to think of those who live in poverty as in some way deserving it due to a lack of virtue rather than mere ill fortune.Cora Seaborne, lately and happily relieved of her unloving, but controlling husband, by virtue of a fatal illness, is no one’s idea of a damsel in distress. Quite the opposite. She has a passion for learning and exploration. 1893, in the final decade of Victoria’s reign, was an exciting time. The World Columbian Exhibition opened in Chicago. Wall Street suffered another stock crash. Women voted for the first time in a national election in New Zealand. Cora is eager to be a part of this new age of scientific growth. Shedding her London home, (At Euston Square and Paddington the Underground stations received their passengers, who poured in like so much raw material going down to be milled and processed and turned out of molds.) and indulging her growing interest in paleobiology, Cora, along with her on-the-spectrum son, Francis, and his nanny, Cora’s friend Martha, heads to Colchester, in Essex. (“They’re finding fossils on the coast…Cora will be happy as a schoolboy there, up to her knees in mud.”).
It struck her that everything under that white sky was made of the same substance—not quite animal, but not merely earth; where branches had sheared from their trunks they left bright wounds, and she would not have been surprised to see severed stumps of oak and elm pulse as she passed. Laughing, she imagined herself a part of it, and leaning against a trunk in earshot of a chattering thrush held up her arm, and wondered if she might see vivid green lichen stippling the skin between her fingers.that she first meets Pastor Will Ransome. It definitely counts as meet cute when they, neither knowing who the other is, team up to retrieve an animal that had gotten stuck in the considerable mud.
William Ransome and Cora Seaborne, stripped of code and convention, even of speech, stood with her strong hand in his; children of the earth and lost in wonder.As for that beastie, the notion for the story was a happy accident.
It was Sarah Perry’s husband who told her, on a car journey through Essex, having spotted a sign to the village of Henham, about the legend of a serpent. Perry felt her scalp tighten, the better to grasp the idea and keep it safe inside her head – a feeling she has become used to when she thinks of something she knows will make a great book. “Immediately, I thought if that beast came back in the Victorian era, post-Darwin, when there was a trend for natural history and people were fossil-collecting, people would have a very different response from those in the 17th century, who had seen this beast.”- from The Guardian interviewThe structure of the core conflict came to Perry in a flash… between myth and superstition and faith and reason and science and all of those clashing over this one potential beast. But how best to orchestrate it?
What I absolutely didn’t want to do was to write a book about two people who madly fancy each other and at the end of the book they fall in love and they get married. That’s so tiresome and life is so much more rich and complex and complicated than that. I wanted to write about a relationship that is intimate and tender and exciting and even erotic but not a conventional ‘boy-meets-girl and they’re soulmates and they live happy ever after’ story.There are external elements throughout the book that buttress both nature and the sublime. Perry has the eye of a naturalist. She makes considerable and stunning use of this talent to breathe life into her landscapes.
Perry aimed to write about as many different kinds of friendship love as I could find. Ones which blur the boundaries between romantic love and friendship, seeing sexual desire as something cathartic and benevolent, even when it’s not connected to any kind of romantic attachment. I still maintain that Cora and Will are basically friends but that their friendship is capacious and different and subject to change - as human relationships are.” - from the Waterstones interview
When the rain set in, she delved deeper between the trees, turning her face to the featureless sky. It was a uniform grey, without shifting of clouds or sudden blue breaks, and no sign at all of the sun: it was an unwritten sheet of paper, and against it the bare branches were black. It ought to have been dreary, but Cora saw only beauty—birches unfurled their strips of bark like lengths of white cloths, and under her feet wet leaves were slick. Everywhere bright moss had taken hold, in dense wads of green fur swaddling the trees at their foot, and fine pelts on broken branches that lay across the path.There are plenty more bits of this here. Stella adds a particularly ethereal appreciation for the color blue, both in its natural state and as manufactured. Blue, in fact, tints the novel for a considerable swath in a way that is both beautiful and alarming. Cora’s son, Francis, has an interest in the natural world as well, and offers some insights, although he lacks the experience to be able to interpret what he observes.
’It was just the light,’ she said, ‘up to its old tricks. But how was my heart to know?’A wondrous read, satisfying to both heart and mind, The Essex Serpent is a spectacular achievement, a masterpiece by a gifted writer at the peak of her power.
I had faith, the sort I think you might be born with, but I’ve seen what it does and I traded it in. It’s a sort of blindness, or a choice to be mad – to turn your back on everything new and wonderful – not to see that there’s no fewer miracles in the microscope than in the gospels!
Essex has her bride’s gown on: there’s cow parsley frothing by the road and daisies on the common, and the hawthorn’s dressed in white; wheat and barley fatten in the fields, and bindweed decks the hedges.
"I have you all now ... I have you all here now, sweethearts: be with me now before I go."
Then it carried me in spate to the Essex shore, to all the marsh and shingle, and I tasted on my lips the salt air which is also like the flesh of oysters, and I felt my heart cleaving, as I felt it there in the dark wood on the green stair and as I feel it now: something severed, and something joined.This is from a letter written near the end of this miracle of a novel by its heroine, a young widow named Cora Seaborne. It is an extension of her earlier remark about the diametrically opposite meanings of the word cleave: to cleave to something, to be cleft from something. She has a specific context: her feelings for a man whose views are often utterly opposed to her own, who is unavailable to her, yet whom she cannot live without. But it might well be a phrase that Sarah Perry had pinned to her wall while writing. Starting off like a period romance (the year is 1893), her novel continually surprises the reader with its emotional twists and turns, and its avoidance of formulaic outcomes; the bonds are not formed easily. It is a remarkably Protean book, containing a wide range of characters and ideas. The separation of people, places, and beliefs is a kind of leitmotif; the miracle is that Perry nonetheless manages to unite them all into a balanced and deeply satisfying whole.
He drew in a breath and all the seasons were in it: spring greenness in the grass, and somewhere a dog-rose blooming; the secretive scene of fungus clinging to the oak, and underneath it all something sharper waiting in a promise of winter.One unifying factor is the book's structure, told month-by-month over the course of almost a full year. And anchored to the same place: the southeast coast of Essex, where the Blackwater River flows through woodlands and then out over desolate salt flats to the sea. Each month begins with a passage of nature writing deeply rooted in the great British pastoral tradition, but clearly written by someone who has lived in this landscape from childhood on; children's discoveries in fact play a significant part in the novel. Each of these chapters then continues with a bird's-eye view of what each of the main characters is doing, in their various parts of Essex or in distant London. The author has a second way to punctuate the detailed narrative of the intervening chapters: through the inclusion of letters. In other hands, this device might be a bore, but Perry has both a perfect feel for late-19th-century epistolary style and a knack for using it to convey character. Here, for instance, is how the local vicar's wife ends her invitation to Cora for an overnight stay:
PS—As you see, I could not resist sending you a primrose, though I was too impatient to press it well, and it has stained the page. I never could learn to bide my time! S.By such natural means—the oneness of nature and the warmth of human connection between her many characters—Sarah Perry draws the many disparate elements in her story together.
It was not precisely that newcomers were unwelcome, but one or two phrases (society women … masculine intelligence …) were calculated to trouble any diligent minister of the church. He could picture her as precisely as if her photograph had been included in the envelope: entering the lonely final stages of life bolstered by yards of taffeta and a half-baked enthusiasm for the new sciences. Her son was doubtless down from Oxford or Cambridge, and would bring with him some secret vice which would either thrill Colchester, or make him completely unsuited to civilised company. She probably lived on a diet of boiled potatoes and vinegar, hoping Byron’s diet might improve her silhouette, and would almost certainly have Anglo-Catholic tendencies, and deplore the absence of an ornate cross on the All Saints altar. In the space of five minutes he furnished her with an obnoxious lap-dog, a toadying companion with no flesh on her bones, and a squint.- And then there's the monster- in the River Blackwater-that has everybody up in arms. He felt it a failing of his that his parish could have succumbed to such godless superstition.
And then – voices lowered just a little – what about the Blackwater: had she heard? What about the man that drowned on New Year’s Day, and the animals found dead and the things they’d seen in the night? What about Cracknell, who’d gone mad now and sat up all night by Leviathan watching for the beast? Was something there and was it coming? Mr Caffyn saw the turn the morning had taken, and tried his best to turn it back. He said, ‘Now girls, don’t trouble Mrs Seaborne with that nonsense,’ and scrubbed out the ammonite sketched on the blackboard behind.- Will & Cora: They sharpen themselves on each other; each by turn is blade and whetstone.
What Martha later recalled most vividly of those last few fog-white days was this: William’s wife and Cora’s son, fit together like broken pieces soldered on the seam.