Set in Victorian London and an Essex village in the 1890’s, and enlivened by the debates on scientific and medical discovery which defined the era, The Essex Serpent has at its heart the story of two extraordinary people who fall for each other, but not in the usual way.
They are Cora Seaborne and Will Ransome. Cora is a well-to-do London widow who moves to the Essex parish of Aldwinter, and Will is the local vicar. They meet as their village is engulfed by rumours that the mythical Essex Serpent, once said to roam the marshes claiming human lives, has returned. Cora, a keen amateur naturalist is enthralled, convinced the beast may be a real undiscovered species. But Will sees his parishioners’ agitation as a moral panic, a deviation from true faith. Although they can agree on absolutely nothing, as the seasons turn around them in this quiet corner of England, they find themselves inexorably drawn together and torn apart.
Told with exquisite grace and intelligence, this novel is most of all a celebration of love, and the many different guises it can take (From Goodreads)
There’s been a lot of publicity surrounding Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent last year: it was selected as 2016 Waterstones Book of the Year, it had a billboard covering an entire wall at the London Book Fair, and beer with The Essex Serpent label appeared at marketing and publicity conference.
Enthusiastic reviewers claimed that not even Charles Dickens and Bram Stoker combined could write a novel like this.
Of course, they couldn’t. They do not have the ability to time travel to the 21st century. Despite all the lavish descriptions of its setting, The Essex Serpent is not a Victorian novel in the slightest. It bears all the hallmarks of fashionable 21st-century literary fiction: feminism, bisexuality, sexual violence within marriage, mental illness in children and women, and a complete absence of guilt over extramarital sex.
If one were to write a recipe for an award-winning literary novel in the 21st century that would basically be it. And there’s some pretty excellent novels out there exploring all those subjects.
My problem with The Essex Serpent is that it fails to acknowledge that Victorian attitudes to these issues do not resemble our own. Think about it- this novel is set in 1893 – in 1895 Oscar Wilde was IMPRISONED for indecency (basically for being gay). How do you think this kind of society would respond to lesbian sex or for that matter to a woman who dresses like a man? In The Essex Serpent no one so much has a second-thought about those things.
The Irish movement for Home Rule fell apart when the public found out that Charles Parnell (who led the movement) was filing for divorce in 1889- so how you think local townspeople in 1893 would react to a clergyman who they suspected of having an affair? In The Essex Serpent, they really don’t mind.
The characters are basically 21-st century characters in Victorian outfits. It’s a bit as if a modern novelist rewrote Middlemarch and had Dorothea and Lydgate have sex. Is it technically possible? Yes. Would it misinterpret the characters George Eliot originally wrote? Entirely.
Would the 21st century public find it more enjoyable then the original? Probably. Would it make me incredibly annoyed? It would make me absolutely furious.
Sarah Perry’s characters feel about as Victorian as a sexy Dorothea and a licentious Lydgate. Not very.
To make matters worse, though Perry’s writing is in general accomplished, the character development in the novel is somewhat lacking.
I have issues especially with the character development of Will Ransome’s wife, Stella. . She is the pretty blonde girl who doesn’t satisfy her husband’s intellectual needs. She does give birth to three of his children, but that’s just her wifely duty. She’s dying of tuberculosis and she conveniently thinks to herself, “my husband can have sex with this other woman and I am totally okay with it”.
Not for a moment does she struggle or wrestle with this idea – even though she was supposedly brought up as a Christian with strict Victorian social norms. Not for a second does she indulge in any feeling that would inconvenience the other characters. Stella is the silent victim of this novel – no mere woman of flesh and blood could think like this – she is truly a martyred angel in the house. Only her martyrdom is not so much to her husband, as to the author who has determined that poor Stella doesn’t interfere with the love affairs of our protagonists.
The clergyman, Will Ransome, scarcely has a moment to have a religious thought in his head.
My favourite character was Luke, the ambitious surgeon who is hopelessly in love with Cora. But even his character, I felt, was far less developed in the second half of the novel.
Don’t even get me started on Cora Seaborne, the heroine…she’s the female character we are all supposed to love: she is so smart and yet she is never seen reading or studying, she never wears female clothes and yet she is very femininine, she is not pretty and yet somehow everyone’s in love with her, she is full of such motherly feeling and yet she never really seems take care of her son, such a champion of the poor and yet she is rich , such a feminist and yet she doesn’t seem to be doing any thinking about women’s rights at all. Basically, she gets all the praise of the narrator without ever indulging in the tiring work that would be involved in meriting any of it.
I apologize for the rant.
It’s quite possible that you won’t care for any of these flaws that have annoyed me so much.
The Essex Serpent reads very well ( I finished it in three days). It is intelligently written and full of literary allusions (for example, the very last sentence – and possibly the entire structure of the novel – alludes to Jane Eyre ). I would probably read more of Sarah Perry’s work after reading this ( although I would probably avoid anything that she ostensibly sets in a Victorian context).
Go on, read it, if you think you’d find it interesting and make your own mind up!
6 thoughts on ““The Essex Serpent” by Sarah Perry – book review”
Ohhh dear- why do people keep setting things in the Victorian past, if all they want to do is write a 21st century contemporary novel. I don’t get it, cos the things you’ve listed instantly undermine the believability of the novel. And I *hate* characters where the narrator gives them attributes (usually that they’re sweet, but this can be pretty much anything) and then doesn’t actually give any evidence of them acting out that character trait- it’s just lazy writing. And making her not-pretty-but-oh-so-desirable is the kind of thing that turns up all the time in YA and is always designed to make the mc seem relatable, but judging most reviews, usually rubs people up the wrong way. Honestly, I saw the publishers pushing this novel everywhere, giving it pride of place in every shop and the only thing about it that nearly seduced me was that cover- especially since every review I’ve read of it has been lacklustre at best- I can’t see myself ever picking this up now that I’ve read your fantastic review!
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Glad you liked the review… It’s the kind of book that will always make me hesitate before picking up a 21st century novel set in the 19th century…The cover is absolutely stunning though, isn’t it?
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Yes I completely get that. It really is though.
I think that some of those things may have been deliberate on the part of the author, given some of the references quoted at the back of the book, for example, she mentions Matthew Sweet’s Inventing the Victorians (2002) which challenges the notions of a prudish era enslaved by religion and manners etc, rather demonstrating an era of department stores, brands, sexual appetites and a fascination for the strange. Perhaps she decided to run with that notion and created a set of characters who fit that mould.
I didn’t have as much of a problem with their more liberal attitudes, but I was more sceptical about Martha’s role and influence with the society men and her social activism agenda, while being the companion of a wealthy widow. It was relevant to the era, but a little convenient to package it up within a ‘companion’.
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I’ll have to check out Matthew Sweet’s Inventing the Victorians! My impression (from my limited reading so far) is not so much that the Victorians were enslaved by religion and manners- as that no matter what their actions may or may not have been, they did hold certain norms as appropriate, even if they chose not to act by them…. for example George Eliot who goes along a Feuerbachian understanding of the usefulness of religion to society but is not religious herself (and though she lived with a married man, one would struggle to see her suggesting such behaviour as appropriate for one of her heroines). So I suppose it’s not that the characters do not behave exactly in a historically accurate manner, it’s that they do not feel the guilty about their actions..?
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I enjoyed reading your review. Thank you for taking time to share with us.