Book review: The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

This book was everywhere when it first came out last year, surprising since it was written by a little known author and published by a relatively small independent publisher. It became a bestseller, was shortlisted for the 2016 Costa Novel Award and was the Waterstones Book of the Year. I was very keen to read it but it seemed to take a long time to be issued in paperback, so I’ve been hanging on for a while.

The Essex Serpent imgThe book is set mostly in the fictional Essex village of Aldwinter in the 1890s and the action takes place over the course of a year. The central dynamic of the plot is the relationship between Cora Seaborne, a woman approximately in her late 30s, who at the start of the novel is newly widowed, and William (Will) Ransome, the local minister. Will is happily married to Stella and they have three children, while Cora is happily widowed! It seems hers was a fairly loveless marriage in which she felt constrained and imprisoned and her husband appears to have been somewhat older than her. The lack of intimacy in the marriage is indicated by the fact they had only one child, Francis, and that he is an unusual boy (for Cora “nothing shamed her as much as her son”), who is almost certainly autistic.

Once she becomes widowed, Cora is able to follow her passion for natural science, and she moves out of London to Essex. There she becomes captivated by a local myth, a mysterious serpent that villagers feel is responsible for unnatural happenings, including unexplained deaths, crop failures, madness and distressed livestock. Cora first encounters Will on one of her forest walks, when the two rescue a sheep from a bog. They later meet socially and thereafter strike up an increasingly intimate friendship. The book becomes about the development of their relationship against a backdrop of events connected with the serpent, with the illness of Will’s wife, and Cora’s relationships with other friends, including that of Luke Garrett, a brilliant surgeon who is clearly in love with her.

Whilst the book is essentially about relationships and the nature of love (it is explored in many forms) it is also about a clash of worlds. Firstly, the old versus the modern – it is no coincidence the book is set on the eve of the 20th century – and science versus religion, where Cora and Will have some of their most passionate debates. There is also reason versus superstition; the villagers fear the Essex Serpent, whereas Will finds his parishioners’ fears almost pagan in tone, and Cora wants to prove the existence of the serpent, as some sort of lost creature.

Perry also explores the position of women, from Cora, the scientist, for whom marriage had “so degraded her expectations of happiness” and for whom widowhood and thus the single life had “freed her from the obligation to be beautiful”, to Stella the model dutiful Victorian wife and mother, afflicted by a quintessentially 19th century illness. There is also Martha, Cora’s maid (although her exact position in the household slightly defies definition!), also a political activist who utilises the connections she has made through Cora to further her Marxist leanings. In many ways the themes of the novel are very modern indeed – Martha’s campaigning for suitable social housing for the poor of London is resonant of a very 21st century problem. It’s also a very erotic novel, in the Gothic sense, without being explicit; there are many tensions below the surface and some of these do not get fully resolved, which is actually quite true to life when you think about it.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would recommend it highly. It gripped me to the end. It’s a novel rich in themes, rich in its descriptive power and rich in its evocation of time and place.

If you have read this much talked-about book, I’d love to know what you thought of it.

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‘North and South’ by Elizabeth Gaskell

I last read this book when I was doing my English degree at University. At that time, the classics were my ‘thing’, indeed I’d spent my teenage years devouring the classics and, such was my love of them, it’s mostly why I went on to study English. By the time I graduated, I was so full of books that I shunned reading anything for quite a long time. When I got back into the habit, I turned my attention more to contemporary fiction as I realised there was a huge gap in my knowledge. One of the satisfying things about favouring the classics is that they are a largely finite resource; in a few years of effort you could basically read most of them! With contemporary fiction, on the other hand, you never get caught up. So, almost all my reading in recent years has been a desperate endeavour to keep up with all the amazing books published today, and as a result I have not turned back to my beloved classics very much. So, April’s reading challenge was to re-read a classic.

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I’ve been wanting to read this novel again ever since I moved to Manchester 5 years ago and even more so after visiting Elizabeth Gaskell’s house in Plymouth Grove last year. (If you haven’t been and you’re an admirer of the Victorian novel, you really must pay a visit). I have to confess I was a little intimidated to be picking up the book – my edition is innocuous-looking enough, but, oh my goodness, paper was thinner back then and the type face is miniscule! 530 pages of closely-written text. BUT, what a joy!!!  It took me a few chapters to get back into the style, and the Victorian atmosphere, but once I did, I got totally lost, and, truly, I re-entered the world I first discovered as a young girl. I can’t remember when I last got lost in a long book, became totally absorbed by the sense of place, or was able to step into the shoes of the characters and feel their pain, their happiness, their grief their longings. Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, which I read last year, has probably been the closest I have come in recent years.

In North and South, our central character, Margaret Hale, finds herself on an emotional and physical journey. When we first meet her she is living with her wealthy aunt and spoiled young cousin Edith in London; she was sent to them as a child to improve her chances in society. Margaret’s parents live humbly in rural Hampshire where her father is a country curate. Margaret has a brother, Frederick, who lives as a fugitive abroad; he is wanted in England, accused of leading a mutiny whilst serving in the navy.

When Margaret’s cousin marries, she returns to her parents only to find that her father intends to resign his post due to his religious doubt. He decides to move the family north to the city of Milton in Darkshire (for which read Manchester). There he plans to make a living from tutoring and they will rent a house from an old Oxford acquaintance of Mr Hale’s. The move comes as devastating news to Margaret and her mother, for whom the move is the last straw in her social degradation.

When the family first moves to Milton the contrast between their old and new lives is stark – their physical surroundings are completely different, the people they meet are different, and the activities that absorb their time are different. As the months pass, Margaret accepts her new life and as she is forced to confront her prejudices, so it exposes the vacuous existence she enjoyed in London. Gaskell sets about using her characters, their conversations and their confrontations to reveal certain ‘truths’ and challenge certain preconceptions held by many of the protagonists, whether it is Mrs Hale’s bias towards the south, the gentry and all the things with which she is familiar and about which she is nostalgic, or factory owner Mr Thornton’s intolerance of his workers’ strike. All the characters in this novel are in some way flawed by their prejudice (even the lowly workers at the factory despise the Irish labourers brought in to do their work when they strike). To that extent, the novel still has great relevance today, over 150 years later, as the north-south divide in England continues to have social, political and economic consequences.

Some of the characters in the book are two-dimensional, for example, the lowly Bessy Higgins, with whom Margaret develops a rather implausible friendship. It has to be remembered that these characters are merely devices through which the author is seeking simply to illustrate a point, although Gaskell’s readers at the time probably thought this was actually how poor people lived and talked. Margaret, on the other hand, is, for me, a well-rounded, credible and fully-developed character. She goes through a transformation in this novel which is both sincere and believable.

The ending of the book is entirely predictable, of course, but this is fine because the joy of this book is in the journey. Although some may find the language a barrier, for me it was sublime. Again, it took me a little while to get back into it and it made reading a little slow at first, but it was beautiful and oh so clever!

I thoroughly enjoyed re-reading North and South and I would definitely recommend picking up a classic from time to time.

Have you re-read any old favourites recently?

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