The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
Genres: Historical Fiction, Fiction
Maturity Level: 4+
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Set in Victorian London and an Essex village in the 1890’s, and enlivened by the debates on scientific and medical discovery which defined the era, The Essex Serpent has at its heart the story of two extraordinary people who fall for each other, but not in the usual way.
They are Cora Seaborne and Will Ransome. Cora is a well-to-do London widow who moves to the Essex parish of Aldwinter, and Will is the local vicar. They meet as their village is engulfed by rumours that the mythical Essex Serpent, once said to roam the marshes claiming human lives, has returned. Cora, a keen amateur naturalist is enthralled, convinced the beast may be a real undiscovered species. But Will sees his parishioners’ agitation as a moral panic, a deviation from true faith. Although they can agree on absolutely nothing, as the seasons turn around them in this quiet corner of England, they find themselves inexorably drawn together and torn apart.
The Essex Serpent was one of those books that was obviously trying to be “literature” and attempting to win awards, but I’m not sure it succeeded. Instead of feeling like beautiful prose, to me it came off as pretentious and contrived. I mean, it’s all right there in the description, isn’t it? “Two extraordinary people”. What’s so extraordinary about them?
Really, that’s the question. Why is everyone in love with Cora? What’s so special about her? It was one of those things where we were told she had a magnetic personality, rather than her actually having a magnetic personality. If anything, she was rather ordinary. Not particularly smart, clever, beautiful, or kind. Just … average.
However, as far as historical fiction went, I enjoyed The Essex Serpent. It was nice seeing late-Victorian England from a point-of-view other than London society. Essex and the marshes were a new part of England for me, and I really enjoyed reading about the kind of lives country folk would have led. Cora’s forays into natural history were also interesting to me, although I wish she would have gone into more detail.
I didn’t like how Perry allowed modern political viewpoints to creep into Victorian England. Particularly feminism and liberalism. I understand that socialism was a major movement, and I don’t take offense with the descriptions of that political movement. However, it was all tinged with 21st century ideas, and that bugged me.
This is not a fast paced book. It’s more about characters than it is about a story. Everything takes time to happen and unravel. Often I found my brain would be jumping several chapters ahead as a result, which led to me frequently knowing what was going to happen before it did. But I suspect that was purposeful, as the main characters seem unaware of their own feelings, and how their actions will affect those around them. Still, this would not be a good choice for someone who doesn’t enjoy a slow-moving stroll through history.
Overall I enjoyed The Essex Serpent, but not nearly as much as I expected it to. I liked it in spite of the writing rather than because of it. I would recommend it to historical fiction lovers, but probably not to anyone else.