I am from Essex. I’m proud to be from Essex and love my home county – many of the people I love are there and I have many, many happy memories of my youth spent scrabbling around in the woods and seashore of the county. The fact that I don’t live there any more is partly economic, partly chance and a teeny bit of TOWIE. Fact: I’m rubbish at wearing high heels, don’t tan and can’t drive any car let alone a MK 2 Cortina. But, hey, it should be more widely known that us Essex girls come in all shapes, sizes and skin-tones.
Some of my best-beloved fellow Essex girls live in the parts of Essex which are so wonderfully described in Sarah Perry’s second novel, The Essex Serpent. They are the parts which are often forgotten – rather than flashy urban and suburban bits like Romford and, my hometown, Basildon this book depicts the beautiful, and sometimes dramatic, north Essex coastline. Not brightly lit Southend but windswept and wonderful Mersea, St Osyths and Tollesbury sprang to my mind as I was reading.
The story concerns Cora, an unusual woman in the late Victorian era, who moves from society London to a village in the wilds of Essex when her husband dies. Set forty years after Darwin published Origin of Species the novel explores how some people’s thinking about nature, science and religion by this new way of thinking. The rise of socialism is also covered as Cora’s companion Martha is an active campaigner for improved London housing. These new ideas are contrasted with both the traditional beliefs of the villagers of Aldwinter and the faith of their vicar, Will Ransom. Will and Cora’s friendship also develops to a point which challenges Victorian morality – in fact most of the relationships in the book are straining towards becoming ‘modern’ rather than ‘Victorian’.
I really enjoyed the plot – Aldwinter is thought to be being terrorised by the Essex Serpent of the title, a malevolent sea creature blamed for every lost child, dead sheep or drowning – which blended folk tale and myth in with the science of the day and the characters were wonderful. All the people we meet are believable and well-rounded so you end up caring about them all (although not everyone makes it through the book unscathed) – I was particularly drawn to Martha, a free-willed and pragmatic woman who probably ends the book in the most satisfactory position, and Cora’s son Frankie, who seems to be even more damaged than Cora by her recently deceased husband. What really made this book for me though was, unusually, the language. I generally read for plot – I can appreciate good use of language and a clever turn of phrase but tend to remember the story more than the words used to tell it. Perry, however, has such a great capacity for description that I think her words may stick with me for some time.