One genre of fiction that never ceases to gain new editions or followers is Neo-Victorian writing. From period dramas to prequels and sequels of beloved classics, it seems we cannot get enough of the Victorian era. The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry is one of the latest editions to the genre, and certainly does not disappoint if you’re a fan of anything set in Victorian England with a healthy helping of gothic.
Set in 19th century London and Essex, The Essex Serpent follows the story of Cora Seaborne after the recent death of her controlling husband and her move to the wild and brooding countryside of Essex. It’s here, away from London society, that Cora becomes enthralled by a beast of old –– the Essex Serpent –– that is terrorising the local villages. Determined to be the next discoverer of a living dinosaur, she treks the dramatic landscapes of Essex with its colourful characters, bringing her eclectic group of friends along somewhat unwillingly. But in the hunt for a folktale come true, Cora finds herself in a bittersweet friendship with her spiritual polar opposite, none other than the Aldwinter’s rector, William Ransome. It is a tale of opposing beliefs in an era rife with new ideas and ideals, a story submerged in gothic mystery and lighthearted humour, told through an eclectic mix of characters.
The Essex Serpent features an interesting set of characters, from Cora’s socially-challenged son, to the Sherlock-esque doctor Luke, to the active socialist Martha and, of course, the headstrong Cora and Will. All are bound together in various loyalty ties that makes the story captivating because there is no singular storyline. You aren’t fixated on one couple or character (although arguably, the connection between Cora and Will is the main plot). You are introduced to all of the character’s intimate stories, dreams, wishes, and desires. There is something gripping about each one of them, and the novel could easily spin off in any direction to focus on any character and their movement through the transitional period that was the late nineteenth century. It is certainly a novel that plays with the plethora of ideas and beliefs that were floating around at that time.
One drawback of creating such an interesting bunch of characters is that they can’t all have the time they need to be fully explored by the reader. This meant that some parts of the plot suffered from underdevelopment –– you’re left wanting to know more and are left unsatisfied. The impact of the intimate scene between Martha and Luke as time goes by is left to the reader’s assumption. While Naomi’s troubling experience in the local pub that is somewhat swept under the carpet. But such blank spots in the novel are simply a consequence of not enough page time in one book to feature attention equally to all areas. (Hint: we need a sequel).
Alongside the motley crew of characters is the buzzing fixation on new ideas that is central in the novel. From socialist sentiments to advocating advanced medicinal practices, to challenging biblical authority, The Essex Serpent captures the volatile yet exciting climate in late Victorian England for groundbreaking and progressive ideas and concepts perfectly. Pseudo-sciences overlap with medicine, myth and folktales overlap with palaeontology, religion and reason do more than brush sleeves. While Marxist socialism is embodied through the daring character of Martha, which brings at the novel’s fringes the housing reforms of the day and unionism. Through the varied group of characters, Perry artfully showcases the budding interests and ideals of the time that makes this period such a fascinating epoch to reimagine through new tales.
However, while The Essex Serpent is a Neo-Victorian tale, I am a bit sceptical of its description as a darkly gothic story. There are certainly gothic elements that underpin the whole plot. A supernatural beast or monster from the deep wrecking havoc on local villages is undeniably gothic, particularly with its sexual connotations and biblical undertones. Then there’s Perry’s use of language. Like the great story-telling abilities of Dickens, Perry knows how to use scene-setting to vividly paint a world through words. Perry uses brilliant sensory language to really draw you into the world of the novel. It’s serious word porn for those of us who appreciate skillfully use of words to captivate. The book opens with a great example of her lyricism –– echoing Dickens’ ability to conjure up London before your mind’s eye through the page.
Perry’s use of language to set the scene continues throughout the book, and is a real hook to keep you wanting to read more and more. From the dark streets of London to the untamed Essex countryside, Perry shifts from landscape and scene, creating each one vividly. But while her scene-setting and use of myth and supernatural certainly qualifies The Essex Serpent as a gothic tale, it seems a little bit short of the heart-racing qualities of darkly gothic stories. It is a little bit too lighthearted to be called dark gothic.
Despite this, I thoroughly enjoyed The Essex Serpent. As a Neo-Victorian novel, it featured all the bits of gothic writing that I love -–– the vivid use of scene-setting and sensory language, supernatural elements contrasted with reason and science, a crucial love plot or two, gloomy, brooding landscapes. It has it all. While areas were left a little underdeveloped, overall it is a book that I would happily dive into again. It’s safe to say that I am a converted Sarah Perry fan after reading The Essex Serpent.
Have you read The Essex Serpent? Let me know what you thought of it in the comments below! For more book reviews and general bibliophile stuff, head over to my Books section!