Why write another novel set in the Victorian period? The years between 1837 and 1901 must by now be some of the most fictionalised in Western literature: it seems we cannot resist returning to this contradictory historical moment that bears many of the hallmarks of modernity – the beginning of mass production, of urban sprawl, of globalisation and the increasingly byzantine nature of finance – while still retaining nostalgic vestiges of pre-industrial culture. It’s the modern era, butThe with better breeding and fancier dresses – at least if you belong to the middle and upper classes on which these novels almost invariably focus.
The particular Victorian debate which Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent examines is that around faith, superstition and science. Its heroine Cora Seaborne, freed from an abusive marriage by her husband’s death, travels to Colchester in search of fossils and is introduced to the vicar of a nearby parish, the Reverend William Ransome. Will hails from the village of Aldwinter, which is being plagued by rumours of the Essex Serpent, a creature said to be behind the eerie death of a young local man, the mutilation of several sheep, and the disappearance of at least one village child. Cora hopes to find that the Essex Serpent is a palaeontological relic, a survivor from the time of the dinosaurs, while Will is desperate to quell talk of the beast, seeing it as ungodly superstition, out of place in such rational times.
The conflict in the novel, then, is nothing so simple as the often reductively-expressed one of faith v. science: it’s much more subtle than that. Cora, an atheist, remains open to the possibility that the serpent exists, that the world is wider and more wonderful than Will’s rationalist Protestantism will allow; while Will the believer holds to what we might consider the sceptic’s point of view, thinking Cora’s belief and the villagers’ the product of a less enlightened age. Perry isn’t particularly interested in which one is right (although obviously the newly-emancipated Cora is the more sympathetic character); in fact she goes to great lengths to maintain an atmosphere of Gothic suggestiveness, hinting at eeriness without confirming or denying a tangible cause. As in so many Gothic novels, the ambiguity is the point: this is in part a novel about the collapse of neat categories like “faith” and “reason”, “friend” and “lover”, “real” and “imagined”.
The book’s extraordinary reputation – according to Wikipedia, it sold over 200,000 copies in hardback alone – is not unmerited: it’s a lovely, haunting tale, generous to its protagonists and expansive in its definition of love. But who’s missing?
For this is another novel that centres the already privileged, the prosperous and professional middle classes. The villagers of Aldwinter are mostly presented as untutored rustics, and we never really see things from their perspective. Cora’s companion Martha takes up the cause of socialism in the course of the book, and becomes interested in the plight of London slum-dwellers at the mercy of greedy landlords; but, again, the slum-dwellers who we do meet play only a small role in the narrative, the meat lying far away with Cora and Will. It’s not that Perry’s not aware of the working class in Victorian Britain; it’s not that she is exactly whitewashing anything. It’s that, well, what is The Essex Serpent doing that other novels haven’t done before? Do we really need another late Victorian novel about straight white middle class people wrestling with their personal problems?
I mean, we might do! I’m not saying no-one should ever write a Victorian novel again! But The Essex Serpent, lovely though it is, ultimately failed to convince me that we do. I enjoyed it a lot, but it never really felt urgent or necessary or unusual.