In 1893, the mysteries of the world are on the brink of being solved. Fossil hunters claw the remains of prehistoric beasts from the cliffs of southern England. The safe securities of Biblical history are brought into question by the realisation that the earth is far older and wilder than had ever been imagined. And yet all the reason in the world can crumble in the face of superstition. Down in the marshes and estuaries of Essex, something moves in the dark waters and legends of a half-forgotten, terrifying beast start to surface once again.
For Cora Seaborne, the tales coming out of Essex have a perfectly logical explanation. She hears the stories of a beast snatching lambs from the field and dragging men down into the water, but she is too pragmatic to believe them. She does, however, begin to wonder whether this so-called Essex Serpent couldn’t be some lost-lost cousin of the mighty beast excavated by Mary Anning at Lyme Regis. What if this popular fable is in fact a real-life ichthyosaur? Cora is determined to investigate. Recently widowed, she has been freed from marriage to a man who tried, step to step, to scrape away all her sense of self and autonomy. She finds it almost bizarre that the world expects her to weep and grieve. Instead she wants to throw open her arms and embrace the possibilities of the world all around her. And so, with her troubled son Francis and her loyal companion Martha, Cora sets off for the tiny Essex village of Aldwinter, perched on the edge of the wild fenland where the Serpent supposedly makes its home.
She comes from London, seeing herself as a ray of sophistication piercing the fables of these country folk. But what she finds is a strangely beguiling world, which she comes to know through long marches in old boots and coats, untended and unprimped, but gloriously liberated. Hoping to give Cora a friend and protector, her kind friends Charles and Katherine Ambrose introduce her to William Ransome, rector of Aldwinter. Neither he nor Cora are prepared for what they will find in the other: a piercing intelligence; a stubborn clinging to their respective creeds of faith and reason; a tumultuous intellectual struggle that morphs into a tangible emotional yearning. But the situation is not easy. Cora is charmed by William’s delicate, childlike wife Stella, who brims over with generosity and warmth for this woman so different from herself. And Cora herself has an admirer back in London: the brilliant young physician Luke Garrett, cursed with personal ugliness and a cynical, misanthrophic mind. As Cora’s stay in Essex lengthens, Luke frets in London, and Martha watches warily in Aldwinter, while Cora’s son Francis stands aloof, trying to comprehend the illogical patterns that drive the adults in his life to such confusing extremes of behaviour.
Perry’s novel is a delightful blend of Gothic and gutsiness. There are no fainting maidens here: Cora is a wonderful creation, flawed and insensitive, charismatic and vibrant, forceful, selfish and dazzling. Luke and William, as her diametrically opposed suitors, are both profoundly realised characters, consumed with self-loathing at their weakness but unable to resist the lure of this fascinating woman. Even the minor characters, Spencer, Martha, Stella and the Ambroses, are sketched out beautifully. And I enjoyed the way that the novel wove together scientific progress and growing social awareness: fossil-hunters and nascent paleontologists on one hand, and housing reformers and feminists on the other. And, in the middle of it all, stands William Ransome: a man devoted to the pure and simple task of caring for his parishioners, who finds all his efforts undermined by popular hysteria over an old legend.
So what is the Essex Serpent? On one level it is this beast which may or may not exist in the local waters – and which really was thought to have appeared in the 17th century, judging by a woodcut on an old broadside. But on another level, Perry uses it as a metaphor for uneasiness, change and, perhaps, even that old chestnut, sin. The Serpent’s shadow creeps across Aldwinter, bringing out the worst in some villagers, conjuring up old fears and secrets, and prompting an on-the-brink sense of fear that drives sensible people to foolish acts. At the heart of all of this is Cora herself. Is she the serpent, coming into Eden to bewitch and shatter the innocence of those around her? It’s a many-layered symbol.
Throughout, Perry’s prose is gorgeous, infused with a deep sensitivity to the natural world, the ebb and flow of the tide and the haunting emptiness of the marshes. Where some readers might baulk, however, is at the pace. This is a very measured book – some might say slow – but I actually enjoyed its languid, sensual building of tension. Personally I found the end somewhat unsatisfying, not so much for what happened, but for the tying-up-ends feel of the final chapter. But much of the book is an intelligent, provocative investigation of freedom, discovery and love above all – love in all its complicated, messy, hard-to-categorise forms. Perry has done a very fine job and this novel has justly become one of the must-reads of the year. If you haven’t sought it out yet, do: you won’t be disappointed.
The 17th-century broadside, ‘Strange news out of Essex’, with an illustration of the Essex Serpent.