Sarah Perry’s latest novel proves to be as elusive a beast as the Essex Serpent itself: a story which coaxes the reader into a literary terrain every bit as shifting and unstable as the salt marshes amongst which it is set.
Following the death of her abusive husband, Cora Seaborne sets about reinventing herself – stretching her wings and re-evaluating her relationship with her friends, and with society in general. Freeing herself from the disapproving gaze of Victorian London, Cora moves to Essex in the hope of scouring the local beaches for fossils. Intrigued by the possibility that a “living fossil” may have been sighted near the village of Aldwinter, with local sightings of a winged sea beast reported, she moves there with her friend Martha and autistic son Frankie.
In truth, if there is any geology to be had in this novel, it is of the personal sort – the gradual chipping away at layers of emotional sediment to discover the uncomfortable truths which Cora – and many of her friends – keep deeply buried. On encountering local Vicar Will Ransome, Cora dredges her own sense of self to make sense of her feelings for him, while Will finds himself torn between the superstitions of his congregation and the foundations of his own religious belief. This is a story which explores the porous boundaries between pleasure and pain, between faith and superstition and between love and hate. Imbued with all the rich ambiguity of a Turner painting, it throws an alternative view of the Victorian age into relief – one in which sexual desire and sexuality lurk just beneath the surface of public consciousness, and are easily implied if not expressed.
Comparisons have been drawn between Perry’s sublime work of Victorian pastiche and Bram Stoker/Dickens. I didn’t quite feel that myself – it doesn’t really function as gothic, or as social commentary – at least not directly. I did, however, find myself thinking about Hardy as I read it: of his pivotal themes of sin and redemption, and of his exposure of the hypocrisies of nineteenth century British society. But what I really find most valuable here, is the uniqueness of Perry’s writing, and the way she gives a voice to characters whose stories are repressed or never heard at all in Victorian literature. A book which very definitely deserves to be re-read.