Tuesday, November 13, 2018

'The Essex Serpent' by Sarah Perry

Set in Victorian London and an Essex village in the 1890's, and enlivened by the debates on scientific and medical discovery which defined the era, The Essex Serpent has at its heart the story of two extraordinary people who fall for each other, but not in the usual way.

This pseudo-Victorian novel has been making a stir, and I was curious to find out why. It deals with people's reactions to rumours of a fierce sea beast from ancient times believed to be terrorising their Essex coast. The two main characters are Cora Seaborne, a young recent widow, and William Ransome, the local vicar and father of a family. The main thing these two share is a deep desire to get to the bottom of it.

At first, people imagine a Lochness Monster type of critter. Those with a scientific bent are excited to think it could be a species that outwitted extinction, like a living fossil or dinosaur. But it's soon clear the fear factor runs far deeper. The serpent is blamed for every stroke of bad luck, such as scantily laying hens, crop failure, sour milk, and even children's bad behaviour. It sounds bizarre to blame an elusive creature in the water for all these things, but that's how illogical the human mind is, when superstition and mass hysteria take hold.

Cora is excited to dig around, inspired by the legendary scientist Mary Anning, to see what she can find. Will is exasperated by the rumours, since he takes it as a slap in the face and insult to his position. Surely a good clergyman should be able to curb the collective terror of his parishioners. These two are introduced by mutual friends, and while they rub each other up the wrong way, neither can deny a strong attraction to the other.

That last paragraph might make this sound like a fairly typical romance, but it really turns out not to be.

The story seemed to take ages to rev up though. It starts with information dumps and excessive detail on every page, slowing the pace to a crawl. The back-story and exposition seemed as boggy as the mud of Colchester itself, making it easy to put down. But the wonderful prose and description of setting eventually won me over. You can't help growing to love a book that puts you right in the picture with lines such as, 'Rooks lifted from the oak with a look of black ashes blown up from burning sheets of paper.'

In turn, the characters also took a long time to grow on me. I tried to figure out why, since they were certainly well threshed out. I decided maybe they had depth but not much development. They were all pretty much as intense at the start as they were all through. Cora the free-thinker (her sort of unconventionality is fairly conventional in fiction), Luke the surgeon, Will the vicar, Martha the reformer. They were archetypes rather than people, perhaps, until they started getting more endearing. First the kids, then some of the more peripheral characters, and finally even Cora and Will themselves.

The subtle presentation of different types of friendship is what drew me in. The two doctors, Luke Garrett and George Spencer bring us the perfect bromance. I won't reveal more. Then there's the wonderful friendship between Will's sick but colourful wife Stella, and Cora's young son Francis. These two are an ideal proof that kindred spirits might pop up in totally different shapes, but recognise each other on sight.

In fact, Francis might be the quiet glue that holds the whole story together. We modern readers recognise him as somebody who obviously fits somewhere on the autism/Asperger's spectrum, but the Victorians knew nothing of this. To the people in his life, he was just remote and obsessive. He's a boy thoroughly engrossed in his passion of collecting things, valuing his routine, and responding to shows of affection for the most part with coolness. But Francis' strengths of perception and sharp intellect are revealed throughout the story, overshadowing most of the other characters. He's like an occasional eyepiece generously offered to us, to help us see clearer ourselves.

Most reviewers have mentioned the beautiful cover, so I'll follow their lead. I wonder if textile designer William Morris actually sold several books for Sarah Perry, because the design inspired by his work initially drew several readers (if not virtually all) to pick it up. I was no different. But the question is would he have endorsed the story, being an author himself? That part's unknown, because he's been dead since 1896. It's possibly quite a smart idea to use the great work of somebody you can be sure won't pop up to offer an opinion.

I can't give it full marks because of that early clunkiness, plus it doesn't completely deliver on suggestions in the blurb and reviews. The characters don't delve into matters of science versus faith as much they could, or explore the idea that these ways of thinking don't have to be mutually exclusive. Nor do they address the even bigger dichotomy between faith and superstition, which is more confrontational to me. Maybe if the publicists and big reviewers didn't suggest these things feature strongly, we wouldn't be disappointed. And for all her talk, Cora doesn't really do much in the way of natural history at all. But overall, I've got to rank the story highly anyway, since it encourages us to start noticing the charm in our own worlds. Nineteenth century rural Essex doesn't hold the monopoly on magic and colour.

So forget any preconception that the main theme is about the progressive nature of Victorian thought, because I think it's really about finding beauty in unexpected places and choosing contentment, no matter what life throws at us. I highly recommend you give it a read, since I was prepared to give it the thumbs down through the first twenty or fifty pages, but it ended up bewitching me.


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