Book cover

This article is a preview from the Autumn 2016 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.

The Essex Serpent (Serpent’s Tail) by Sarah Perry

Between the saucy carnival of the Georgians and the splintered genius of the moderns, the Victorians seem like a marble slab of respectability. The Essex Serpent is not about those marble Victorians. Sarah Perry’s second novel – a follow-up to her eerie 2014 debut, After Me Comes the Flood – contains many things that are unlikely, edging toward supernatural. There is early open heart surgery, hypnotism, contagious hysteria and of course, the serpent of the title (which may or may not be ravaging the Essex shoreline). But the characters who inhabit Perry’s historical fiction are a mix of the curious, the crankish, the sceptical and the devout, the upstanding and the down-low.

First among them is Cora, the young widow of a brutal man whose treatment has been the cruellest kind of education. “She might have memorised a manual on a woman’s duties down to its last syllable,” thinks Cora. Freedom from him means freedom from violence, but even more than that, it means freedom from the demands of femininity: “The wonderful thing about widowhood is that, really, you’re not obliged to be much of a woman anymore.” And not being a woman, Cora is free to pursue her own interests, focused on the palaeontological – she has dreams of being another Mary Anning. When she hears rumours from Essex, her heart is set on finding a living fossil.

Accompanying her is a ramshackle sort of family. There is her son (an emotionally remote child with strange obsessions); Martha, who became her maid when she was married and has stayed on in a more personal capacity; and the surgeon Luke Garrett, whose medical ambitions Cora patronises, and who hopes to make himself her second husband. This peculiar assemblage crashes into the more conventional home of the Reverend Will Ransome, who lives with his wife, their children and, it is rumoured, a giant sea snake haunting the margins of his parish.

The friendship between the reverend and the widow is a collision of faith with doubt, reason with madness, and desire with impossibility – by no means always along the lines that rigid rationalism might expect. The man of God has his science, and the woman of reason her freaks. The Essex Serpent conjures the intoxicating thrum of Victorian intellectual life brilliantly, a world where things that are today clearly in the realm of the paranormal were worthy of scientific consideration, and where the provincial clergy were driving forward knowledge of the natural world to the breaking point of their own faith. Perry is a fine observer of the mind and its capacity for wonder and contradiction.

She’s strong on hearts, too. From a less skilled writer, the anatomy of Cora’s abuse – and the way it formed her – could easily have been crass. But when Perry tells us that Cora was once drunk with love for her husband, and that subsequently “her fear of him was so very like her love… that she was drunk on that, too” she sweeps away all misogynistic rhetoric in the “woman really go for bad guys” vein, and instead tells us something profound and true about the intimacy between terror and adoration. (Her gifts are not limited to pain: the novel contains one of the most movingly filthy sex scenes in recent literature.)

Perry is not showy with her insights. Between the serpent-hunting, the heart surgery, the multiple romances and some sub-plotting around social reform, Perry rarely has time to hold up the plot so we can sit around and admire her craft. Splendidly, story is always the driver here. But these moments of beautiful acuity are held in the narrative like geological samples in a Victorian collector’s case. They can be removed, examined and treasured, and remain still part of the whole. And that whole is a potboiler of the best kind, marked by genuine strangeness and a rare intelligence. Whatever is out in the water, Perry makes it a pleasure to swim with her.