Historical Fiction · Magical Realism

The Essex Serpent

I saw this book around a lot when it was first published and the topic, the possible existence of a mythical serpent in Essex, is definitely one that struck my fancy. Plus, the detail in the cover is lovely in its delicacy. Which is, in fact, what prompted me to buy it. I saw it at Costco (dang those piles of books in the middle – I cannot make myself just walk past them, no matter how much I try). It was just such a pretty book and I couldn’t help but buy it. This, of course, was at least a year ago now. But I have finally gotten around to reading it!

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry


“There is nothing to be afraid of […] except ignorance. What seems frightening is just waiting for you to shine a light on it.”

As the blurb on the back of the book states, this novel is technically about Cora Seaborne, recently widowed and off to Essex to “get away.”. Cora has an interest in natural history and, while in Essex, hears rumors of the presence of a mythical sea beast that strike her fancy. So, she decides to investigate. She is introduced by a mutual friend to a local parish vicar, William Ransome, who both assists in and questions her “search” for the sea beast. As fear of the beast spreads throughout the town, Cora and William find that, despite their opposite temperaments and outlooks, they have an affinity for each other that is growing out of proportion to what is acceptable (for Cora is in “mourning” and Willliam is married with a family). By the end, the interpersonal and mythical situations all come to a dramatic-ish head.

The inside of this book matches, perfectly, the previously discussed outside. It’s lovely and delicate in the details. In fact, the beauty and grace in this novel are found, almost entirely, in the details. It’s fascinating to me, because based on the description, it seems like it would be more of an action-based story, but it is, in fact, incredibly philosophical and relational. The Victorian time-period and setting are clear both from the descriptions and from the writing itself, which absolutely calls to mind the style of the period. I mean, 19th century British literature is one of the most famous locations/periods, boasting authors from the Brontë sisters to Charles Dickens to Wilkie Collins. And Perry writes as though she actually studied under their tutelage. So, basically, if you are into those authors, their style, and the plot/character development of the time, then this is a modern book I definitely recommend you pick up. In any case, hopefully that gives you a better idea of what to expect from the pacing than the back of the book did. I know I was a little taken by surprise by the meandering and descriptive style and, though the plot did cover exactly what was promised, it was done differently than expected. And at least for me, in my current reading mood, it was not quite what I was hoping/looking for.

As far as the plot itself, I really enjoyed the general feel of it. The mix of myth/belief and science/medicine put me in mind of another recent read, Once Upon a River. In both, there is a drawn out “battle” (more like intense discourse) over whether certain events (deaths, disappearances, and the like) are caused by magical or natural means. And though in this case there is a clear answer at the end (and I liked the ambiguity in Once Upon a River a bit more), the same back and forth draw throughout the novel appealed to me in both cases. It’s a fascinating exploration of the power of mob-mentality and story-telling. And the air of melancholy mystery that juxtaposition created in this novel was wonderfully wrought. The development of the characters and their relationships with each other, which were quite a complex web by the end, were handled deftly. Each connection was unique and all were deep and realistic. Even though the blurb makes it seem as though the book centers on Cora and William, I really felt like some of the bonds between the supporting characters were just as engaging and elaborate. I particularly enjoyed the surgeon, Luke Garrett, and his friend George Spencer, as well as William’s wife, Stella, and Cora’s son, Francis. I also liked Cora’s companion, Martha, in general, and thus her interactions with most of the rest of the characters. Truly though, as I said, the web of interactions among them all was just impressive to read.

There are a few other random points that I want to make sure get mentioned. One, there are some amazing small things in this novel that fascinated me. First, the way that Cora’s son was, in my opinion somewhere on the Autism Spectrum. However, this was obviously not something that was known about or a real diagnosis for the time period, so how it was dealt with was so interesting. I am going to just trust that Perry did her research about it, before writing, and in that case, I feel like I learned something and appreciate the representation both in general and specifically in the time period in question. Plus, I love the way it was woven into the plot and other relationships – so smooth and creative and respectful. I felt similarly about the medical aspects of the book – I was completely absorbed by the medical details. With the interplay with faith (and lack of general health education in the time period), along with Luke’s position on the forefront with surgery and the real beginnings of modern medicine…I really learned a lot. Relatedly, with William’s position as a vicar and Cora’s as a “natural scientist” there was quite a bit of back and forth philosophy about religion versus science. I’m not always into philosophical leaning books, so there were times where I zoned out just a little, but I respect the exploration of the topic – it was very well-researched and composed. And one more tiny thing – the “Strange News Out of Essex” pamphlet that is mentioned is historically real. You can Google it and see what it actually looked like, which is very cool, as it gives some great period context to the thread that binds this whole tale together.

Basically, this is a book for which the writing itself, and the ambiance it creates, is one of the main draws. The way small moments end up leading to, if not immediately dramatic at least slow-burn widespread, effects, is written very realistically. And the fact that many of those effects are, for all that they create permanent changes, invisible to the eye, as they take place internally, was also very natural. That is often the way of things, that the largest differences/growth are internal, so that despite that fact that people may be forever altered, there is no outward appearance of the change. This made me feel, by the end, that, even though I had read hundreds of pages and knew that nothing was the same as when I started, it seemed as though it was. It’s such a weird feeling to be left with as a reader. And I don’t dislike it, but I’m also not sure I was in the right mood for it.

This is a book lends itself strongly to mood reading and I definitely recommend waiting until you’re ready to mire yourself in that melancholy Victorian-like state in order to truly and fully appreciate this novel. But then when you’re there, it’s phenomenally executed and there aren’t many book that would be a better choice.

“We cannot help it, if we are to live. […] Causing harm, I mean; how could it be avoided unless we shut ourselves away – never speak, never act?”

“That’s the great crime: that no one need be put in chains when their own minds area shackles enough.”

“You told me once you forget you are a woman, and I understand it now – you think to be a woman is to be weak – you think ours is a sisterhood of suffering! Perhaps so, but doesn’t it take greater strength to walk a mile in pain than seven miles in none? You are a woman, and must begin to live like one. By which I mean: have courage.”

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