The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry review – a compulsive novel of ideas

An Essex village is terrorised by a winged leviathan in a gothic Victorian tale crammed with incident, character and plot

In Sarah Perry’s second novel, 1890s London is mad about the sciences, especially palaeontology. Every six months someone publishes a paper “setting out ways and places extinct animals might live on”, while smart women collect ammonites or wear necklaces of fossil teeth set in silver. New widow Cora Seagrave is patently relieved by the death of her unpleasant husband, a civil servant with “twice the power of a politician and none of the responsibility”; accompanied by her socialist companion Martha and her autistic son Francis, she leaves the capital for the wilds of Essex. There, “never sure of the difference between thinking and believing”, she hears of the Essex Serpent, a folktale apparently come to life and terrorising the Blackwater estuary; and meets its spiritual adversary, the rector of Aldwinter, William Ransome, with whom she is soon entangled in a relationship of voluble opposition and unspoken attraction.

Perry’s excellent debut, After Me Comes the Flood, was short and strange, narrated out of a sensibility difficult to define or place, from a distance that seemed both alienated and intimate. Scenes shifted filmily across one another, characters slipped in and out of view, the effect being of something not fully told, yet fully present; not quite visible, yet producing a troubled enchantment. The Essex Serpent, by contrast, is fully acted out. Fertile, open, vocal about its own origins and passions, crammed with incident, characters and plot, it weighs in at a sturdy 441 pages. It is a novel of ideas, though its sensibility is firmly, consciously, even a little cheekily, gothic. The dreamy delivery of the previous book becomes, in this one, outright story. Narrative and voice coil together until it is very difficult to stop reading, very difficult to avoid being dragged into Aldwinter’s dark and sometimes darkly comic waters.

Since the discovery after new year celebrations of a drowned man, “naked, his head turned almost 180 degrees, a look of dread in his eyes”, the village has felt itself “under judgment”. Why has the serpent – which last terrorised the locality with its leathery wings and snapping beak in 1669 – returned? What have the villagers done wrong? They’re a simple, pagan lot, stringing up dead animals to scare it off, hanging horseshoes in the branches of a tree known as Traitor’s Oak. Even the children are performing rituals, down by the water. With Cora’s arrival, everything ramps up, and an outbreak of madness at the school leads to a disastrous attempt to hypnotise the rector’s daughter. A winged leviathan “with eyes like a sheep”, which causes men to lose their reason and never find it again: the author’s glee at all this hugger-mugger is barely hidden.

Perry artfully exploits her monster’s symbolic potential, leaving the reader to sort the many subtexts from the good red herrings, displaying both with a collectorly enthusiasm, on equal terms. It’s a trick of the light, a tale told to frighten children, a story sold to tourists; it’s an upwelling of individual or collective guilt, a blatant sexual symbol hauling itself like Bram Stoker’s White Worm out of the Blackwater estuary in convulsions of Victorian anxiety. It’s an Aesculapian metaphor and a cheerful pastiche of “eerie England”. In some lights and on some days, according to whose point of view Perry is inhabiting at the time, it represents nothing less than the Essex landscape – its coils being the Blackwater’s moods and weathers, the skilfully depicted serpentine passage of its year. For Cora, a woman who wants more from life than choosing a skirt to wear at the Savoy, it is less a serpent than the possibility of a genuine Palaeozoic survival, a living ichthyosaur – a taste of the surprise, the delight, the opening-out of the world promised by feminism and the death of her husband. For the rector of Aldwinter, it is a nuisance.

Sarah Perry
Sarah Perry. Photograph: Jamie Drew

In reducing the certainties of his parishioners, William believes, science has left them deep in explanatory failure. People need the security of religion, or they begin to invent demons. Besides, he says, geology and evolution are only today’s intellectual fads; tomorrow, something else will come along, and then something else again, theory replacing theory and nothing settled. We need God, he believes, if we are to remain rational. Cora’s modernity, meanwhile, confuses him further. She is rich and attractive, but dresses like a bag lady and so energetically breaks stones in search of specimens that the air around her reeks of cordite. She hasn’t so much lost her faith, as willingly given it up in exchange for the freedom to think. There are “no fewer miracles,” she tells him, “in the microscope than in the gospels”. They already agree on this, in a way: their oppositions so obviously stem from a shared immersion in the Victorian sublime, the fall into the “miracle” of the natural world.

But, of course, there is more to folie à deux than a sense of wonder, and intellectual attraction can cover a multitude of sins. Eventually they strike sparks off each other once too often, as we knew they would. The consequences ripple away to perturb their circle of friends: Luke Garrett, London’s finest young surgeon, whose hands are so clever he can sew up a pericardial sac, desperately in love with Cora since page one; George Spencer, a rich man trying to approach socialism through his doomed admiration for Cora’s companion; the rector’s beautiful wife Stella, racked with consumption, who writes in her diary, “HE sent the serpent into Eden’s beflowered garden/and he sends it now and the penance must be paid … ”; Charles and Katherine Ambrose, high-ranking conservatives with hearts of gold, who, safe and secure, will always do their generous best to pick up the pieces nearest, dearest or most familiar to them. Inadvertent emotional damage is the novel’s other major theme. “What use,” Francis the autistic child asks at one point, crawling out from under the table, “to observe the human species and try to understand it? Their rules were fathomless and no more fixed than the wind.”

This volatility infects the politics of the novel: the narrative, moving restlessly between the city and the marshes, concerns itself increasingly with “the problem of London”, the relationship between governance, business and poverty summed up in slum renting, slum life – the endless, insoluble matter of how privilege can be persuaded to act outside its own interests, or even see beyond its own limits. In the tenement dwellers of Bethnal Green, Charles Ambrose – otherwise, we are led to believe, a decent man – sees “not equals separated from him only by luck and circumstance, but creatures born ill-equipped to survive the evolutionary race”. From this distance it seems impossible to give him the benefit of the doubt. Perry extends her considerable generosity not just to her characters but to the whole late Victorian period, with its fears for the present and curious faith in the future; at the same time she is asking clearly, how do we do better than that? Life is an excitable medium. Every thoughtless act knocks on. How do we forgive, mend, give ourselves space to breathe, move forward?

• M John Harrison’s latest novel is Empty Space (Gollancz). To order The Essex Serpent for £11.99 (RRP £14.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

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M John Harrison

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