Monday 6 June 2016

The Essex Serpent - Sarah Perry

'In 1669 it was, with the son of the traitor king on the throne, a man could scarcely walk a mile before coming up against a warning pinned to an oak or a gatepost. STRANGE NEWS, they'd say, of a monstrous serpent with eyes like a sheep, come out of the Essex waters and up to the birch woods and commons'

The Essex Serpent, a mythical creature which lurks in the shallow waters of the Blackwater Estuary, was first spotted in the turmoil following the Civil War and the Restoration. The creature is spotted again in the aftermath of the Colchester Earthquake of 1884, another time of upheaval. Perry’s novel opens on New Year’s Day, with the discovery of a drowned man, 'naked, his head turned almost 180 degrees, a look of dread in his wide-open eyes'; villagers talk anxiously of 'some kind of leviathan with wings of leather and a toothy grin'. Rather like The Hound of the Baskervilles, a community finds itself menaced by a supernatural creature, capable of striking mortal fear into anyone who encounters it – science, tradition and religion compete to provide an explanation.

The Badlands of Essex have provided an evocative backdrop to modern novels such as Michael Smith’s The Giro Playboy, and All The Devils Are Here by David Seabrook, and Perry captures the otherworldliness of her location brilliantly in a more historical context. There is a strong sense of eras overlapping: the Nineteenth Century inhabitants still make frequent references to Charles II as ‘the traitor king’, and some reach even further back into English folklore, including the villager who names his goats Gog and Magog, after the traditional defenders of the City of London, and hangs skinned moles on his fence to ward off evil.

This is far from being a stuffy historical piece, though. Perry captures the sense of rapid innovation that defined the mid-Nineteenth Century, as new surgical techniques, political causes, scientific theories and methods of production dominate conversations, and affect the pace of life even in apparent backwaters like Aldwinter. The tension of The Essex Serpent comes from the characters’ attempts to assimilate new information into their traditional belief systems, balancing faith with reason in their attempts to understand the world around them.

The narrative revolves around a love triangle, involving Cora Seaborne, a young widow who scandalises her friends by dressing in ragged men’s clothes, and dreams of discovering a living fossil in the Essex marshes, Luke Garrett, a pioneering surgeon known as ‘The Imp’ who is memorably described as having 'a loping insistent gait that made you feel he might without any warning take a leap onto a window ledge', and William Ransome, the Vicar in Aldwinter, an educated man who is utterly content to remain in his rural backwater parish ('no man ever looked less a parson: his shirt was loose, and grubby at the cuffs; there was soil beneath his nails').

The relationship between Cora and the married Ransome, in particular, allows Perry to explore the apparent dichotomy between rationalism and faith. Rather than looking at the issue in dialectical terms, Perry highlights areas of overlap and contradiction in their respective philosophies. Ransome is an avid reader of modern texts alongside his bible, and works by Marx and Darwin sit side by side in his study; Cora may identify herself as a woman of science, but her belief in the Serpent’s existence is based on faith as much as reason. Resisting binary oppositions, Perry shows that reason and faith can both play a part in individual belief systems, however contradictory this may appear at first. Alongside this, subplots look at socialism, growing concerns over the conditions of the poor in London, the struggle of middle class women to gain some degree of independence and autonomy, and the development of modern surgical techniques, giving the novel an urgent sense of modernity.

Perry was raised by strict Baptist parents, and has written about the ‘profound and inescapable’ impact of the King James Bible on her work. This is evident again in her discussion of sin, in the form of the serpent. Appearing at times of unrest and social upheaval, the serpent is seen by many as a divine punishment, or a portent of the end times. Ransome notes that church attendance increases notably during what is euphemistically known as ‘The Trouble’. By placing Seventeenth Century tracts alongside Nineteenth Century discussions, Perry examines the way in which our understanding of judgement evolves over time, as ideas of individual responsibility, duty and forgiveness shift as society develops from the Restoration to the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.

The emotional pitch of The Essex Serpent is best characterised as 'dreadful tenderness'; Perry adds some impressively gothic flourishes, not least in the depiction of Stella Ransome surrounding herself with blue objects as she wastes away from Tuberculosis, and cases of group hysteria amongst schoolchildren as the threat of the Serpent looms. Cora, meanwhile, has 'an ornate scar as long as her thumb' on her collarbone, a burn mark from a candlestick 'which her husband had pressed into her flesh as though he were sinking his signet ring into a pool of wax'.

The Essex Serpent balances a Victorian structure and sensibility with a very modern energy. There are times when the narrative threatens to concentrate too much on the romantic element of the story to the detriment of the other strands, but Perry balances the personal and political well, managing the complex network of relationships between characters and the social forces which drive them. This is a beautifully composed and elegant novel, containing a force and sense of driving purpose which shows Perry moving on from the elusiveness of her atmospheric debut, After Me Comes The Flood.

No comments:

Post a Comment