I’m aware that people read this blog for balanced, insightful (so I’m told) reviews but I’m afraid today I can’t provide you with one of those. If I was going to, I might tell you that The Essex Serpent, set over the course of a year in the 1890s, is the story of Cora Seaborne. Recently widowed, Cora is somewhat relieved that her husband, Michael, is dead, for although he ‘made’ her, he did so under a veil of fear. Now she has her freedom and an opportunity to indulge her passion for fossils. Fancying herself as a geologist, she decamps from London to Essex, along with her companion, Martha, and her withdrawn, unusual son, Francis. There she encounters two things which will change her life: the legend of the Essex Serpent, apparently returned and killing man and beast, and local reverend Will Ransome, who’s more modern in his thinking than Cora expects and is quite a match for her intellectually.
I might tell you that the themes of the novel are the conflict between science and religion, and love and friendship and socialism. That the latter involves discussions about the situation of the poor, particularly with regards to housing, and that the conversations concerning that situation are strikingly similar to current political rhetoric. And that Luke Garrett, surgeon, and Reverend Will Ransome are the embodiments of science and religion but that love and friendship runs through all of the characters. And that I was particularly delighted when Cora and Stella, Will’s wife, meet for the first time and the narrator notes that Within moments each had taken such a liking to the other it was agreed it had been a great shame they’d not met during childhood and also when the narrator recounts a particularly bad night in the Seabourne household when Cora came to Martha’s room:
Whatever had been said or done had caused her to tremble violently, though the night was warm; her thick untidy hair was wet. Without speaking Martha had raised the cloths that covered her, and taken Cora into her arms; she drew up her knees to enclose her entirely, and held her very tight, so that the other woman’s trembling entered her.
I could also tell you how brilliantly drawn the characters are, particularly Cora, who’s educated, passionate, thoughtful, stout and doesn’t give a fig with regards to her appearance:
‘You look dreadful,’ said Luke, who would’ve liked to touch one by one the freckles newly arrived on her forehead. ‘Don’t you brush your hair out in the sticks? Your hands are dirty. And what are you wearing?’
‘I’ve freed myself from the obligation to try and be beautiful,’ said Cora: ‘And I was never more happy.’
I’d definitely tell you that the writing soars and that Perry writes eternal truths as though it’s the first time they’ve been uttered, such as, That’s the great crime: that no-one need be put in chains when their own minds are shackles enough.
And that The Essex Serpent contains a declaration of love that deserves to stand alongside this one:
My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Healthcliff! He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being.
And which I’ll leave you to discover for yourself.
But I can’t write that review because I can’t be objective about The Essex Serpent. I didn’t read this book, I wandered into its pages, unaware I’d done so until I looked up and realised I was sitting in a coffee shop on the banks of the Thames, not in Aldwinter, watching Cora and Will walk by the river; nor in Royal Borough Hospital, seeing Luke Garrett operate on Edward Burton.
I didn’t read this book, I inhabited it. It was an experience comparable to that when I walked on the West Yorkshire moors with Cathy Earnshaw and when I wandered around Florence with Lucy Honeychurch and Miss Bartlett and when I stood next to Lily Briscoe as she completed her painting.
Other people will read The Essex Serpent (and my goodness, I urge you to do so for it’s wonderful; it’s a huge, beating heart of a book) and have opinions on it and, possibly, will decide it has flaws. But, for once, I won’t be paying attention because the version of the book other people are reading is not the version I read, for my version of The Essex Serpent has taken residence in my heart.
Thanks to Serpent’s Tail for the review copy.