The Essex Serpent
I am a sucker for a good historical novel with a female protagonist; therefore, Sarah Perry's The Essex Serpent immediately captivated me. Set in Victorian England - I loved this line from the NYT Book Review - "it’s part ghost story and part natural history lesson, part romance and part feminist parable. It’s wonderfully dense and serenely self-assured. I found it so transporting that 48 hours after completing it, I was still resentful to be back home." Focused in on Cora Seaborne, whose abusive husband has just died, Perry tells a tale of finding oneself outdoors. She moves from London to Essex and spends her days exploring the countryside for fossils. There, she encounters the tale of the Essex Serpent, the winged serpent said to haunt villagers. The story is based on a pamphlet about the Essex Serpent, as Perry writes in the British Library blog:
....A pamphlet printed at Clerkenwell in 1669, which relates the appearance of “a Monstrous Serpent”. The pamphlet goes on to show “the length, proportion, the bigness of the Serpent, the places where it commonly lurks and what means hath been used to kill it.” I’m still uncertain why this pamphlet detonated my imagination in quite the way it did, but four years later I’d completed a novel in which the Essex Serpent returns to menace the 1890’s coastal village of Aldwinter.
Perry deals with the relationship between science and religion - in the form of the character of William Ransome, a local vicar, who argues with Cora about faith and the mythical beast. I thought the book was full of great characters - Cora's son's socialist nanny, Martha, especially stood out to me - and it reaffirmed to me the importance of reading female authors. My only complaint is that Perry dwelled a little too much on symbolism and that made parts of her prose hard to get through.
However, I felt transported to the marshes of England and felt that I was seeing the world through the eyes of Cora, a newly liberated woman. Rating: ★★★★