“The Essex Serpent,” Sarah Perry’s second novel, is a dazzling and intellectually nimble work of Gothic fiction. By this I don’t mean that the novel trades in monstrous creatures and dreadful atmospherics, although it does. Indeed, its title refers to a legendary creature, “more dragon than serpent, as content on land as in water,” that was supposedly first sighted in 1669 in the boglands of Essex. In the narrative present of 1893, the serpent seems to have returned, and it may or may not be picking off the county’s human residents, along with the occasional sheep. Its supposed return has led villagers to feel “that in the estuary something was biding its time,” and to take this biding as a sign of God’s displeasure.
All the stock elements of the Gothic novel are here: an abandoned building complete with a yarn-spinning beggar set up out front and “a pale fungus that resembled many fingerless hands” growing inside; an apocalypse-obsessed villager; a vicar’s wife suffering from consumption and prone to visions. Yet “The Essex Serpent” is most powerfully Gothic not in its skillful deployment of such tropes but in its use of these tropes to explore fundamental philosophical questions. When can we trust what we see, and when can’t we? What is the nature of belief? When does it make our vision more acute? When does it blind us? In Perry’s hands, the Gothic is both darkly entertaining and epistemologically curious.
It’s a sign of Perry’s narrative elegance that she’s able to weave into her story’s Gothic frame two very different aspects of 19th century cultural life: the burgeoning field of natural science, with Darwin’s evolutionary theory spurring interest in paleontology and geology; and the fraught arena of Christian belief, which seemed challenged by such scientific developments.
“The Essex Serpent” is a remarkably good novel of ideas. It’s also remarkably well written, with fine descriptions of both the natural world and the human body, as in this crystallization of stunted marital intimacy: “she did not recall having ever seen (her husband’s body) in its entirety, only in small and sometimes panicked glimpses of very white flesh laid thinly over beautiful bones.”
I’ve ignored plot and character so far. That’s a shame, as Perry is as good a plotter as she is a stylist. The novel’s two main characters are William Ransome, a happily married vicar, and Cora Seaborne, a happily widowed amateur naturalist. (Cora’s departed husband, publicly civil and privately vicious, saw her as “a kind of clearing-house for cruelties deserved elsewhere.”) Both characters are exuberantly alive, living full intellectual and physical lives. Will “keeps odd books for a vicar,” including Marx and Darwin, while Cora tramps through the mud in search of fossils, discussing theology (she’s a skeptic) and evolution (she’s a believer) with equal skill.
Will and Cora both find themselves in Essex, Will as the village vicar and Cora as an increasingly regular visitor, and both find themselves confronting, in different ways, the Essex serpent. For Will, the rumored serpent — or, more precisely, the villagers’ fearful fascination with it — represents a betrayal of his own measured, decidedly modern faith. As he puts it, “Our God is a god of reason and order, not of visitations in the night.” For Cora, the serpent represents a chance for scientific discovery: She hopes that the creature might be a “living fossil” — a living example of an otherwise extinct species.
Some of the novel’s most charming passages stage conversations between Cora and Will about reason and religion that are both playful and deadly serious. We sense that she and Will are arguing their way to love before they do. (Think Darcy and Elizabeth in “Pride and Prejudice.”)
Will is married, though, and still very much in love with his ill wife, Stella. We might expect that this will turn into a novel about tortured Victorian obligation: Should Will stay true to his marriage or to this new, free love? Surprisingly and refreshingly, Perry questions this kind of thinking. As he tends lovingly to Stella in her sickbed and dreams of Cora, Will thinks, “It was not that he was there in part, and in part in the gray house across the common; he was wholly present in both.” Love, at least in this novel, isn’t really a zero-sum game.
Neither is knowledge. In “The Essex Serpent,” no discourse has a monopoly on truth. A lesser novelist would debunk Will’s religious belief as mere superstition, or show up Cora’s materialist pretensions as ignoring the fundamental mystery of existence. Perry does neither. The more capacious our vision of the world, she suggests, the truer it is.
At one point, Cora declares to Will, “We both speak of illuminating the world, but we have different sources of light.” “The Essex Serpent,” amid its Gothic darkness, radiates with light and life.
Anthony Domestico is the books columnist for Commonweal. Email: email@example.com
The Essex Serpent
By Sarah Perry
(Custom House/William Morrow; 422 pages; $26.99)