I’m all for creative evolution and experimentation – new styles of storytelling, new modes of expression. Yet I love it when the best narrative aspects of a culture are preserved and celebrated over generations. The Essex Serpent (2016) – published by Serpent Tail’s (@serpentstail) – is a book that seemed quintessentially and perfectly British to me. Like any proper British classic, The Essex Serpent is unapologetically lush in prose (in its evocations of both urban activity and provincial landscape), it gives generous attention to the nuances of human relationships and communication, and shines a light on issues of good and evil through a distinctively old-fashioned but eternally sharp Biblical idiom.
The scene is set in late nineteenth-century England. Cora Seaborne, an exceptionally gifted naturalist, has just lost her overbearing husband Michael. Relieved, after the funeral, she leaves with her eleven-year-old son Francis and his nanny/her friend Martha for coastal Essex. But there, the (fictional) village of Aldwinter on the Blackwater estuary, is abuzz with rumour. People have woken from dreams of “wet black wings”. A young man’s life was claimed near the marshes on New Year’s Eve, and it is believed that the mythical “Essex Serpent”, a magical sea creature which was the subject of (real) pamphlets circulated back in 1600s is back again. Cora sees this as an opportunity. Perhaps it is an undiscovered species?
As she begins her investigations, Cora encounters the local vicar William Ransome, a husband and father. Will is far from superstitious, and according to him, the parishioners have simply put “flesh on the bones of their terrors”. Their panic is a moral one; the creeping beast a projection of their guilt, sins they have not repented. Despite Will’s insistence that his faith in a Creator is grounded in the fact of the rational arrangement of the world, he initially finds it hard to explain his position to Cora.
She finds his vocation of a clergyman shocking. She is disappointed and irritated by the fact that he has not dedicated his intellectual faculties to the occupation of a lawyer or an engineer or a government minister. For her, it is a shame that he should impoverish his mind by satisfying himself with myth and legend. This prompts him to ask her – “Do you think everything can be accounted for by equations and soil deposits?” Calculations and cataloguing are fine, but one needs a purpose in one’s life, not mere achievement.
This dialogue of a push and pull between science and religion eventually leads to an attraction and a relationship that is not basic romance as we understand it – but a love of an entirely different order. There’s no big jealousy, no possession…yet a strong connection between the two is forged in the middle of the mystery and the confusion. A bond that stays on after the mist has cleared and after a whole cluster of characters – men and women, young and old – have revealed their interests and idiosyncrasies. How often do you find novels that celebrate sincere friendship between a man and a woman? The reader of The Essex Serpent leaves not with melancholy or frustration over a thwarted passion but with a sense of wonder at the variety of attachments and interactions that could be pursued and allowed in human life.
The following passage captures the beautiful and strange relationship between Cora and William well:
Desire had never troubled him: he’d married Stella young and happily, and their hunger was innocent and easily sated. Oh, he loved Cora – he knew that: had known it at once – but that also did not trouble him: if she’d been a boy or a dowager he’d’ve loved her no less, and prized her grey eyes just the same. He was a Bible scholar, he knew its various names for various loves: he read the works of St. Paul to the churches and their sacred affection summoned Cora’s name: I thank my God on every remembrance of you…
A few more lovely lines:
Time was money in the Royal Exchange, where men passed the afternoon diminishing their hope of threading camels through a needle’s eye…
…and memory unfurled like smoke from a blown candle.
…in the near distance a half-timbered pub with bright-lit windows beckoned to passing travellers.
“What is there at Colchester? A ruin and a river, and wed-footed peasants, and mud.”
Author Sarah Perry (www.sarahperry.net, @SarahGPerry) was born in Essex in 1979. She has a Ph.D. in creative writing from Royal Holloway, where her supervisor was the poet Andrew Motion. Perry’s first novel is After Me Comes the Flood (2014). She grew up in a strict Baptist community with limited access to contemporary culture. As a result, she immersed herself in the King James Bible and Western classics. Learn more about her in these two articles on the Guardian: “Reading lessons of a religious upbringing without modern books” (July 2014) and “The Essex Serpent author Sarah Perry: ‘Kids at school found me strange. I didn’t mind’” (July 2016).
Some of the books used by Sarah Perry for research – Inventing the Victorians (2002) by Matthew Sweet, Man’s Age in the World According to Holy Scripture and Science (1865) by an anonymous Essex rector, Victorian Homes (1974) by David Rubinstein, The Bitter Cry of Outcast London (1883) by Rev. Andrew Mearns, The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity from Antiquity to the Present (1999) by Roy Porter.
On the different types of love, check out The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis and “The Festival of Love” at the Southbank Centre, London. For contemporary writings on the relationship between faith and reason/science and religion coming from Britain, see the work of Alister E. McGrath and John C. Lennox.