By Katy Goodwin-Bates
Most readers of Fourth and Sycamore are probably unfamiliar with Essex, the southeastern English county in which Sarah Perry sets her second novel, The Essex Serpent, so allow me to provide a little modern day context, for which I am well-qualified, as a born and raised Essex girl. For reasons I’ve never quite understood, my people have a somewhat unfortunate reputation for loose morals, profligate use of tanning cosmetics and a less than impressive academic profile; conversely, we boast Britain’s oldest recorded town, a higher than average success rate in reality TV singing competitions, and such luminaries as Dame Maggie Smith and David Beckham among our numbers. So it’s a confusing cultural legacy to grow up with, as you can appreciate. However unfortunate this may be, however, it’s a minimal level of discomfort in comparison to the unhappy victim of an apparently monstrous waterbeast in the opening of Perry’s novel: an incident which sets a tone of horror that isn’t quite sustained throughout.
From this early violent event, Perry moves into the more civilised milieu of London in 1893, where Cora Seaborne is dealing with the recent death of her not-particularly-pleasant husband. Far from the grieving widow, Cora takes advantage of her newfound freedom to embark on a journey of both scientific and self-discovery; captivated by reports of the Essex Serpent, she travels to Colchester to investigate for herself. Thanks to my recent passion for forcing children’s books with a feminist agenda on my young daughter, I was already familiar with Cora’s inspiration: a woman called Mary Anning who is now credited with discovering a number of dinosaur remains but, sadly and predictably, who lived only to see men take the plaudits for her endeavors. The comparison is an interesting one; Cora, clearly tired of the oppression faced by women of the late 19th century, is something of a revolutionary, pursuing knowledge and recognition now that nobody can take it away from her.
Martha says I never looked odder or uglier, but you know I’ve always thought beauty a curse and am more than happy to dispense with it completely. Sometimes I forget that I’m a woman – at least – I forget to THINK OF MYSELF AS A WOMAN. All the obligations and comforts of womanhood seem to have nothing to do with me now. I’m not sure how I am supposed to behave and I’m not sure I would, if I knew.
Freed from the constraints of marriage and, consequently, the conventional expectations placed upon women, Cora becomes a particularly modern protagonist; engaging in flirtations but fearing the loss of self which would inevitably result in a more permanent union, she doesn’t always behave well but she is consistently appealing. It was only after finishing The Essex Serpent and reflecting on it that I came to appreciate how beguiling a character she is; often self-destructive, impetuous and difficult, Cora is nonetheless a compelling creation, if not always a sympathetic one.
I was surprised by how little Perry actually focuses on the titular serpent, engaging instead with the emotional complications of Cora’s actions, from a drawn-out frisson with a professionally ruthless doctor who finds himself consigned to her unloved London life, to the married reverend with whom she shares a deeper connection in deepest Essex. There are subplots of urban development and the treatment of the London poor, both of which seem irrelevant to the main plot until the reader realises the eponymous snake isn’t actually the main plot at all. I sought reassurance about the level of serpent-related content before reading Perry’s novel, as a consequence of my deeply-rooted antipathy towards anything slithery, so it seems only fair to warn my fellow ophidiophobics (I just Googled that, before anyone feels in awe of my knowledge of common fears) that, unless you’re scared of metaphorical monsters, you’re quite safe with The Essex Serpent.
“Everything is changing, Mrs Seaborne, and much for the better: but what use is it to try and stand on quicksand? We will stumble and fall, and in falling become prey to folly and darkness – these rumours of monsters are nothing more than evidence that we have let go of the rope that tethers us to everything that’s good and certain!”
The main aspect of the novel which has stayed with me is the quality of Perry’s writing: beautiful without being florid, the style of The Essex Serpent is something to be admired. As a document of social change, it’s a really intriguing piece of historical fiction, as well as something the tourist board of my home county should adopt to counterbalance the age-old stereotypes.