The summer of 2016 is turning out to be a great one for the historical novel, especially those set in Britain. And with real life events growing steadily more depressing, there has never been a better time to retreat to the past, exploring a place which is similar enough to feel familiar, yet just different enough to bring us into another world.
The Essex Serpent is Perry’s second novel, published just a few weeks ago to great acclaim. Set in 1893, this is a book which lives up to the ideals of a time when Darwin is recently published, when medicine and science are on the brink of taking huge strides forward, and social reform is still driven by individuals and volunteers.
Cora Seabourne’s husband has died, leaving her a young widow with an only son, Francis. Although her marriage was not a happy one, she decides to leave London for Essex, hoping to be revived by the fresh air. It is whilst residing in Colchester that she first hears the rumours.
STRANGE NEWS, they’d say, of a monstrous serpent with eyes like a sheep, come out of the Essex waters and up to the birch woods and commons!
It is said that the serpent lives below the surface of the Blackwater, by the parish of Aldwinter not far from Colchester. As luck would have it, Cora’s good friends Charles and Katherine Ambrose know the parish reverend and his family. Before a formal introduction can be arranged Cora unknowingly meets the Reverend William Ransome in an odd encounter involving a sheep stuck in the mud, and the two quickly become fast friends.
The serpent itself may be what draws this cast of characters together in the beginning, but it swiftly fades into the background. This is a novel about love, and at its heart is the intense relationship that grows between Cora and William. The two should not agree on much: he is a man of God, desperate to dispel the rumours of the serpent and sooth the worries of his parishioners; she is sure that the serpent is some strange species of animal and longs to find it, eager to live up to the memory of her heroine, the paleontologist Mary Anning. William is also married, to the beautiful Stella. The hook is not so much the mythical beast, but the everyday ‘will they, won’t they’ of this couple.
It is the friendships that matter most. Luke Garrett, doctor to Cora’s late husband, may be in love with Cora but it is his friendship with wealthy fellow doctor Charles Spencer which ultimately saves him. In his turn, Spencer’s unrequited love for Martha, Cora’s friend and her son’s nanny is what drives him to discover a real happiness.
This book is a joy to read. The language is clever without becoming overly so. The prose is organically beautiful, its metaphors uncliched. I loved the section where Cora has arrived in Colchester and is discovering the ruins of a building that fell during the Colchester earthquake of 1884, the most destructive in the UK in the last four hundred years, at the same time as she is learning about the apparent resurfacing of the old mythical serpent.
I have only one criticism of this book, and I almost didn’t want to mention it since it is very small and the rest is perfect. It is the universal problem of endings, and is so subjective that most people I feel will disagree. There were a lot of ends tied up at the end of this book. Most people love a resolution, whether it is what they hoped for or not. The book takes place over a calendar year and all the various strands peaked towards the end of the autumn, meaning that November and December were purely for resolving these. For me, having devoured the novel until this point, I found my attention drifting just a tad.
That one slight criticism aside, this is certainly the best and most enjoyable book I’ve read so far this year. I loved it and very much recommend it.