From Celtic mythology and the malevolent, sheep-eating Lambton Worm of Durham to Bram Stoker’s Lair of the White Worm and Ken Russell’s outlandish film adaptation, the serpent has a potent mythological status that is deeply embedded in British and Irish folklore. In The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry harnesses the power of this unknowable creature to drive a novel that is a fitting addition to the genre.
Reviewers of her 2014 debut, After Me Comes the Flood, noted Perry’s strict Baptist upbringing, during which her formative cultural intake was limited almost entirely to the Bible and classical literature – but it is in her second novel that these core influences are given free rein. Lest we forget, Gilgamesh loses his power of immortality to a snake, while the hissing hustler of Genesis tricks Adam and Eve into exile from the Garden of Eden. Even if she didn’t have access in her youth to the schlocky folk-horror films of the 1970s, for Perry, it seems that the figure of the snake was unavoidable.
Set in the 1890s, The Essex Serpent writhes amid the confluence of conflicting modes of thought that made that era so fascinating and forward-thinking. The enlightened, late-Victorian strand of thinking is slowly embracing myriad theories posited by the recently departed Charles Darwin and Charles Lyell. Butting up against all this reason and pragmatism is a dusty old English take on Christianity that is mindful of God and the threat of the serpent to His order. And beneath it all is something far more insidious and inexplicable: persistent rumours and sightings of a winged serpent out in the moiling salt waters and sparse marshes of the Blackwater Estuary.
The characters reflect these disparate strands. There is the impish, pioneering London surgeon Luke Garrett and the vicar Will Ransome, who can’t abide even the effigy of a snake that is carved on to one of his pews, much less the ungodly talk among heathen locals in the Essex village of Aldwinter of an actual sea monster and the influence it is having on Ransome’s tubercular wife. Most memorable is Cora Seaborne, an urbane and wealthy wanderer and amateur geologist whose husband has recently died, and who has a vitality that sparks from the pages. Between them, a network of infatuation and love emerges.
Now a national nature reserve, these eerie boglands of Essex surrounding the fictional village are a world away from the common perceptions of the county. Here, we find a “foreign shore” (“You may require a phrasebook,” one character warns), a place of “kissing-gates and croats and acres of tidal land they call the saltings” and children with webbing between their fingers.
Taking place over the course of a year that begins with the discovery of a drowned man – naked, his head turned 180 degrees, his eyes wide with dread – and continues with Cora relocating to the county’s outer reaches in search of adventure, The Essex Serpent is a heady account of contrasts. Faith and medicine, myth and science, romance and ritual, rural vigour and the urban squalor of east London: all of these exist in opposition to each other.
Perry writes like someone of another time. Her free-flowing prose is that of a stylist capable of evoking the high drama of the end-of-empire years and reflecting the late-Victorian setting without resorting to pastiche. It is breathlessly poetic one moment, considered the next.
As the tension increases with portents such as “a plague of cuckoo-spit in the gardens” and “a cat aborting its kittens on the hearth”, The Essex Serpent recalls variously the earthiness of Emily Brontë, the arch, high-tensile tone of Conan Doyle, the evocation of time and place achieved by Hilary Mantel and Sarah Waters and the antiquarian edgelands horror of M R James.
As in the work of James, the England of Chelmsford-born Perry is one of half-myths, secrets unearthed and meddlesome outsiders, where sea and sky can induce anxiety and old ways are troubled by new ideas. Her humour is dry, too, boasting such lines as: “Her mother had lived long enough to be disappointed in her daughter’s failure to be disappointed.” She has an especially keen eye for scents, colours, flavours and details: splashes of mud on the hem of a skirt, or lingering glances. All these collude to elevate The Essex Serpent into a suspenseful love story, though one imagines Perry modestly blushing into a nosegay at the merest hint of such a well-deserved compliment.
Ben Myers’s novel “Turning Blue” will be published by Moth in August
The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry is published (aptly!) by Serpent’s Tail (424pp, £14.99)