Review: 'The Essex Serpent' by Sarah Perry

In the run-up to the winner of the 2017 Baileys Prize being announced on June 7th, Becky Lea reads her way through the longlist and offers her thoughts.

Writing a gothicesque, neo-Victorian book featuring a bold, female protagonist and weaving in elements of folklore is pretty much a sure-fire way of getting me to read it. Fortunately, The Essex Serpent is also really, really good.

Freed from an awful marriage, newly widowed Cora Seaborne uses her newfound freedom to take herself and her son away from London and into the county of Essex. Whilst there, she hears told a legend of a serpent that haunts the local area and its residents. Cora is a keen amateur naturalist and the prospect of finding a living version of Mary Anning’s famous sea-dragon is too tantalising. In the village of Aldwinter, she meets Reverend William Ransome and the two embark on an intense relationship that defies categorisation.

Cora and Will’s relationship is one of opposites. He is governed by his faith, which she rejects in favour of scientific thinking, but their two extremes are united by a mutual desire to learn. The odd couple nature of them really works and provides a great hook for everything else in the story. The characters around them occupy various stratas of Victorian society as well as differing political positions, ensuring that Cora and Will’s clash of ideals isn’t the only one. Perry uses these characters to engage in various late Victorian debates, broadening out the novel from a simple tale of friendship into a more ambitious one of ideas.

While the serpent itself represents the possibility of something old and constant, the world in which the story is set is one in flux. The story begins in 1893 with a new century on the horizon and a shifting social consciousness. Cora has the aura of a New Woman about her with her desire to dress in men’s clothes and a staunch refusal to observe the required etiquette. Though she represents a new future for women, Cora herself could only exist at the precise moment in which Perry places her and because of that, she is brilliant.

The novel manages to fit a lot of thematic work within its pages, leaving any reader who is so inclined with plenty to unpack. It doesn’t quite live up to the promise of the blurb, functioning more as a metaphorical quest to ‘find oneself’ than an adventurous quest through the Essex countryside. but what The Essex Serpent becomes as a result of that is a fascinating exploration of the nature of duty, friendship, and love in a drastically changing world.

Next Review: Little Deaths