I’m not normally one for buying new books, as regular readers no doubt know, but when I saw the beautiful William Morris inspired cover of The Essex Serpent on the shelf in Foyles, I knew this was going to be something right up my street. A quick read of the blurb confirmed my first impression: a Victorian setting, featuring amateur naturalists, a mysterious legend, troubled vicars and bleak coastal countryside? It was as if Sarah Perry had looked into my soul and written a novel just for me! I skipped off to the till and happily parted with my money, filled with delight at the prospect of a neo-Victorian gem to lose myself in.
Stretched out underneath the almost mediterranean levels of sun in Hyde Park last week, I immersed myself in Perry’s beautiful prose, and almost felt I was in the bleached, barren village of Aldwinter, Essex, where much of the novel’s action takes place. Cora Seaborne, an intelligent, unconventional young widow, moves there after her controlling husband’s death, desperate to escape the house in London that she associates with him. After reading about a section of the coastline where a cache of dinosaur fossils has been found, Cora decides that Essex will be the perfect place to reinvent herself and indulge in her fossil collecting hobby. Shortly after her arrival in Colchester, a friend introduces her to the vicar of nearby Aldwinter, William Ransome, and his beautiful wife Stella, and it is the meeting of Cora and William that will prove to be the driving force of the novel. For William is not the staid and dour clergyman Cora expects, and neither is Cora the fastidious, melancholy widow in black bombazine he anticipates. Despite neither sharing in the other’s beliefs, and viewing the world from completely opposing angles, they share a deep and inexplicable intellectual and emotional understanding that draws them irresistibly to one another. Both are in need of something, both searching for meaning and understanding outside of themselves; William is trying to defeat the rumours of the mythical ‘Essex Serpent’, who is driving his parishioners away from God and towards superstition, and Cora is trying to carve out a sense of self after spending so many years in the shadow of another. However, as the hold of the serpent asserts itself over the bleak, isolated village of Aldwinter, leaving tragedy in its wake, Cora and William find themselves struggling to make sense of their relationship, and to reconcile their views of the shifting world around them.
There are also many other characters and many other subplots, and much that is interesting and thought provoking, and all written in a wonderful, lyrical and highly evocative prose that I very much enjoyed. However, the issue that I have with most modern fiction is the trend to have several plots happening at once, with a wide cast of characters doing things that are entirely unnecessary to the main story and are merely there for some sort of metaphorical significance. Such is the case with The Essex Serpent. What could have been a marvellously thought provoking novel about the conflict between faith, science, reason and doubt in the nineteenth century became a series of diluted romances between people who didn’t really seem to interact with or be necessary to one another at all, and the actual story of the serpent did get rather lost somewhere along the way. The characters felt very much like they were there merely as metaphorical representatives of societal change and scientific progress, and I never felt like I had really got to know them on anything more than a superficial level. I closed the pages feeling that a wonderful central idea, which offered such opportunity, had not been used to its best advantage, and that I had been introduced to lots of characters and stories that had no real conclusion or coherence. Even though it was an entertaining read, it could have been something really brilliant with a little more focus, and I was disappointed that it fell short of what I had been hoping for. I was also disappointed at the fact that no neo-Victorian writer seems to be able to resist the lure of the dreaded consumption doing away with one of their characters. I don’t want to read about any more blood spattered handkerchiefs! Surely there must be some other way of killing nineteenth century people off?!
In short, this is a beautifully written book, with some startlingly gorgeous descriptions of nature, and I think Sarah Perry is a marvellous writer with a wonderful imagination. If you don’t mind the lack of coherence, it is definitely worth reading for the writing and for the historical setting alone. There is much within to delight and fascinate, though it did leave me ultimately rather cold.