Cleaving hearts

This is my review of The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry.

This imaginative yarn set in the 1890s revolves around Cora Seaborne, the unconventional young widow who acknowledges her sense of relief over the death of a sadistic husband. Within days of his demise, she has left the bustle of London with its sharp social divisions for the stark beauty of the Essex coast, often obscured by shifting mists, accompanied by Martha, the competent nanny who never left and son Francis, who would nowadays be considered autistic. With his inability to show the normal affection of a child, and his obsession with collecting objects, Francis is a continual source of puzzled concern, but Cora obtains emotional support from Martha, who manages to combine this with her commitment to persuading wealthy men like her admirer Spencer to invest in the replacement of the London slums with decent housing for workers.

It being the 1890s, Cora is thought to have a “masculine mind”. Although a wealthy woman with the means to dress fashionably, she often tramps the country dressed like a bag lady, in a man’s tweed coat with grimy fingernails. Apart from being practical gear for a geologist, perhaps this is a sub-conscious desire to conceal her femininity, having been so abused by her husband. It is hard to believe that such an independent-minded woman would have submitted to this, but perhaps she was trapped by her initial youth and the social attitudes of the day.

Absorbed in her fashionable pursuit of fossils, Cora is intrigued by the “Essex Serpent”, a creature of local folklore who is thought to have made a recent return to prey on the the inhabitants of Aldwinter, terrifying them in the process. Cora harbours dreams of making her name as a female geologist through the discovery of some giant ichthyosaurus. Frustrated by his parishioners’ superstition, local vicar William Ransome is driven to hac away the carving of a sea serpent which adorns the arm of a church pew. Although holding diametrically opposed views on religion, William and Cora are drawn to each other by a powerful meeting of questioning minds, the joy of conversing and bouncing ideas off each other. But can such a friendship endure in 1890s England, when does friendship become love, and what is to be done since William Ransome already has a beautiful, sensitive wife whom neither William nor Cora could bear to hurt – although she is conveniently frail and consumptive, so perhaps they can have their cake and eat it if their love can survive all the interim setbacks?

At first, I found the characters somewhat unconvincing, such as the brilliant, eccentric surgeon Luke Garrett, and his wealthy friend Spencer. Too often both dialogues and descriptions seem artificial, clunky contrivances for informing the reader about the burning social issues of the day. Yet, the descriptions of the Essex countryside and shoreline, together with the unsettling suspected presence of the serpent, are well-written and evocative, and once William Ransome is established alongside Cora to provide the two most fully developed central characters, I found myself more fully engaged in the story. Sarah Perry is also good at writing about children.

Overall, it is a modern writer’s take on the late Victorian world a generation after the period of Dickens and Wilkie Collins. Written somewhat in their vein, it avoids cloying sentimentality, yet is over-long and repetitious in places, and soft-centred at its core, although these are all features of the writing of this period.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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