The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

What is the Essex Serpent? A magical beast? A wonder of science? A judgement from God? William Ransome, vicar of the parish of Aldwinter, where the legendary serpent is said to have been sighted, is reluctant to give any credence at all to the rumours, viewing them as a distraction from the religious faith he is trying to instil in his parishioners. Cora Seaborne, however, is fascinated by tales of the fearsome sea monster lurking in the marshes of Essex, stealing away livestock and claiming human lives. Unusually for a woman in 1893, Cora is an amateur naturalist, with a particular interest in the work of the fossil collector Mary Anning. When she hears of the Essex Serpent, she wonders whether it could be an undiscovered species – or some sort of dinosaur?

Cora will have plenty of opportunities to test her theories and investigate further; having been recently widowed, she and her son Francis have moved from London to Colchester in Essex. It is on a visit to nearby Aldwinter that she meets William Ransome. Although their views are very different – not just on the serpent, but also on science, religion, and just about everything else – the two find themselves drawn together and a friendship begins to develop; a friendship which could become something more, if it wasn’t for the fact that Will is already married and that his wife, Stella, is dying of tuberculosis.

Although it is the relationship between Cora and William which drives the novel forward, there are many other subplots involving a large number of other characters. There’s Cora’s companion Martha, for example, a socialist who is campaigning to improve the living conditions of London’s poorest people, and Luke Garrett, a surgeon who closely follows all the latest advances in medicine and is itching for an opportunity to try them out for himself. A lot of time is also devoted to Francis, a serious, solitary boy who would probably be diagnosed today with a form of autism, and to Stella who, as her health declines, develops an obsession with collecting anything blue. I couldn’t help feeling, at times, that Sarah Perry was trying to do too much – trying to include every possible social issue of the 19th century – but on the whole I thought this was a fascinating, intelligent novel, with ideas spilling out of every page.

The Essex Serpent is one of those novels which is not only set in the Victorian era, but also attempts to capture the tone and style of a Victorian novel – while at the same time, being written in the modern day, bringing a new perspective to topics and themes which Victorian authors had less freedom to explore. The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles is a good comparison – although I have to say I enjoyed this book a lot more than Fowles’. I thought Sarah Perry’s writing was excellent, especially her descriptions of the landscape and the natural world, but occasionally her choice of language (particularly the use of contractions such as I’d’ve and shouldn’t’ve) pulled me out of the 19th century world she had otherwise so carefully created.

The criticisms I have of this book, though, are just minor ones; overall I was very impressed and can certainly understand why it has been so popular and so successful. It’s also nice to find a book that lives up to the promise of its beautiful cover!

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28 thoughts on “The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

  1. Calmgrove says:

    Looking forward to reading this now, thanks — but I don’t know whether I should first finish the put-aside book on fossil-hunters which features Mary Anning. Decisions, decisions!

  2. Judy Krueger says:

    Nice review. I am glad you liked it too! In regards to Calmgrove, The Essex Serpent made me want to read about Mary Anning. I would say finishing the book you are reading could only add to the pleasure of The Essex Serpent.

  3. realthog says:

    Sounds a lot of fun — thanks! The Victorians were, by the way, a bit more flexible with language than we tend to think, so Perry’s “Should’ve”, etc, may not be anachronistic. I remember years ago being told that “reckon” (in the sense “I reckon I can see Russia from my back porch”) was a modern US usage. The next day I discovered the word being used in exactly that sense in the novel I was reading at the time: Middlemarch!

    Talking of modern “Victorian” novels, have you read Charles Palliser’s The Quincunx? It’s a great fat slab of a thing — about 1,000 pages in most editions! — but I found it a real page-turner. (I keep meaning to read his second novel, which ironically was little more than a longish novella, but you know how it is . . .)

    • Helen says:

      I suppose I’m just nit-picking, to be fair, but words like “wouldn’t’ve” and “she’d’ve”, while maybe not actually anachronistic, just don’t look right to me and seem an unusual choice in a book that otherwise imitates the feel of a Victorian novel. You make a good point, though – I have often been surprised to come across words and phrases in older novels that I’d assumed were much more modern.

      Anyway, yes, I have read The Quincunx and loved it – definitely a page-turner! It’s on my list of books to re-read at some point. I have also read one of Charles Palliser’s other novels, The Unburied, which I remember as a wonderfully atmospheric murder mystery, but not as impressive as The Quincunx.

      • realthog says:

        I meant to mention that my wife could get absolutely nowhere with The Quincunx, and abandoned it after 100 pages or so. Different strokes, etc.

        Your original post reminded me to go look up Palliser’s other books, and I now have Rustication and The Unburied firmly in my sights!

        • Helen says:

          I thought The Quincunx was great, but I can certainly understand that it wouldn’t be everyone’s sort of book. I haven’t read Rustication yet, though I’ll probably try it eventually.

  4. piningforthewest says:

    Jack just borrowed this one form the library so I might read it when he finishes it as you enjoyed it so much.

  5. FictionFan says:

    I’m still managing to resist this one meantime despite the gorgeous cover and some of my fave bloggers recommending it all over the place, but I’m weakening… 😉

    • Helen says:

      I had been resisting it for more than a year, but finally succumbed! I didn’t love it quite as unreservedly as a lot of other bloggers seem to have done, but I did enjoy it and am glad I didn’t put off any longer.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, there are lots of fascinating characters and storylines in this book – and the atmosphere is great too. I hope you have a chance to read it soon.

  6. Brona says:

    I’ve just finished this too & adored it. It was exactly the kid of comfort reading I needed in my life ATM. The pretty cover helped too 😊

  7. Laurie says:

    This is a nice review that makes me want to read it even more now. It has disappeared from my library; it’s in the ‘unknown’ category, so now I am on to Plan B to find it!

  8. The Book Whisperer says:

    Great review, Helen. I don’t know why I haven’t read this yet actually as I certainly want to. I love that Mary Anning gets a mention as I loved Tracy Chevaliers book Remarkable Creatures. I was interested in what you said about French Lieutenants Woman too as I am a MASSIVE Fowles fan but couldn’t get into that book at all. Looking forward to reading this now.

    • Helen says:

      I think you would enjoy this book. 🙂 I remember Mary Anning from Remarkable Creatures too, so it was nice to be reminded of her again! Maybe I should try one of John Fowles’ other books as I did like his writing, but couldn’t get on with that particular novel.

  9. Karen K. says:

    I’m hoping to persuade my book group to read this when we start up again in the fall. I love the Victorian period and I also really liked Remarkable Creatures. If you like books try to capture the Victorian style I’d also recommend Fingersmith by Sarah Waters and The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber. I’ve also heard that The Signature of All Things is really good, but I haven’t read it yet.

    • Helen says:

      I think this would be a great choice for your book group as there would be so much to discuss. I’ve read Fingersmith and The Crimson Petal and the White and enjoyed both, but haven’t read The Signature of All Things yet – I’ve heard good things about it too.

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