January Book Club: The Essex Serpent
Welcome to our first book club choice of 2022!
I’ve seen the brightly coloured green and gold cover of Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent around often since it’s publication in 2016, but only decided to pick it up off the bookshop shelf a few weeks ago. It completely surprised me, as all the best books tend to!
This is a book that defies a normal plot summary, because of its many vibrant and different threads of plot. It focuses on Cora Seaborne, released from her abusive marriage by the death of her politician husband. Willing to escape the confines of higher class Victorian London society, she travels to Devon to indulge her passion in ammonites. However, there she hears legends of the Essex Serpent, a winged leviathan “with eyes like a sheep”. In her quest to find out the truth behind the fearful village whispers she meets the local rector, William Ransome.
Just as it defies a simple plot summary (the above is just about as basic as it gets), the novel also defies an easy insertion into a particular genre. The descriptions of the collective terror the village experiences and the creepy goings-on are definitely reminiscent of Victorian gothic literature, echoing the genius of writers like Wilkie Collins and Mary Shelley. But the book is also a romance between Cora and the rector Ransome, who argue fiercely about the comparisons between reason and religion, science and faith: ‘They sharpen themselves on each other, each by turn is blade and whetstone.” Refreshingly, their romance is based on intellectual capabilities and their love for nature rather than basic physical attraction.
The beauty of the natural world is a theme repeatedly turned to, as a direct contrast to the world of science, discovery and research that is also touched upon in the novel. The Victorians were at a tipping point: they were making great leaps in science and invention, but at the same time held seances and believed in the supernatural. This struggle between the two beliefs is highlighted here between the figureheads of Cora and Ransome. The rector feels ‘his faith deeply, and above all out of doors, where the vaulted sky was his cathedral nave and the oaks its transept pillars’. Perry makes the point, as her characters also come to realise, that the two don’t need to be mutually exclusive: one can have faith and believe in miracles, but still believe in the physical substance and evolution of the natural world.
Although so many different ideas and themes are crammed into this book, which comes in at a sturdy 441 pages, it is it’s characters which anchor the reader to the narrative. Each is individual enough to feel like a real person, purposefully swaying away from any trace of stereotype. Cora states ‘I’ve freed myself from the obligation to try and be beautiful, and I was never more happy.’ It’s impossible not to root for her and the rector Ransome. Forgetting the monsters and medical miracles and political upheaval, the simple struggle of these two characters to come to terms with their own views of the world is what makes the book so impactful.
We loved reading this novel this month and are so excited to discuss it with you- please tell us what you thought via social media or by commenting on this post!