The Essex Serpent
I was given The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry in July as part of a fabulous set of leaving gifts from my former colleagues at the Institute for Government. It’s a book I probably wouldn’t have got around to buying, as it is set in the marshy, flat landscape of coastal Essex – not my usual landscape of choice of towering cliffs and rocky coves, or woods and hills. This was, therefore, a very well chosen gift indeed, as it is one of the best pieces of historical fiction I’ve read for ages.
The story centres around Cora Seaborne after the death of her husband in 1893, when she escapes London with her politically enlightened companion Martha and son Francis (who today would probably be diagnosed as autistic) to Essex, to give herself some space to decide what to do next with her life. Here she is introduced to a local clergyman William Ransome who shares her keen interest in science and natural history and she moves to the village of Aldwinter to spend increasing amounts of time with him, his family and the landscape.
But dark forces are at work in the village and rumours of a serpent in the waters abound. As a man is found drowned, a young girl goes missing and other misfortunes befall the villages, the school girls are whipped into a frenzy of fear and visions, which Cora inadvertently plays a part in creating. Meanwhile the vicar’s wife Stella is ailing of a mysterious illness and Cora’s London surgeon friend steps in to try and help.
This is a fascinating novel, with a rich cast of characters finding their way through the scientific discoveries and societal shifts of modernity in the late Victorian era, set in a beautifully evoked landscape of mud flats, woods and murky mists of the Essex coast. The end came all too soon for me and I was left wanting to spend more time in this mystical world.