It can be infuriating, the way some people talk of the Victorians. “Oh, they were just like us!” they insist, trying their best to reassure themselves, as well as everyone else. But while this may well be true in the sense that of course our ancestors experienced anger and jealousy, happiness and sadness and lust, it’s also to ignore the fact that they were troubled by codes and moralities we struggle to understand; that their grasp of the world was altogether different to our own; that the Victorians were, in summary, very weird indeed. In my eyes, to do this is to reduce them. Far from making them seem more “relevant”, it renders them less interesting, less vivid and less real.
How does Apple TV’s adaptation of Sarah Perry’s bestselling novel The Essex Serpent fare on this score? In the weirdness stakes, I’m going to give it a stern six out of ten. This isn’t to say that I’m not enjoying it, because I am. If Perry’s book is a novel of sensation posing as a novel of ideas, then Anna Symon’s screenplay is more of the same; if you’re after melodrama, you’re in the right place. And it looks exquisitely creepy: not only the stinking Essex marshes, permanently cloaked in a disorientating mist, but the interiors, too, all mahogany, casual taxidermy and loudly ticking clocks. Like Perry, its director, Clio Barnard (The Arbor, The Selfish Giant), recognises that, in the gothic, buildings are as intensely potent as landscapes; they can be both prisons and places of refuge. But I still feel that everyone – or almost everyone – is too modern by far, and for this reason the plot never quite sweeps me away.
It is 1893. Cora Seaborne (Claire Danes) is a recently widowed young woman with a small, odd son called Frankie and a passion for naturalism. Liberated from the control of her violent husband, she reads newspaper reports of a “sea dragon” reputed to be abroad in Essex and determines to travel there, convinced that it is a plesiosaur, or some other creature that has swerved evolution (Cora is a follower of Darwin’s friend, the geologist Charles Lyell). But in the wilds of Essex, forthright females do not go down quite so well as they might in London. Even her closest ally in the tiny village of Aldwinter, its dashing and educated vicar, Will Ransome (Tom Hiddleston), is wary of her arguments, for if the beast is real, how will he reassure his terrorised congregation, who believe the serpent to be an incarnation of the devil?
Lots of things follow from this clash of faiths, and I don’t want to spoil them for you. Suffice to say that some are more plausible than others. Yes, there were radical Victorians: think of the two great Georges, Eliot and Gissing, and of how they lived their lives. But in The Essex Serpent, to be middle class is, it seems, automatically to be daring – revolutionary, even – and it feels a bit much. Cora’s doctor friend and admirer Luke Garrett (Frank Dillane) performs life-saving heart surgery; her companion Martha (Hayley Squires) is a Marxist; Will’s wife, Stella (Clémence Poésy), is his “equal” in all things. Cora wears trousers with braces when she’s out digging for fossils, which is fine by me. But I baulked when she gatecrashes, alone, a funeral wake, and Danes delivers every line she speaks with an uncommon breeziness, as if her character’s inclinations involve no nervousness whatsoever on her part and could not possibly jeopardise her position in the world, which seems entirely wrong. Wouldn’t Cora be more cautious? Wouldn’t she better manage the risk that comes with such proto-feminism?
The greater problem, though, lies with Ransome. If Tom Hiddleston is my kind of priest – in his knitted scarf, which looks like he picked it up at Paul Smith, he makes me all too painfully aware of my sinful soul – this may be in part because his character’s thinking is so woolly; he would do just fine in the 21st-century Church of England. Why on earth has this forward-thinking man removed himself to the land of eels and oysters, where women burn sacrifices to the God they have displeased, and the curate believes Satan may be effectively repelled with a fence? When Ransome tells his parishioners that “God lives in doubt”, that at the moments of greatest darkness His light will burn the most brightly, I’m afraid that I struggle to buy it, however hard Hiddleston frowns, his brow as deeply furrowed as the silvery estuary close by.
The Essex Serpent
This article appears in the 18 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Nato