Writing Historical Fiction with a Victorian setting in the 21st century is a battle with cliches. Will it be a comedy of manners, a dive into the seedy underbelly, a safari into the past, where we can point and gape at how they lived ‘back then’. In her Author’s Note to her novel The Essex Serpent, Perry as good as outlines her manifesto for the novel by thanking the authors who for her “opened the door to a Victorian age so like our own I am almost persuaded I remember it”. In The Essex Serpent, Perry has no interest in exoticising the difference of the past. Instead, her characters all embody difference facets of a culture so similar to our own. With the devices of knife attack, housing reform and that eponymous serpent, Perry sets then spinning into each other’s orbit.
The novel’s heroine is Cora Seaborne, who begins the novel as a new widow gladly freeing herself from her abusive civil servant husband with natural history. News reaches London of a serpent returned to the Essex marshes and frightening the villagers. To Cora the serpent is an ichthyosaur and heads to Essex the idea of catching it and having her name on its exhibit in the British Museum. But to the vicar of the serpent-worried village of Aldwinter it is a nuisance superstition, and to his wife Stella it becomes a cause of her tuberculosis-induced euphoria or spes phthisica. The book is about preconceived notions as much as it is about a serpent. Each character has their own idea of the serpent, and Perry uses it as a deus ex machina to bring together her varied characters from the consumptive and the autistic boy to the reverend and the lady naturalist. The novel is no creature feature, though the (double) reveal of the identity serpent is dealt with masterfully and suspensefully, it is largely to fill plot holes than to delight in strange beasts.
The novel ranges around the varied landscape of the Victorian world with intellectual honesty, Perry resists sneering or caving to cultural relativism. It is a novel that couldn’t have been written at any other time than the present, as the 21st century narrative voice, language and dialogue peppered with first names reminds the reader. In Perry’s novel, rebels aren’t crushed under the weight of social convention as they might in a Victorian novel; Cora is a very modern liberated woman; as a wealthy widow can wear men’s clothes or ballgowns when she sees fit without consequence. Cora is everything Tess of Tess of the D’Urbevilles isn’t, the last line of the novel shows her having it all, “I love and I am content without you”. Some of the other female characters, such as Cora’s socialist maid Martha and the rector’s daughter, a budding intellectual are on the way to shedding the chains of femininity and are successful. Even the madwoman of the novel, Stella, does not have her illness madness induced by a cruel husband and an oppressive society, a la “The Yellow Wallpaper”, but rather by simple organic disease. The modernity of the female characters means that Perry mostly sidesteps tackling what gender means and how it limits her characters within their society.
Similarly, there I feel that there is something lacking in the depiction of science in the novel. The reviews I read of the book gave the impression that it would be a novel about a female Victorian palaeontologist. But whilst palaeontology gets Cora to Aldwinter and science draws together her and Rev. William Ransome, a man betwixt science and faith throughout the novel, it extends little beyond a plot device. Cora’s scientific awakening isn’t told with the awe and wonder found in autobiographies of science, instead Cora spends her time collecting shells, not in reverential awe at nature or concocting her own theories, and science is dropped as one of Cora’s fad towards the end of the novel. The passages on her long walks through Essex are much more engaging and emotionally evocative piece of nature writing, but the flatness of her scientific interest does a disservice to novel’s theme of the Victorian clash of science and faith.
More engaging were the unexpected sub-plots of the novel. Perry adds in the an interesting subplot about the history of surgery, manifest in the figure of the surgeon Dr Luke Garrett, “friendzoned” by Cora. He is a phenomenally skilled surgeon and sews up the pericardium of a man stabbed in the heart who would otherwise be left for dead. But this feat brings greater problems for Luke and he is brought to earth by rejection and one of the worst injuries a surgeon could sustain. The mysteries and miracles of Victorian surgery are conveyed well, and earn the book its place on the Wellcome Book Prize longlist. Additionally, I loved the way autism was treated in the novel. Of course the word is never mentioned, but Cora’s son Francis has all the hallmarks of an Asperger’s-like condition; the emotional distance, the obsession with collecting “treasures” and so on. Francis is treated with understanding by the characters and has a shadowy existence throughout much of the novel. Late in the novel he develops a friendship with the reverend’s wife, Stella, who is similarly driven to collect blue “treasures” in her spes phthisica, and find some solace in each other. This is part of Perry’s broader genius with this work; in her plotting she guides the needles to knit the disparate strings of her characters together in friendship; romantic, platonic and everything else these labels don’t cover. The novel’s structure is perfectly rounded and more importantly deeply humane, conveying a deep and unsentimental belief in the goodness and kindness of humanity.
For more on The Essex Serpent, see the publisher’s website, and the website of the Wellcome Book Prize.