I enjoyed Sarah Perry’s eerie and dreamlike first novel, After Me the Deluge, and just finished her follow up novel, The Essex Serpent, an equally lush and sensuous read. The Essex Serpent takes place mostly in London and in the town of Colchester on the Essex Estuary in the early 1890s. It has a palpably Victorian feel and a leisurely but gripping Victorian pace in its 440-some pages.
The two main characters are Cora, a wealthy young widow obsessed with the new evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin, and Will, the Church of England vicar in the sleepy village near where Cora is spending the summer hunting fossils.
Cora had been married to a physically abusive civil servant and now revels in her freedom. Will is happily married, although it’s hard to ignore the author’s hints that his ethereal wife is seriously ill.
Will and Cora spend a good deal of time generously debating their opposing world views (“We both speak of illuminating the world,” Cora tells him, “but we have different sources of light.”) and of course they soon fall in love — unexpressed and unacknowledged…at least at first.
The serpent of the title is a mythical beast which was reported to have haunted the estuary in the 15th century and is believed by the townsfolk to have recently reawakened to torment them. They are consumed with reports of mangled sheep, drowned men and stolen children.
Will, a progressive cleric for his time is aghast at his parishioners’ superstition (“Our God is a God of reason and order, not of visitations in the night!” he thunders.) yet he secretly views the serpent as some sort of divinely malign manifestation of his lust for Cora.
As befits a good Victorian yarn, there is a host of beautifully drawn secondary characters: Luke, the surgeon who treated Cora’s late husband (and may or may not have hastened his demise since he is deeply in love with her); Cora’s son Francis, the “baffling boy” who has what we would now know as autism; Martha, Francis’ nanny and Cora’s homoerotic “companion,” a dedicated Socialist who uses a wealthy suitor’s money and influence to advance the progressive cause; and many more.
The Essex Serpent is a thoughtful, atmospheric and fully satisfying read. Despite its Victorian trappings much of it has a contemporary ring to it with themes of gender roles and gender fluidity, untrammled capitalism, income inequality, ecological concerns, disturbing scientific advances and the madness of crowds.
I can’t wait to see where Sarah Perry takes us on her next fictional journey.