If you are a book buyer of any description, it cannot have escaped your notice that Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent (2016) is currently toast of the town and being pushed extremely hard by its publisher (or at least, it was when I started this review!). It is hardly possible to walk into a Waterstones without tripping over several tables laden with this beautifully designed volume. Of course, prominence is less an indicator of merit and more of financial backing these days. So what of the story that lies inside Peter Dyer’s gorgeously designed cover?

It is the 1890s and London is alive with talk of scientific discover, particularly fossils and their excavation; children dream of digging up ancient remains and over dinner polite society discusses the latest developments that contemporary science unearths. Cora Seaborne has a lively, ‘masculine’ mind and has just escaped the oppression of a difficult marriage following the death of her husband. She does not mourn his passing but instead removes herself from London and relocates to Aldwinter on the Essex coast with her autistic son and his nanny, where she hopes to indulge her interest in fossils. Among the mist that descends upon her new landscape there is talk of a great serpent who swims in the local waters, and is said to have brought death to the community. Cora hopes to discover the Essex Serpent and treat it as a living sample, making her name by discovering some great ichthyosaur.

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry book cover

Given the age and surroundings in which she lives, Cora’s quest cannot be straightforward but, as she is frustrated by the superstitions of the locals, she finds unexpected solace in friendship with the local vicar, William Ransome. Despite holding quite different views on Science and Religion, the pair strike up a fractious but genuine friendship which forces both to engage with intellectual questions that challenge their own beliefs. Were the vicar not married to a kind, attractive if frail woman, there might even be something more than friendship between them, but alas, it does not look likely.

Back in London, surgeon Luke Garrett, who attended Cora’s dying husband, harbours a quiet lust for the absent Cora while he goes about his experimental practice. Just as she seeks to make her name with a tremendous discovery, so Luke wishes to be the first man to successfully operate on the heart of a patient and see them live. All is in place, then, for a meeting of hearts and minds, in the suitably Gothic world that Sarah Perry creates.

There is very little to disguise the fact that this is a novel in which ideas must collide, be they religious, superstitious, or scientific. Ideas, metaphors, motives, none are buried too deeply beneath the surface and thus we have an intriguing mix of mythology, religion, and the modern intellectual movements of the late Victorian period.

Cora’s story is clearly one of female freedom in a society which affords little autonomy to women but there are other issues at stake, raised by the ensemble of supporting characters, whether it be housing and disreputable landlords, scientific discovery, socialism, or any number of concerns that are slipped quietly into the story. As with any good novel which transports the reader to another time, the issues can all be read into modern concerns too, and Perry finds plenty of opportunity to make us consider the state of our contemporary world.

The central divisions are explored through the main characters. Each represents a position and are played off against one another, whether they be the man of religion, the lady of science, the socialist, the philanthropist, etc. The keenest division is between Will with his Christian faith and Cora with her strident atheism.

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The strange blending of twenty-first century speech and, at times, thinking, with the atmospheric Victorian setting creates an odd and discordant – but not unpleasantly so – sense of disconnection from reality. If this is a historical novel, then it is not of a history which we can quite believe to be our own. Instead, it is an odd meshing of realities, a modern day Victorian playground in which Perry tells her tale. This does allow the author to, on occasion, disregard historical accuracy, and I suspect this will not sit well with all readers. For myself, every novel is a project of world building and there are truths greater than facts that matter to me.

One of those truths is the depth of the characters who carry the story, their intrinsic believability. It took me a while to decide how strongly I believed in the most important characters. For a long period they felt like slightly stale stereotypes of the kind which a modern novelist is apt to insert into a Victorian novel of ideas. This was exacerbated by the plot, which is fairly simplistic and throws characters together to have ideological discussions but doesn’t always make their interactions believable on the human level. However, the further I got through the book, the more I found in the characters. I did want deeper complications in their personalities but managed to dispel my most serious doubts.

If I had reservations about the characterisation, the descriptions warranted no such concern. Perry’s background in Creative Writing as an academic discipline is clear and her beautifully formed descriptions of the Essex coast and the atmosphere of Cora’s world are wonderfully done. At 400-plus pages it is important that these details are done well and Perry excels at the sentence level.

This is certainly a novel that suggests a Creative Writing background beyond these strong sentences. Perry plays with the epistolary form, leads with the heavily symbolic serpent, and generally seems to enjoy stretching her wings within the crucible she has created. I didn’t know what to expect going into the novel and I think fans of Victorian-pastiche will enjoy this. It’s fun, not always as outstanding as the press around it might suggest but worth giving a chance.

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