Cora Seaborne is bereaved but not unhappy. Her husband was a petty tyrant, and when the old fool finally checks out, she’s not exactly like the widow in The Importance of Being Earnest (whose hair, Algernon remarks, has turned ‘quite gold from grief’) but she does acquire a certain presence. Brilliant young surgeon Luke Garrett practically jumps through hoops of fire to get to her. Her arrival in the croft and coastal village of Aldwinter causes more comment and stir than the appearance of a newcomer from London normally would: even the parish vicar Will Ransome finds the widow Seaborne as attractive as she is infuriating. The Reverend is a late Victorian intellectual who tries to reconcile his faith with the nineteenth century’s escalating revelations of science. Cora is a passionate naturalist who rejects religion out of hand. In this passage of dialogue she illustrates both her philosophy and her recent liberation:
You wonder why I grub about in the mud – it’s what I remember from childhood. Barely ever wearing shoes – picking gorse for cordial, watching the ponds boiling with frogs. And then there was Michael, and he was – civilised. He would pave over every bit of woodland, have every sparrow mounted on a plinth. And he had me mounted on a plinth. My waist pinched, my hair burned into curls, the colour on my face painted out, then painted in again. And now I’m free to sink back into the earth if I like – to let myself grow over with moss and lichen.
This last line almost pre-empts Henry Miller, who declared in Tropic of Cancer that ‘I have nothing to do with the creaking machinery of humanity – I belong to the earth! I say that lying on my pillow and I can feel the horns sprouting from my temples.’ Aldwinter is convulsed by rumours of a giant snake-beast that is set to slither from the ocean and eat the townspeople in their beds. Farmers hang skinned moles by the coast to keep this monster away; there are episodes of mass hysteria; every relic deposited from sea to shore is a potential threat. The suspense is dimmed by our realisation that if the Essex Serpent does really exist, it is Cora herself, sea born and reborn. ‘I’ve freed myself from the obligation to try and be beautiful,’ she says. ‘And I was never more happy.’
As Naomi Frisby says, The Essex Serpent is a book that is not so much read but inhabited. The period detail is exact and discreet, the atmosphere like coiled smoke, the writing (‘Time was being served behind the walls of Newgate jail and wasted by philosophers in cafes on the Strand’) almost rivals Shirley Jackson. The book is clearly written as one of those historical novels that are a beguiling mist you can lose yourself in. Reviewers have responded in near-Victorian raptures.
Happy as we are wandering in the lovely fog of Sarah Perry‘s prose, it doesn’t cover the book’s flaws. The inner city London scenes are very well done, and inspire some of Perry’s best writing (‘Rooms were sublet, and sublet again, so that what constituted a family had long been forgotten, and strangers bickered over cups and plates and their few square feet of space’) but these passages don’t seem to fit with the story because the story is driven by Cora and Cora has decamped to Aldwinter’s gothic seaside. The housing crisis is meant to chime with modern times, and Perry reminds us in an afterword of contemporaneous ‘accounts of housing crises, venal landlords, intolerable rests and political chicanery; they would not look out of place in tomorrow’s newspapers’ (oh, you don’t say?) Cora and Will are compelling but not enough attention is paid to the supporting cast. Aldwinter eccentric Cracknell is a blathering sibyl straight out of Lovecraft, and with equally silly dialogue (‘Though of what I might be scaring off there mightn’t be knowing now nor later I daresay, when a voice is heard of weeping and lamentation for our children’ etc) Cora’s son Francis is a strange and distant child, but we know this because the other characters keep telling us, not because Perry shows us.
Cora’s friend Martha seems to have no purpose other than to exemplify the Victorian female activist – oh, and she deus es machinas the rent crisis of Perry’s London chapters to a respectable conclusion. At times The Essex Serpent almost reads like a rehabilitation of the Victorian era. Perry recommends in her afterword Matthew Sweet’s Inventing the Victorians, which ‘challenges notions of a prudish era enslaved by religion and incomprehensible manners; rather, he shows us a nineteenth century of department stores, big brands, sexual appetites and a fascination for the strange.’ All very jolly I can imagine, but let’s not forget that such fascinations were largely frowned upon: Georgina Howell in her biography of Gertrude Bell reports that even at Oxford women had to seek special permissions to attend lectures and sit exams as late as 1886, for fear that ‘overtaxing’ of the female brain would lead to ‘the deficiency of reproductive power’.
I read Perry’s debut After Me Comes the Flood last year and fell in love with it: it’s the kind of mystery story, at once traditional and new form, that you can spend your life rereading and puzzling over. With The Essex Serpent Perry has gone for something rather more conventional: she has discovered the power of the Victorian novel – and its limitations.