Sarah Perry’s exploration of the 19th century wildlands of Essex is masterful, heartbreaking and uplifting. It seems at first glimpse to be a late-Victorian X-File, when rumours of a strange creature called the Essex Serpent coincide with bad happenings in and around the small village of Aldwinter, where the ostensibly grieving Cora Seaborne heads to fulfil her passion for amateur paeleotology. In this respect Cora is an analog for Mary Anning, a real amateur paleotologist of the time and who made a number of important discoveries of the time, and whose life was the focus of the somewhat romanticised and revisionist film Ammonite released last year, starring Kate Winslet. With The Essex Serpent itself receiving an adaptation by Apple TV, due for release later this year, it seems like a good time to revisit the book.
The Essex Serpent serves as a more fitting, if unofficial, eulogy to Anning. Cora is spiky and headstrong, loveable yet infuriating, rude and capable of great love. Above everything she places her belief in science, rationality and logic. Logically, she ought not to be interested in an odd cryptid such as the Serpent, yet she’s drawn inexorably to it. It’s the defiance of rationality, the gauntlet thrown down to science by the every existence of this creature, that calls out to her, daring her to codify and categorise it.
She falls in with a local vicar, Father William, who is blunt yet also headstrong, infuriating and also capable of great heart. He places his faith in the teachings of Christ and his religion, and so acts as her dramatic foil. I know little of Perry other than what I’ve read in the press of her but I sense that she has created these characters as two sides of her own personality; the one driven by scientific rationality, and the other by the faith in personal responsibilities instilled in the Christian tradition. And so these two wrestle in the book – and in Perry herself – with neither landing a knockout blow. Which is probably as it should be. As their relationship seesaws between conflict and affection, the philosophical and the emotional, it’s clear that Perry’s book concludes that what’s enduringly interesting is not the strangeness of the world around us – which may or may not be explainable by rationality – but the unique strangeness of the human heart.
I have very a strong affinity to this book for several reasons, but primarily because many of the themes in it are similar to those I’ve explored during the writing of The Green Man. To be sure, TGM is set in a very different time and place (though at opposite ends of the same country), but the sentiment of an ongoing wrestling match between rationality and faith in something greater than rationality, personified by the idea of God – is at the core of both books.
The other reason I have so much affection for The Essex Serpent is that it treats both sides of the argument with the utmost respect, and demonstrates the awesome profundities inherent to both a scientific and a religious worldview, each symbolised by the buccaneering Cora and the ragged, flinty William. It treats each side of the argument as though it were a rampaging monster, worthy of respect, capable of destroying or enduring the other. This isn’t often plain in novels, where an author will use the object of their prejudice as a sticking board for weaknesses, flaws and holes. But knocking over a straw man is for fairground distractions; wrestling with God is for the true heavyweights. There is a quote I’m very fond of from Balaño’s 2666, which states that the real heavyweight authors – Dickens, Melville, Eliot – engage in combat when they write, as they try to settle things to which they cannot know the answer without engaging in them. Perry has this pugilistic sense in her, and it has, through her, created something wonderful, strange and enduring.