It’s easy to think of past centuries as the dark ages, a time when superstition took precedence over logic, but Victorian Britain is not the black and white place you might expect it to be in Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent. It’s a time of enlightenment, when advancements in science and technology are moving the world into the modern age and the Great Exhibition showcases ideas of the future. Surgeons like Dr Luck Garrett perform pioneering procedures that will revolutionise medicine, a recent widow, Cora Seaborne is fascinated by the Earth’s ancient history and collects fossils, and her companion Martha fights for social change. These are people who look outside religion for answers.
But in Aldwinter, a rural Essex village, a sinister creature appears in the water. The village’s vicar, Reverend William Ransome, is more open-minded that you might expect. He accepts there are things science can explain that religion can’t, and vice versa, but he draws the line at winged serpents living in the river. The sightings bring Cora and Will together, and while Cora hopes to find an ancient creature lurking below the surface, Will refuses to entertain the idea. They are fundamentally different, but their polar beliefs give them the opportunity to debate, to push their minds against each other, and their intellectual discussions are the foundation of a strong relationship that grows shaky when emotions grow.
To the villagers, the Essex Serpent is not a marine dinosaur or a silly folktale, it is a leviathan, sent to punish them for their sins. Any ill-fortune is credited to the serpent, from a missing girl to a dead goat, and the danger the creature poses causes panic. The people resort to superstition when faced with something unknown, rather than religion (much to Will’s irritation), hanging moles from fences and horseshoes on trees.
Beliefs oppose each other, and occasionally coincide in The Essex Serpent, but each character is searching for a truth, and it is their beliefs that shape what they discover. Driftwood can look like a hulking body rising from the waves if that is what we expect to see, and even when evidence is produced to confirm or deny what we think it’s hard to change what we feel to be true.
The understated humour in the novel is Austen-like in the best ways. Lines like, ‘Naomi, the first to speak up, embellished the event with such a flourish of wind and snout that it was generally accepted she’d seen nothing at all, and her testimony we discarded’ inject a light, mischievous wit into the prose but also contain an insight that colours the characters and illuminates the Victorian world.