There are quite a few in Sarah Perry’s new novel The Essex Serpent which is being described as Dickens meets Stoker. It is a clever read, refreshing and unexpected and very satisfying.
In 1669, a pamphlet was published in Saffron Waldon. Strange News out of Essex or The Winged Serpent informed the horrified public that a beast, wettish, serpentish, deathly – and with wings! – was on the prowl in the soggy and mysterious Essex marshlands. The pamphlet was re-printed in the late nineteenth-century by Robert MiIller Christie, when the snakey creature was once more rumoured to be abroad.
Truely. You can see the pages in the Saffron Walden Museum.
Starting her story in 1893, Sarah Perry sends her unusual heroine, her odd child and his socialist-activist nanny off to Essex to chase the beastie, after quickly dispatching her ill husband in the first couple of chapters. Cora is frankly relieved that he is dead (there are enough darkly alluded to sadistic and nasty moments between them that we are quite pleased too), and being a modern woman of enquiring mind, excited by the new ideas of Darwin and the discoveries of fossils on the English coasts, she is determined to see whether the animal is perhaps a living fossil, perhaps an ichthyosaur, or just a folktale frightening benighted marsh-dwelling peasants. There is a brilliant, envelope-pushing surgeon, in thrall to her since he was doctoring her husband and his wealthy doctor friend who fancies the socialist nanny and tries to impress her by crusading against London’s noisome slums. There is a fun member of parliament and his wife who introduce Cora to an Essex vicar and his fairy-like wife, and their charming children, who are all trying to live in a world threatened by both serpents and science.
There is lots of love, perhaps the most touching between the two medical friends, who support each other through thick and thin, a touch of desire and much sparkling playing with ideas and clever talk.The ending is not what you expect yet it is exactly right. Cora is great: charming, intelligent, fierce and real. Her son is unusual and fascinating. I do hope that there is a sequel sometime, I’d really like to see what happens to everyone.
It was lovely to read, it felt quite unusual and special, and it has the most beautiful cover, you can feel the embossed scales under your fingertips as you read…