There’s something alluring about Victorian England as a setting for novels, a society full of contrasts and contradictions: extreme poverty and unfathomable wealth, a prim public life and a seedy underworld, modern factories and rural communities. Sarah Perry’s sensual love story with an intellectual twist, delivered in a style that transports you back to the time, sits perfectly within this world.
Cora Seaborne, has just lost her husband, a wealthy, influential politician. Their marriage had not been a happy one and Cora, an intelligent woman whose inquisitiveness has been held in check by her controlling husband, struggles to feign the mourning widow. Keen to escape London and her former life, she travels to Colchester with her son Francis, a child with Asperger traits. Their strong-headed nanny Martha comes with them. In Colchester Cora is introduced to William Ransome, vicar in nearby Aldwinter, his sickly wife Stella and rumours of the terrifying Essex serpent, a mythical snake-like creature whom local people believe stands behind a couple of mysterious deaths (a rumour which actually existed).
…the beast in the Blackwater was seen by a fisherman at tide’s turn one night and he went clean out of his wits; a child was found half-drowned with a grey-black mark on her belly; a dog’s been cast up on the saltings with its head all awry.
Cora, a fiercely rational person and a bit of a hobby naturalist, joins forces with clergyman Ransome (who has his own reasons to fight superstition) to dispel the rumours. They don’t agree on many things but they do admire each other’s intellect. Little by little, admiration turns to attraction.
That Perry’s a hugely talented author becomes clear on the very first page. Her writing is rich and imaginative (Sarah Water’s comes to mind). It’s also quite dense (you need to pay attention) but the short chapters drive the story forward. Her characters are multi-layered, interesting and entirely believable. She captures their internal struggles with illicit love, guilt, jealously, reason and superstition to perfection.
There are exquisite descriptions of the Essex landscape and weather, in particular the fog that keeps rolling in and out (symbolic of the locals’ own state of mind) of the muddy marshland.
Midway through the afternoon the sea-fog rallied and approached Aldwinter from the east. It crept across windowsills and pooled in ditches and hollows, and dampened the ringing of the All Saints bell.
William is torn between his love for Stella and his attraction towards Cora. Sensuality abounds: in the smells, in a fleeting touch, in all that isn’t said. While mainly a love story, this book also deals with a battle of beliefs: in religion, superstition or science. Martha (a socialist in the making) fights for decent housing for the poor in London, but this part of the book was less successful, I thought. Where Perry excels is in her depiction of human relationships and, although at times I wished she’d put in some more action, The Essex Serpent is a very enjoyable book from a hugely promising author.
The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry is published by Serpent’s Tail, 418 pages.