Sarah Perry’s Essex Serpent is a bizarre tale. It’s bizarre not because of its serpentine mystery, but because it’s a good novel when everything about it would say otherwise.
You couldn’t say that Essex Serpent is historical fiction or mystery or thriller, nor does it have a Victorian pastiche or the effervescent pall of fantasy about it. Or it does, but not quite. It’s a curious novel but one clearly meant for the present day, the present year, a sort of amalgamation of past place and present principle. It’s odd.
Set in England circa 1893, recent widow Cora Seaborne moves to the Essex town of Aldwinter after hearing about a strange creature as yet unseen but held responsible for a number of strange deaths. Cora, with a mind for archaeology and Mary Anning in her heart, wants to uncover the secret, what she supposes is an undiscovered species. While in Aldwinter, this former London lady meets the Reverend William Ransome and his wife, taking them by surprise with her easy friendship and sharp intellect.
Perry got us by the tail: such a summary fits to describe only a small part of her novel. The serpent is a gimmick. It’s more so a setting for her story of mismatched love than it is its impetus. Though emblazoned on its title page, the serpent is poorly written into the story itself apart from a bit of medical and Edenic imagery and it comes through as having no other object than to make the book marketable when few people want a book about intangible things.
And intangible things is exactly what Perry’s novel is about.
That thick Aldwinter fog swallows up the serpent pretty quick, and when it clears and we step with a sure foot back onto the marsh it’s to find ourselves leagues away from where we started.
It isn’t a bad shift, but it is a readjustment. Discomfiting at first, but we soon accept with a nod the new track of her story, though we paid for something else. Not many writers can steer a novel well after forcing its derailment, but Perry has a knack for writing our sensitivities and picking apart our subtler emotions. Once we’re realigned, now attune to a story of imperfect love, we’re quite happy to be along for the ride.
Perry understands relationships that can’t easily be defined: in writing a widow who can’t grieve, Perry’s Cora Seaborne outshines Chopin’s Edna Pontellier. Perry willed to life a son with no maternal attachment, and she wrote of bad timing in love, useful love, spurned affection, close friendships, marriage in substance if not the letter and of guilt in an affair that might actually be willfully sanctioned.
More than any serpent, Perry’s novel pursues these loves unashamedly. That we can’t force love, can’t choose to love, can’t choose whom to love, can’t deny love – these are the facets of her novel, and the backdrop of Victorian England proves the constancy and honesty of these loves in the human condition. We recognize them readily enough now, having made phrases to define them (friend zone, friends with benefits, FA), but rarely do we read a novel wherein these loves are placed in an era of more discreet feelings, an era of codified love so neat and organized or else of love suppressed.
With this new turn of her novel away from mystery and toward a study of hard loves we’ve ventured onto a new track than that for which we bought the ticket, but it’s a good detour. The only problem now is that it’s a track with no station in sight: there isn’t really an ending per se to The Essex Serpent. Nothing gets resolved. The serpent is a disappointment. It’s life as it always was, though maybe its participants understand it a little better. Maybe that’s the point: that these orphaned loves were felt but, bowing to the rules of their time, couldn’t be acted upon.
With The Essex Serpent, Perry got hold of the essence of things but then struggled with how to place it in a physical setting. That talent of hers is hard to see at first. We have to pick off the scales of a silly mystery and bat her hand away from its desperate grab at politics – her novel has an incipient social commentary that lacks the aid of rebuttal.
In fact, one of the biggest failings of her novel is its refusal to listen. Without the wry perspective and argument of, say, Dickens’ social novels or the wit and self-chastisement of Wharton’s, Perry’s lick at politics just feels like a catharsis of pent up frustration further emphasized by the chip-on-the-shoulder way she stuffs it into her novel. In many places Serpent is a chatterbox for modern feminism, and the burly man or the lady who likes pretty things is dismissed with a sneer. The complex and representative get boiled down into the archetypal sounding board, and it’s a big reason why Serpent is a book for today and not one for the ages.
Still, Perry’s an excellent writer who writes concisely and colorfully. She shunts time along with a practiced pen that tells us within the space of a few lines where each of her characters stands or feels each time a change, tangible or otherwise, occurs. She didn’t need to hide her purpose behind a parish town’s imaginary beast, and she didn’t need to dowse it in scrub politics.
There’s a lot wrong with The Essex Serpent but, inexplicably, it’s still good reading: not a bad mirage once we know what we’re looking at.
The Essex Serpent · Sarah Perry
Custom House, 2016 · 417 pages, hardcover