A young woman sets off to find a dragon in Sarah Perry’s enchanting new novel.
The Essex Serpent, which won the British Book Awards' book of the year prize, is one of the most satisfying Victorian-set novels I’ve read in years. If “Middlemarch” heroine Dorothea Brooke had heard of dinosaurs, she might have gone tromping through the salt marshes with Cora Seaborne.
Cora was a budding naturalist before she was married off to a much older man as a teenager. “On her nineteenth birthday she exchanged birdsong for feathered fans, crickets in the long grass for a jacket dotted with beetles’ wings; she was bound by whalebone, pierced with ivory, pinned by the hair with tortoiseshell,” Perry writes.
Now, her inventively cruel husband is dead, and Cora is ready to come down from her display case and live. Intrigued by reports of a mysterious sea beast in Essex, she dreams that an ichthyosaur somehow survived to the Victorian age and that she will get the opportunity to go paleontologist Mary Anning and her dog one better than a bunch of bones. Cora, her son, Francis, who is autistic in a time that didn’t have the word for it, and her companion Martha, set up among "a ruin and a river, and web-footed peasants, and mud."
Locals in the village of Aldwinter, meanwhile, could be more properly be described as aghast at the reported return of the serpent, which was first spotted swooping down on sheep in 1669. “I daresay you’ve heard tell of the Essex Serpent, which once was the terror of Henham and Wormingford, and has been seen again?” a local asks an entranced Cora and skeptical Martha.
The rector of Aldwinter, William Ransome, is at a loss to comfort his flock without feeding their superstition, which his religious study tells him cannot be real. “[W]hat comfort could he offer which would not also affirm their sudden fear? He could not do it, any more than he could say to John, who so often woke at night, you and I will go together at midnight and slay the creature that lives under your bed.”
Perry sets up a nice juxtaposition: The man of faith is the one reluctant to believe in superstition, while the woman of science is eager to have the old wives’ tale made flesh. The two form a debating society of two, but their verbal sparring and deep attraction face a beautiful, if delicate, impediment: Will’s wife, Stella, whom he loves and who Cora adores as a friend.
The novel is full of characters with impossible longings: There is Luke, the brilliant but poor doctor who tended the late Mr. Seaborne while becoming smitten with his widow. Luke’s wealthy friend Charles Spencer, who leaves money on the floor where his absentminded friend might find it and longs to be useful, is smitten with Martha, a labor rights firebrand who stuck by Cora through her horrific marriage.
Will is not one for dry and dusty sermons. If anything, he loves the natural world as much as Cora. “His was not the kind of religion lived only in rule or rubric, as if he were a civil servant and God the permanent secretary of a celestial government department. He felt his faith deeply, and above all out of doors, where the vaulted sky was his cathedral nave and the oaks its transept pillars: when faith failed, as it sometimes did, he saw the heavens declare the glory of God and heard the stones cry out.”
He explains sin to Francis by teaching him how to skip stones. “That’s all it is,” said Will. “To sin is to try, but fall short. Of course we cannot get it right each time – and so we try again.”
Cora, meanwhile could not be more gleeful outside the confines of London society (or oblivious to her legion of admirers). She ditches her corset, trades slippers for boots, and writes to Luke, “you know I’ve always thought beauty a curse and am more than happy to dispense with it completely. Sometimes I forget that I’m a woman – at least I forget to THINK OF MYSELF AS A WOMAN.”
Instead, she regales the local schoolchildren with “the tale of a woman who’d once found a sea-dragon encased in mud; and how all the earth was a graveyard with gods and monsters under their feet, waiting for weather or a hammer and brush to bring them up to a new kind of life.”
While the serpent itself proves a slippery beast, Perry brilliantly describes how fear can slither through a population, mesmerizing as it goes. Cora thinks of dinosaurs the way tweens today regard unicorns. But, like Will, she comes to believe that Aldwinter has more to fear from its own terror than any creature from the deep. “I think the whole village is haunted. Only – I think they’re haunting themselves,” she says.
The nature of faith and faith in nature intertwine throughout Perry’s novel, which has an abiding respect for friendship and a deep humanity. A man Luke saves with an experimental operation tells Martha, not without bitterness, “they tell me I’m a miracle, or whatever does for miracles these days.”
“There are no ordinary lives,” Martha tells him. And in Perry’s marshy world of the saltings and science, that’s true enough.