With pages housed in a stunning cover by Peter Dyer, Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent generates a compelling sense of place peppered with elements of the gothic. Set in Victorian England in the 1890s, the novel’s atmosphere is replete with mysterious happenings and disappearances; villagers under the chokehold of superstition, paranoia, and hysteria; shapes that emerge in the dark and disappear behind a curtain of fog; and ostensible sightings of a mythical creature who presumably haunts the waters.
We follow the recently widowed Cora Seaborne as she moves from London to the Essex village of Aldwinter in search of the mythical Essex Serpent. In tow is her autistic son, Francis, and her companion, Martha. Cora is a free-spirited nature enthusiast who delights in traipsing around in her manly overcoat and muddy shoes, searching for fossils and hoping for a sighting of the elusive Essex Serpent. Her meeting with William Ransome, the local vicar, triggers lively debates about science versus religion, faith versus superstition, the natural world versus the spiritual realm—debates which defined the Victorian era. Their bantering back and forth is fraught with sexual tension.
The novel is peopled with interesting, fleshed-out characters with unique personalities. Martha, a feminist and vehement socialist, advocates for better housing for London’s poor. Dr. Luke Garrett is a brilliant surgeon with a hunchback and progressive ideas on medical procedures. His wealthy friend, George Spencer, becomes politically active on behalf of London’s poor in the hope of winning Martha’s favor. Stella, the saintly wife of William Ransome, is dying of consumption. Her illness takes a strange turn when she becomes obsessed with the color blue. And Katherine and Charles Ambrose, friends of Cora and the Ransomes, are a wealthy couple with government connections.
And then there are the children, portrayed with sympathy and compassion as they struggle to make sense of the world around them. Francis, Cora’s autistic son, collects and itemizes odds and ends, seldom communicates, and baffles adults, including his mother, with his behavior. The three Ransome children are Joanna, James, and John, each of whom has a unique personality. Joanna’s friend, Naomi, is a sensitive child who succumbs to a hysterical fit of uncontrollable laughter in the classroom. Her mysterious disappearance haunts her father with visions of his daughter being gobbled up by the Essex Serpent.
The love interests are many. William and Cora fall in love but remain as friends since William also loves his wife. Spencer loves Martha who is in love with Cora. Luke Garrett is also in love with Cora. Cora loves her son but is unable to connect with him. These love interests thread their way throughout the novel. Although they remain unfulfilled, they explore the different guises love can take, its power, its limitations, and its intersection with friendship.
Perry’s strength lies in creating a strong sense of place. Whether we are in the desperately poor districts of Victorian London with its filth and stench and overcrowded housing or whether we are in Aldwinter, with its bogs and marshes and muddy Blackwater River concealing goodness only knows what mysterious creature, Perry’s lyrical and descriptive prose is as immersive as the Aldwinter fog. Her ability to capture the sights, sounds, and smells of a particular location is impressive. Some of her descriptive passages are stunning. She breathes life into the landscape through personification:
Essex has her bride’s gown on: there’s cow parsley frothing by the road and daisies on the common, and the hawthorn’s dressed in white; wheat and barley fatten in the fields, and bindweed decks the hedges.
Perry sprinkles the narrative with letters, diary entries, and the occasional bird’s eye view where we catch short glimpses of the characters in their different locations as if we were peering down on them from above. To say Sarah Perry is a gifted writer is an understatement. Her prose is exquisite; her narrative mesmerizing; her imagination captivating.