The Essex coastline has always been a bit of a mystery to me. Flat and bleak, I’ve felt it to be the backdrop of artists and poets, who understand the landscape and see things that I, in all my uncultured blindness couldn’t possibly see. And frankly, after having read this book, I feel no affinity with it, but a grudging understanding that you don’t view the scenery as beautiful or bucolic – it’s a working landscape, a place where people earn a living and had settled to make a home.
Thankfully, Perry is the sort of author who is able to bring bleakness to life through noting it’s grey, flatness and turning it into something which houses monsters and myths and things that go bump in the night. The serpent was indeed a news story in mid 1600’s in Essex, and Perry was captured by an etching made of the serpent’s length, teeth and claws. She became a little fixated on the legend of this beast and used its homeland to as a backdrop to set her novel.
This is essentially a love story though, set in the late 1800’s, so with the usual navel gazing and pontificating that comes with that era and the love between a man (a married rector I should add) and a woman who refuses to conform. I think that Perry has created something of a feminist heroine with her character Cora, who has been recently widowed by a monstrous abuser and who escapes the oppressiveness of London society to be corset free in the Essex countryside. There’s also (among others) a strange child, a jilted lover who is the country’s finest surgeon and a devoted companion who wouldn’t be out of place in today’s protests against world poverty and unfair distribution of wealth.
It’s a really interesting mix of people that Sarah Perry has put together in this book with the forming of unlikely friendships and a refreshing angle on Victorian England. I found it to be rather un-put downable (sorry to anyone who hates that phrase), but I would guess that as a novel, it will be rather divisive. However, I think it’s worth a read and I found that I got quite a lot from it. I will never look at the flat marshland of the Essex countryside the same, if I ever go back there that is…