The Essex Serpent 

The Essex Serpent 

Title: The Essex Serpent

Author: Sarah Perry

Review by Robert Selby 

While the ostensible preoccupation of The Essex Serpent is the titular sea creature’s rumoured presence in Aldwinter, a fictional village in estuarine Essex, Sarah Perry’s second novel reads as most engaged when addressing the housing reform of the Victorian period in which it is set.

The connection between these two quite disparate strands is thus: the amateur naturalist Cora Seaborne, liberated from her abusive husband by his recent death from throat cancer, moves away from London society to rural Aldwinter in search of what she posits is an ichthyosaur, a living fossil left over from the Cretaceous. She is accompanied by her ethereal son, Francis, and his nurse, Martha. Martha is in love with her employer as well as being – and here’s the connection – an ardent socialist with passionate views on the housing of the London poor. Her suitor, the thinly-sketched, moneyed surgeon George Spencer, has the ability to further Martha’s cause through his connections in Parliament. In particular, Martha believes the criteria by which poor families must qualify for the new sanitary and spacious homes already in the pipeline ‘punishes poverty’:

‘They’re expected to live better than you or I ever did to deserve a roof over their children’s heads: must never be drunk, or a nuisance to neighbours, or gamble, and God forbid too many children by too many fathers, and had too often. You, Spencer – with your estate and pedigree – you can drink yourself wretched on claret and port and no-one begrudges you any of your homes; but spend what little you have on cheap beer and the dogs and you’ve not enough moral standing to sleep in a dry bed.’ 

Spencer could not rightly claim to have given the capital’s housing crisis any further thoughts than the headlines invited, and felt keenly the contempt for his wealth and status which lay behind her words. But in her indignation she seemed to him more to be desired than ever, and as if her rage were contagious he felt something like anger stir in his belly.

Wealth and privilege 

Thus sermonised to, Spencer, whose ‘wealth and privilege coat him like furs’, rather incredibly does not see his Parliamentary connections primarily as the means by which he can win Martha over, but instead converts sincerely to the cause. He suddenly ‘felt the presence of his privilege as uncomfortably as if it had been pockets full of chilly gold,’ and – this bordering on the caricature – ‘thinks of his family home in Suffolk, where recently his mother discovered another room they’d never known was there, and is nauseated’. Perry’s otherwise successful attempt to portray the Victorian world as not that far removed from our own becomes too glaringly didactic on this matter of poor housing. One is not surprised to read in the author’s note, where Perry lists the books she is most indebted to, that:

‘In Victorian Homes (1974) David Rubinstein collates contemporary accounts of housing crises, venal landlords, intolerable rents and political chicanery; they would not look out of place in tomorrow’s newspapers. The Bitter Cry of Outcast London (1883) was compiled by Rev Andrew Mearns […] It draws spurious parallels between poverty and lack of moral virtue that may strike the reader as familiar from modern political rhetoric.’

This begs two questions: why was the novel not set in the present day, so that these contemporary and very real matters that obviously concern Perry could be addressed squarely, and why was there felt the need to pair this story with one about the serpent, impressive though that story’s epistolary interludes and suitably gothic denouement are? After all, while Cora’s own suitors, Spencer’s friend and fellow surgeon Luke Garrett and Aldwinter’s parson, William Ransome, are convincingly rendered, the dichotomy their opposing suits are intended to represent – reason/the city/progress versus faith/the country/conservativeness – is one by no means unexplored elsewhere in fiction.

The happy poor 

Sarah Perry

Sarah Perry demonstrates her panache with language

Martha, Spencer and Garrett venture into the slums and rookeries of Bethnal Green to witness the poverty at first-hand. We recognise modern London in the description of the accommodation: ‘What had once been grand houses were divided meanly into many small apartments, let at prices out of all proportion to what wages it was possible to earn.’

Perry’s otherwise unromanticised portrayal of the left-behind fails her here. As well as residents downcast with their lot, they encounter in a side alley barefooted children and an amputee veteran of Afghanistan ‘snatching pleasure’ from their circumstances by dancing unselfconsciously to a sea shanty played on an impromptu barrel organ: ‘Martha held out her hands to a passing lad who’d discarded his kitten on a doorstep and with great strength in his thin forearms flung her round.’ Such a saccharine portrayal is perhaps too close to what the pre-reconstructed Spencer might have wished to be able to relate: that the poor have little, but they’re happy with the little they have.

The Reverend Ransom’s desire to deliver his flock from superstition is too much mirrored by Martha and Spencer’s desire to deliver the left-behind from their lot: even when it is well-meant, there is a patronisation inherent in portraying an entire social stratum collectively, rather than as individuals with their own motives, hopes and circumstances. Again, a novel focussed squarely on the housing storyline would have had space for individual voices from the left-behind to really come alive, and very probably reveal to us that, if anyone differentiates between the ‘deserving’ and the ‘undeserving’ poor, it is the poor themselves.

Panache with language

The Essex Serpent demonstrates Perry’s panache with language throughout. It is a convincing rendition – to the modern reader at least – of the Victorian, but never risks caricature. When the Reverend Ransome tells Cora that, inspired by Brunel, he had once wanted to be an engineer but had realised that ‘it was purpose I wanted, not achievement’, she is strident in deeming it a shame:

‘Yes – a shame. That in the modern age a man could impoverish his intellect enough to satisfy himself with myth and legend – could be content to turn his back to the world and bury himself in ideas which even your father must have thought outdated! Nothing is more important than to use your mind to its last degree!’ 

Martha, unable to have Cora, contents herself in marrying a gentle fellow traveller who she does not love, telling herself that ‘it’s a poor woman whose ambition is only to be loved. She has better things to be getting on with’. And as for the serpent, is it, the Reverend Ransome wonders, really out there?

‘Was it so great a stretch to imagine the Intelligence that once had split the Red Sea taking the trouble to send a little admonition to the sinners of a briny Essex parish? The apostle Paul had put his hand in a nest of snakes and come away unpoisoned by way of a sign: certainly the world had turned its many thousand revolutions since, but was the season of signs and wonders really over?’

The Essex Serpent is worth reading to find out.

Review by Robert Selby

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