Some are describing it as gothic because it’s set in late Victoriana and features the fears and alleged sightings of a winged leviathan. But for me, Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent is mostly a novel of ideas. It cleverly employs characters to represent the burgeoning sciences placed in opposition to traditional Christianity and superstition. It brought to mind Pynchon’s Mason and Dixon, which also mixed history with legend and speculation during the Age of Enlightenment. But unlike Pynchon, at times the opposition performed by characters in The Essex Serpent is perhaps a bit too blatant – the novel works best in its more nuanced and subtle moments.
The story is also more a feminist narrative than it is a gothic one. The main character Cora has lost her husband, but finds it hard to play the role of the grieving widow with her joy and sense of freedom getting in the way. An amateur palaeontologist, Cora is quite happy to tromp around the marshes in men’s tweed jackets, her hair dishevelled. Her companion and maid of sorts, Martha, is an active socialist in what the reader knows is the naissance of the suffragette movement.
The Essex Serpent is nevertheless a compulsive read, with an understated love story competing with other plotlines and always an incident cropping up to change the direction altogether.
Ever the stylistician, I must comment on the writing. The descriptions are exquisite in a pictorial way, though lacking in the psychological detail and intensity one might find in other literary fiction. There isn’t the inventive turn of phrase found in Mantel or McEwan. But the writing contributes to making the work engaging all the same and another reason for reading this book.