For a book in which everyone stays firmly on land and the only boat in sight is a skeletal wreck, the sea still plays a major role in “The Essex Serpent,” a historical novel by Sarah Perry that was a surprise best-seller in Britain last year.At the book’s center is the serpent, seen 300 years ago and believed to have returned. In the coastal village of Aldwinter, the threat is fueled by portents and signs, rumors of drownings and disappearances. A village elder has taken to hanging skinned moles from the fences to repel the monster, and the children, led by the vicar’s daughter, gather in the skeletal hold of a beached shipwreck to cast spells.
Set in 1893, the book opens with Cora Seaborne, a young widow from London recently freed by the death of her abusive husband. Independent both socially and financially, Cora snaps the chains that bound upper-class women. She avoids society, abandons her corset, wears men’s coats and heavy boots, tramps the countryside, and pursues her interest in the ancient bones that the sea was uncovering at the time. She is inspired by Mary Anning, who years before discovered many ancient creatures, for which male scientists wrote the accounts and won the credit.
Supporting her are friends whose lives are mutually intertwined by desire, affection, and causes. Her companion, Martha, joined the household as nanny to Cora’s autistic son, and her impassioned socialism attracts the attention of the wealthy George Spencer. A dabbler in medicine, he befriends Dr. Luke Garrett, the brilliant surgeon in love with Cora, who nicknames him the Imp (think of a young Danny De Vito). Then there’s Charles and Katherine Ambrose, who knew Cora’s husband. Charles’ amiability serves him well in the government — Stephen Fry could play him in the movie version — and Martha swiftly enlists him in the cause of providing worker housing for the poor. These subplots occupy a significant portion of the book and don’t even get us to Aldwinter.
When Cora hears about the serpent, Charles offers a letter of introduction to the vicar, William Ransome, and his wife, who descent into blue-tinged dementia, a side effect of tuberculosis, forms a beautiful, melancholy subplot. What was anticipated by Cora and Will to be an unpleasant meeting — she envisioned “some bull-necked country curate all Calvin and corrections” and he dreaded “a wealthy woman’s dabbling in the natural sciences, probably to the detriment of her spiritual health” — turns into an unexpected meeting of minds. Cora wonders why an obviously intelligent man, “the disappointing brother of a Liberal MP,” serves God in a small country parish. Their mutual sympathy is disrupted when Cora’s scientific curiosity and rationalism clashes with Will’s refusal to believe the serpent is real.
But even before they meet, a quarter of the book has passed, and the unenthralled readers must be wondering what’s going on. There’s little dramatic action; characters meet, talk, and walk. The villagers worry about the serpent. Martha agitates for socialist reforms. Cora frets over her son, who quietly collects feathers, eggs, scraps of metal and silverware, and ignores her attempts to bond with him. We swim through their lives, observing a Victorian world where Darwin’s theories and the discovery of ancient fossils are driving the first cracks into the foundation of belief.
But patience, gentle reader! It’s not until the last quarter of the book that Perry sets off the narrative fireworks. Everything that happened before were fuses. By this time, you know them as friends, and you can be moved as lives are changed, secrets are revealed, and expectations are confounded. Charles Dickens would have applauded.
“The Essex Serpent” is an immersive read for patient readers. Based on her research — which she thankfully describes in a note — Perry constructed a Victorian world that feels as fresh as reality. These Victorians are not the stereotypical pious hypocrites or secretly lusting caricatures. They have hearts and smiles, casual and revealing conversation (to a limit; they’re not Americans, you know) and they experience wonder and pain in equal measures. This is a novel as voyage, and there’s not a wasted page in it.