Review: The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

dscf1162My two favourite ‘BookTubers’ are, without a doubt, Mercedes (MercysBookishMusings) and Simon (SavidgeReads). Not only do I love the entertaining, yet honest ways in which they speak, but I also love the fact that they discuss so many brilliant books. Because of them, I have read and added countless books to my wishlist, included the Essex Serpent. Both Simon and Mercedes absolutely adored this book, and with a cover as beautifully intriguing as this, I was immediately hooked. There is also a quote on the back from John Burnside, describing the book as something akin to Charles Dickens and Bram Stoker. Anything that mentions my favourite (Dickens), and indeed anything Victorian, will always grab my attention with two tightly clenched fists. Naturally, I had to buy this book. Immediately.

For those of you yet to hear of this book, the easiest way to describe it is by saying that it revolves around Cora Seaborne. Cora is a woman recently freed from an abusive marriage, and finally free to be her own self, even if that does subvert the constraints placed upon nineteenth century women. Cora is fiercely interested in Naturalism (think Fossils and Darwinism), and hears about the Essex Serpent, a creature which the local people of Aldwinter fear to be living in their water, terrorising them. Cora, of course, cannot contain her excitement, and through her decision to hunt down this new creature, we follow not only her story, but various others, including an Essex Parson, a pioneering Doctor, a socialist Governess, and various others.

The book itself starts with a Prelude of sorts, taking place on New Years Eve. It is dark, and a solitary man rather the worse for ware after his celebrations wanders down to the waters edge. This initial prelude is a fantastic example of not only the excellent writing which Sarah Perry can produce, but the atmospheric qualities of her work. We do not know this man, and at this point we do not know the plot line, yet we are immediately drawn in, the tension increasing as we too fear what lurks beneath the inky blackness of the water. Whilst I do not think her writing is of the same quality of Dickens (lets be honest, I will never find that!), her craft is certainly skilled and sophisticated, focusing on both the environment but also very strongly her characterisation, with both elements combining to make a modern day Dickensian tone of sorts. I particularly liked this paragraph from the opening page:

‘Time was being served behind the walls of Newgate jail, and wasted by philosophers in cafes on the Strand; it was lost by those who wished the past were present, and loathed by those who wished the present past’. P. 11

The main bulk of the novel then goes on to center upon the recently widowed Cora Seaborne. I think the choice to start the novel with a widowed Victorian woman was certainly a good one. For some reason, the image of a widowed Victorian bride, perhaps swallowed up by her black veil, conjures this ominous tone, which establishes the atmosphere and potential of the novel brilliantly. Whilst Cora is definitely not your typical Victorian woman, I was definitely imaging strange and creepy things before we learn her true character (think the Woman in Black and Miss Havisham of Great Expectations).

Leading on from this, it would be impossible to review this novel without making reference to the exemplary skill with which Perry creates and builds her characters. One of the many reasons I love Dickens so much is for his superb characterisation, with each character being entirely distinct,  from innocent orphans to grand comedic caricatures. I felt the same scope of varying characters in this book, and felt as if I knew almost instantly each character, regardless of their gender, age or profession. Perry has a way of writing which avoids the lengthy backstory, yet fills us in with the essentials in a way which allows us to build a rich catalogue of characters. I can only applaud her efforts.

Cora has a young child, Frankie, and I found his Nanny to be a thouroughly interesting character. By her very profession, Martha already occupies a strange place in society. she is not as socially inferior as a lowly maid or servant, yet still an employee. As such, Nannie’s and Governess’s typically occupied a rather liminal, in between space, nether servant yet not quite a member of the family. As we are told, ‘..watchful Martha let nothing pass her by – overheard every courteous insult, observed each concealed bruise’ (p. 27). I adored this statement, as it brings to light the fact that in many cases, working members of wealthier household actually wielded a great power of sorts over their employers. They might not have always existed as a person in their own right, but their presence also carried the potential threat of exposed family secrets. Here, this theory is subverted, with Martha and her employer being much more akin to best friends, with Martha transgressing her domestic, subservient role. Martha is well aware of the lowly background she comes from, and is extremely active in her practice of Socialism and her desire to establish better conditions for the working and poorer class Londoners. Through her friends, and high connections, Martha is in a position to actually do something which can work towards this, challenging social ideologies in a very modern way. Through characters such as Martha, we are given much more than a simple tale of a mysterious serpent, and we actually hear about the social and class issues surrounding Victorian London.

If Martha provides us with a complex character, then Cora, who treats her employee as a confidant, is just as interestingly perplex. Preferring men’s boots and shabby coats to the fancy constraints of the expected dress code for a wealthy woman, Cora is finally freed by her widowhood, and able to indulge in the subversion of her gender.  Cora is able to surround herself with books and academic materials, indulging her interest in Naturalism and strange fossils. She declares herself that, ‘The wonderful thing about being a widow is that, really, you’re not obliged to be much of a woman any more’ (p. 55). I adored this sentence! As a lover of not only Victorian literature and history, but gender studies, the author has really provided us with a perfect case study, with a strong character who challenges conceptions of both womanhood and femininity. Perry proves that she is more than aware of the ideologies of Victorian Society, as well as the careful loop holes which existed for women.

Cora then, can be seen as an example of the Victorian New Woman, paving her own way in life against the rule of patriarchy. How then, do we view her blossoming friendship with an Essex Parson, with religion having the power to control just as much as patriarchy itself. This, I think was one of my favourite aspects of this novel. We are faced with so many contrasting, polar opposites. From the faithful Reverend against the Naturalistic thinker, versus the Scientific mind (Luke Garret in particular here!) Perry touches upon the way in which the Enlightenment (which saw the move from secular to scientific rationalism), and likewise theories such as Darwinism, shook the very foundations of society. The Victorian age was a fascinating, but also vastly uncertain period, and Perry’s characters perfectly reflect these differences. At one instance, Cora tells the Reverend Will that ‘We both speak of illuminating the world, but we have different sources of light, you and I’ (p. 124). How fantastical accurate is this statement, which can be used on a much broader scale to reflect the larger world.

As you can probably tell, this book definitely makes you question ideas such as faith, how we decide what we believe in, and indeed the reasons why we believe in the first place. In contrast to this, I did however feel that the plot itself fell somewhat flat, which prevented me giving this book a five star rating. In many ways, this book does not really have a plot. We are given the idea of the Essex Serpent, which brings certain characters and elements together, but it is not really the main thing which tied the book together. Looking back, I could not define a clear beginning, middle or end of this book. Rather than a centralised plot, we have a collection of differing offshoots of the story and characters.  It really is much more of a character centered novel, with  a focus upon human nature and society itself, rather than a concise plot.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with this, but I cannot help but feel that the idea of the Serpent was something which could easily have been replaced with another phenomenon to enable the writer to produce a similar book.

If you are interested in the analytic side of English Literature, then this book is a must for you! This novel can definitely be analysed to shreds, and would certainly be a great book to go heavy handily with the pen (yes, I know, sacrilegious to so many book lovers out there!). Whilst the plot may be a bit lacking in strength, the sheer amount of themes within this book made my Literature graduate heart burst with happiness! From gender, class, family, love, faith, science, youth, and absolutely everything in between, this book has it. It was an amazingly well thought out and developed book, and I am now desperate to read Sarah Perry’s first novel!

How do you feel about this book? Do you agree/disagree with me? Please let me know!

Publisher: Serpent’s Tale (oh, the irony!)

Rating: 4*/5*


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