The Essex Serpent
Sarah Perry

I became curious about this novel after reading an article about the book industry a few months ago. The decline of real books has been predicted for some time now. The internet and ebooks were meant to put an end to a viable book industry, according to some predictions, much like vinyl records were supposed to have disappeared. Instead, it seems old things are more resilient against the characterless digital world than once thought. The Essex Serpent, I read, was credited as having revived the fortunes of some small book stores in England last year. It’s an old-style book, after all, both in its presentation and setting. Set in 1893, it’s a book as much about the nineteenth century, the century when the novel came into its own, as anything else. But is this a modern novel? Some of the reviews I read suggested it is, but I’m not sure.

The basis of the story is the legend of the Essex Serpent. Perry states that her inspiration for the novel came from hearing the legend of the serpent read from a seventeenth century pamphlet. She found inspiration in the possibilities of the serpent returning to a nineteenth century England, now informed by Darwin and the natural sciences.

Cora Seaborne, a recent widow, is invited to Aldwinter in Essex by William and Stella Ransome via a mutual friend, Charles Ambrose. The model for Cora seems to be Marry Anning, an amateur palaeontologist who became famous for unearthing remarkable sea fossils earlier in the century. William is a country preacher, intelligent and level-headed, but isolated from sophisticated London tastes and new ideas. His wife, Stella, has tuberculosis.

News of the serpent spreads after the drowning of a young man. Like many superstitious beliefs, the story takes on a life of its own, and all manner of minor ailments and problems are attributed to the presence of the serpent, allegedly hiding in the estuary.

Of course, any modern reader would expect the fantastical story of a sea serpent to be debunked. However, the serpent resides in the senses and minds of almost all the characters throughout the story, although its presence, real or not, is not the main subject of the plot. Instead, the serpent becomes a metaphor for expressions of nineteenth century thought, as well as the basis for exploring character relationships which broaden traditional representations of the period.

One of the strengths of the novel, I have read, is that Perry tries to avoid nineteenth century stereotypes. John Fowles interrogated nineteenth century stereotypes of sexuality and relationships in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, as well as deconstructing the dominant role played by the author of the nineteenth century novel. However, Perry doesn’t render her character relationships quite as explicitly as Fowles, and her style borrows heavily from nineteenth century vernacular and cadence.

The relationship between William and Cora, for instance, exemplifies most of the novel’s concerns. Cora, recently widowed, finds herself in a friendship with the country reverend. Their relationship is mostly intellectual, but of the type that is driven by sexual frisson. Perry gives us an insight into both their minds, through the narrative voice as well as a series of letters that punctuate the story. William Ransome is disturbed by Cora’s presence, and grapples with his feelings for his sick wife whom he realises has never inspired intellectual debate and the feelings this inspires in him. For her part, Cora finds herself attracted to William, but having survived a crushing marriage, she is loath to place herself in the power of another man.

Their relationship plays out that old argument from the nineteenth century of rationalism and belief. It is of contemporary interest because the issues are still the basis of a lot of social polemic. The Essex serpent, like the Loch Ness monster, seems a conjuring of superstitious and ignorant minds. But in the era of Darwin and the discoveries based on fossil finds of the animals of prehistory, Cora is willing to believe there may be a rational basis for the story. William, a member of the clergy who advocates rational thought, is unwilling to entertain the possibility of a real serpent, and tries to discourage superstitious belief and hysteria. This is one of the interesting aspects of the story, that it acknowledges that thinking in the nineteenth century was not binary, and the debates about Darwinism inspired complex, not singular thinking.

This is reflected in other characters throughout the novel. Luke Garrett, who is in love with Cora, is a surgeon who gains fame through a successful heart operation on a knife victim. His unrequited love is set against the success of the surgery, highlighting the irony of the mysteries of the heart and the supposed certainties that science offers. There is also Charles Ambrose, a rich socialite responsible for introducing Cora to William Ransome, who adheres to Social Darwinist doctrines popular at the time. Ambrose, exposed to the miseries of the London poor by Cora’s friend, Martha, does not see social injustice, the failure of capitalism or the education system, but the natural selection of humanity:

Nothing inclined Charles Ambrose to Darwinism more than walking the narrow streets of Bethnal Green. He saw there not equals separated from him only by luck and circumstance, but creatures born ill-equipped to survive the evolutionary race … Why were so many of them so short? Why did they screech and bellow from windows and from balconies? And why, at noon, were so many drunk? Turning down the alley, twitching his fine linen coat closer, he felt much as he might if viewing them through iron bars. This is not to say that he felt no compassion: even animals in zoos should have their cages cleaned. (279)

Charles’s lack of compassion for the poor is balanced in the story by Martha, an ardent socialist, who inspires the love of Garrett’s friend, Spencer, as well as his support for her project to improve the lot of the poor. In this way, Perry is able to explore the wider implications of rational and scientific thought on the community of the time.

However, it seems to me that this is not new ground. Perry’s execution is excellent but I didn’t think the novel was as insightful or original as has been suggested. Fowles, I believe, was far more inventive in exposing myths about Victorian thinking, and I think there were novels and plays of the time at least as socially progressive. Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879) was radical in its representation of female independence, given the decision of Nora Helmer to leave Torvald at the end of the play, or Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper (1892), a short story that detailed the repressive control of a husband during a woman’s illness, driving her to mental breakdown.

Perry seems to cover most aspects of modern association with the nineteenth century, including the dreaded disease, tuberculosis. William Ransome’s wife, Stella, becomes increasingly sick throughout the novel. However, there was nothing in Perry’s portrayal of Stella’s illness that spoke like Gilman’s story to me. This was one aspect of the text I thought a little cliched. I remember Susan Sontag’s essay, Illness as a Metaphor, which discusses the characterisation of disease in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Tuberculosis was the disease of the nineteenth century and was associated with a heightened sensibility of feeling, particularly since it killed John Keats, the Romantic poet. Cancer, Sontag asserts, is the disease of the twentieth century, and is associated with negative emotion, repression and the modern world. I don’t see Perry looking beyond this stereotype much. Stella is accorded a heightened sense of beauty through her collection of blue objects (which can, apparently, be a manifestation of the disease) as well as her connection with Cora’s peculiar son, Francis. I think Perry attempts to look beyond this Romantic association somewhat through Stella’s interest in seeing her diseased cells through a microscope, but her actions and sensibility throughout the novel do not suggest any complex deconstruction of the disease’s mystique. In fact, I think Perry accords Stella a semi-mystical (if somewhat self-deceiving) connection with the Essex serpent. She believes the beast calls to her, and she feels drawn toward it. Stella’s concerns move beyond the physical world. She even seems willing to cede her husband to Cora, well aware of their attraction, in a manner that is represented as self-effacing, even saintly.

Stella is not the only character connected in some way to the serpent. William is perplexed by an old carving of the serpent on one of his church pews and constantly talks against superstition. Cora sees the possibility of scientific discovery. Francis finds mystery and connection at the thought of the serpent. Luke Garrett contemplates the coiled snake, the symbol of his profession on his belt. The village people are drawn back to superstition and the serpent becomes a metaphor for all that lurks beneath the surface of life, and all that promises misery. The story represents a community informed both by scientific advancement and the vagaries of human imagination and fear. But for all the talk of the serpent, it seems to represent sexual repression or an unnamed existential threat traditionally characterised by the serpent in Genesis.

I thought Perry’s writing is a convincing nineteenth century style and the characters have psychological depth and complexity. I wondered about the novel’s denouement, however, and what it means; whether it is satisfying for a modern audience. There is a neatness to it that denies the realities the novel portrays, throughout. In the end, even the landlord addresses the squalid conditions of his tenants and fails to raise their rents, making us suppose by this stroke that the lot of the London poor, in general, is dealt with as neatly as all the other disparate aspects of the plot in the last few pages. As though by debunking superstition, science and liberal progressive thinking have now come to reign. I found the ending simplistic, and it made me wonder whether the author hasn’t strayed too far from the romanticising of her period, after all. The nineteenth century in Perry’s hands, may be little more than a quaint retreat from the twenty-first, despite the real problems the characters encounter. Perhaps its popularity in British bookshops was due to its offering of cultural nostalgia rather than a modern reimagining. Because of this, I feel I have read nineteenth-century novels that are more modern than this.

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