The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry came as a surprise. When I started reading, I had no idea what to expect. I had not even read the blurb. All I knew was that I liked the title. And hoped that the book would be as interesting as the title. The Essex Serpent was longlisted by Baileys Prize for Women’s Fiction 2017 and after reading it I think it should have made it to the shortlist. But then – as to that particular fact – I will leave it to you to judge.
In her Author’s Note, Sarah Perry quotes inspiration from Matthew Sweet’s Inventing the Victorians describing a ‘nineteenth century of department stores, big brands, sexual appetites and a fascination for the strange’. The last idea, ‘fascination for the strange’ is perhaps not so revolutionary as the supernatural and strange have always been a part of the English literature since the bards put down the story of Beowulf. The obsession with the macabre or with its genre name ‘gothic’ however began with Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto in the eighteenth century and quickly became one of the dominant literary genres. In the time of Victorian literature, the gothic became a sub-genre or at best motif in literature behind such themes of mystery, supernatural, madness and ghosts.
The strange of course is the first thing that the reader observes. When I started reading this book, I was slightly confounded. What exactly is the novel about? A supernatural myth or some form of gothic fiction in the style of Dracula, Invisible Man or Lovecraft. The first chapter of the man confronting something in the water certainly seems to confirm this idea. It also successfully transmits the idea of fear and disquiet which will become the feature of the book as the narrative progresses.
“In the darkness he grows afraid. There’s something there, he feels it, biding its time – implacable, monstrous, born in water, always with an eye cocked in his direction. Down in the deeps it slumbered and up its come at last…..he is seized by dread – his heart halts with it – in the space of a moment he’s been charged, condemned, and brought to judgement….all along its been there, waiting and at last its found them out”
This idea of disquiet sets the tone of the novel. It is not just the supernatural nature of disquiet that Perry has introduced in the novel but also the human aspect and it is here that she has succeeded brilliantly. First lets observe the idea of supernatural disquiet. In the same author’s note, Perry refers to a pamphlet titled “Strange News Out of Essex” – an actual nineteenth century pamphlet reporting the presence of an actual serpent at Henlam-on-the-Mount village. This reference to an actual report adds an element of credibility to the introduction of this rather macabre as well as fantastic element into the narrative. It also puts into the mind of the reader the tales of strange and fantastic creatures reported by travellers which were a feature of popular imagination during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Finally, it reminds the reader of the Loch ness monster which lends another level of acceptance for the ‘strange’ in the narrative.
But what makes this disquiet effective is the human reaction to the Essex Serpent. When Reverend Ransome tries to persuade his congregation of the non-existence of the serpent or the ‘trouble’ as he calls it. While the people of his village calls the creature ‘The Essex Serpent’, he refuses to name it by just calling it the ‘Trouble’. That act, however, of refusing to the name adds more power to the fear of the serpent, emphasizing on the disquiet which haunts of the little village of Essex. The ‘disquiet’ is further intensified with the arrival of Cora Seaborne, the degeneration of Cracknell as he keeps a candle burning at the window on watch for the serpent, the night time wanderings of Cora’s son Francis, whispers plaguing Stella Ransome and the hysterical laughing of the school girls. The last incident of the hysterical laughter of the school girls is particularly effective in conveying the fear of the Essex serpent. This is I think the brilliance of Victorian Gothic narratives, situating the strangeness in perfectly normal narratives. The inclusion of a serpent or a presence of one in an otherwise Victorian social story lends a perfect nuance of strangeness and disquiet to the novel.
The other expression of disquiet comes from the social relationships and private reflections of characters in the novel. Immediately after the unfortunate incident in the first chapter, we are introduced to Cora Seaborne and her life at Floutis Street. Perry after her introduction of disquiet adds another layer with the passing away of Michael Seaborne and introduction to his widow. The widow Cora Seaborne and her relation with Michael gives the reader another sense of disquiet – this time in connection to human affairs. What is the past history of Michael and Cora? How exactly was he responsible for Cora’s cage and creation? We find out her suffering at the hands of her husband in stages which I think Perry has purposefully intended in order to introduce her readers through the various stages of disquiet. This idea of disquiet is perhaps the most Victorian element of the novel. The idea of the Victorian woman has always been studded in our thought as a victim of male patriarchy – and let’s not forget those regency novels which have enforced the stereotype. Cora Seaborne however is Perry’s absolute success with turning the Victorian stereotype. She becomes after her Michael Seaborne’s death. Her hunt for natural fossils and foraging in ruins provides a contrast to the gilded life that she has led under the direction of Michael. Her adoption of a mannish tweed coat wrapped ungainly with a belt and muddy boots completes that becoming. As a personal opinion, I liked the character of Cora Seaborne. In the beginning she was presented to the readers in unnatural stillness and as the novel progresses she transforms into a charming, vivacious woman with an independent will and mind.
The final sense of disquiet comes from Stella and her tuberculosis. This particular form of disquiet sneaks into the narrative quite cunningly. The idea of heat and bright eyes in connection to Stella is hinted here and then before thrown in the face of the reader with Stella coughing red spit. Again, Perry here shows off her masterful narration by building disquiet in stages. We are aware of there being something wrong with Stella. When Luke Garrett kisses her hand, he frowns. When Cora embraces Stella, she feels heat. They all notice her bright and beautiful face. The disquiet slowly builds up as we keep reading until we are faced with her diagnosis. What is even more brilliantly woven is Stella given to whispers from the Essex Serpent and her obsession with blue and her own imagination. Her slipping away on the Essex serpent forms the perfect crescendo to the Stella’s illness.
The sense of disquiet is juxtaposed with the expression of labour in the novel. The idea of Victorian housing, problems of the working class, socialist principles and feminism forms the middle part of the narrative. From the disquiet of Aldwinter we return to the world of London with its very current and real problems. Shakespeare used the character of the Fool to bring a comic relief to the intense events of his tragedies. Perry is quite attuned to the different nuances which weave into a complex tapestry of Victorian elements. In doing so, she deliberately breaks the narrative between Essex and London. Edward becomes a symbol for the disadvantaged – of the seamier sides of Victorian society and its victimization. On the shores of the little village of Essex, it was easy to forget the ordinary, everyday world and get drawn into the unnatural, slightly apocalyptic world where an Essex serpent is a very real possibility. The dreamy landscape where Cora and Will take their walks is switched with problems faced by Edward, Luke and Martha.
Luke Garrett and Martha are the first inhabitants of this world. Luke is a practising surgeon with modern ideas for heart surgery which are mostly regarding with suspicion by his superiors and the reason why he is living in near poverty. Martha on the other hand is employed as a governess to Cora Seaborne’s son Francis and then becomes an intimate companion of Cora Seaborne. Cora Seaborne’s beginning provides us with a glimpse into the almost stifling nature of Victorian society in context of its women. Martha’s life and her ambition provides a contrast – a loosening of the clutches of social mores. Here is a woman who makes no apologies for her principles, her love and her ambition. She plans her life accordingly so she can achieve her maximum potential in all of these areas. She is the opposite of Cora – born on the other side of the docks, a working woman and a socialist to the core. Her idealism is in sharp contrast to the path breaking ambition of Luke Garrett. She dreams to improve on the working and living conditions of the poor and the disadvantaged of London. To that end, she drags Luke and Cora’s friends Charles and Spencer into joining her in the good fight. Her counterpart is Edward Burton. He is one of the architects of the London bridge who was stabbed and then saved by Luke. After that, he becomes the face of the struggle faced by the London’s working class and the crusade mounted by Martha with the help of Luke, Charles and Spencer. His life and Garrett’s surgery gives us a glimpse into Victorian medical and social contexts. Furthermore, his connection to Martha and the problems faced by the both of them gives us the undercurrents of Victorian life.Their coming together in the end is a culmination of the ideas of equality and compatibility that are at the heart of Perry’s story.
Finally, there is the relation between Cora and William Ransome. In William Ransome, Perry achieves the same reversal of stereotypes as she does with Cora. William Ransome is the Reverend of Aldwinter and quite unlike anyone’s imagination of a clergyman [I have in mind the pompous ones from Jane Austen novels except for Edward Ferrars maybe]. Cora, on her first glance of Ransome thinks, “but here was a man who’d not be categorized” while Ransome on surveying her feels the break from convention, a complete turn from his imagined opinion – “she was large, and had substance, her presence would be, he thought, impossible to ignore, however hard one tried”. The relationship between Cora and Will was refreshing. From this first meeting between them, they progress rapidly into friendship to love in a brilliant expression of cause and effect. It was good to see the way they challenged each other which I think comes from the fact that Perry is much of a woman of her own times as well as a woman writer herself. The narratives of male writers of the time – even greats like Dickens, Hardy, Thackerey etc. – fail to capture this relationship between men and women. The challenge to each other, of disregard and not disrespect of their thoughts – the conversation of equal footing even when they finally come together physically is a shared space and not a space of unequal influence.
The Essex Serpent is a retelling of the different elements of nineteenth century literature – of aristocracy and socialism, of strange and unnatural creatures, of men and women and relationships, of religion and naturalism which have balanced very well by Perry through her characters. I believe that there are a few times when the narrative stumbles a little – when Garrett is wounded and his eventual dissolution into depression, Cora’s return to London soon after the dinner party, Taylore and Naomi Banks story could be streamlined in order to make the narrative more smooth so that the events flow into each other more cohesively. There are at times I think her contemporary voice sneaks inside the narrative making it more modern like the instance of Garrett’s surgery[which felt a little out of Greys Anatomy] as well as Francis slightly disquieting attitude[which was a little like a high functioning psychopath]. However on the whole, the Essex Serpent is engaging comprising of strong characters and a refreshing perspective on an otherwise not very well represented age.