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The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry

Shall we talk about love?  I think we should. First, I’ve not shown my blog a lot of love this year and it deserves a bit of attention (don’t we all?!).  Second, I’ve heard enough vitriol, heated words, outright hatred, disproportionate and nasty outrage this year to last me a life time, so, as the year draws to a close I want to reflect on a book I read in August that had a profound affect on me and made me think about the nature of love and friendship on a level I’d not pondered before.  I’ve regularly thought about this book since then; it’s been a perfect foil to all the grimness of 2016.

There are few books capable of initiating spontaneous chest-heave sobbing and huge fat tears from me, but Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent did.  Without warning, it just started, 2/3rds of the way through my first reading. It was five minutes of that really uncontrollable type of crying; when it was over I felt lighter and a huge sense of relief.  The weird thing is, this is not a sad book.  In fact, the opposite.   My reaction was unexpected and has allowed me to cement ideas about things that are important to me.

Told over 12 months, The Essex Serpent is a story set at the very end of the Victorian era. It tells of recently widowed Cora Seaborne, who is seeking change and adventure.  She moves with her son, Francis and companion, Martha, to the remote Essex village of Aldwinter, bordered by the estuary marshes.  Here she meets the Reverand William Ransome, a man desperate to dissuade his parishioners from their superstitions about the local legend of a huge serpent supposed to haunt the local waterways and blamed for disappearances and strange goings on.  The parishioners’ superstitions have been whipped to almost hysterical proportions and Will Ransome is determined to use reason to explain away the sightings of this horrific creature and calm his flock, restore order and peace to this sleepy corner.

The search for the serpent is the frame on which Sarah Perry deftly hangs the rest of the plot in her novel of ideas and deep themes.  The characters go about their eventful year and through their interlocking relationships she introduces and discusses concepts relating to religion and science, politics and society all wrapped in a story delicately balanced on the love and friendships between a beautifully described cast of characters, believable in their actions and motivations because they are not so different from us.  It is not overly sentimental, yet emotionally evocative.

William and Cora are a pair who, on paper, shouldn’t be well suited.  They have a few things in common and there is a lot they differ on.  They debate and argue, they disagree and make up, they sulk and relent, she teases him and he scolds her.  Yet undeniable to them both is the fact that the connection and admiration is instant and heartfelt, intellectual at first and developing into physical attraction.  To Will, this connection is a mystery and he fights it.  He is married to his childhood sweetheart.  He never contemplated he could possibly have room for anyone else in his heart but his Stella.  A lot of thinking and walking brings him to the realisation that he can and he does.  He loves Cora and he bravely, beautifully, lyrically declares it to her because he knows she loves him too.  Honesty is the best option.  As I’m not an award-winning writer, I cannot do justice to the way Perry (who is an award-winning writer) reveals this burgeoning relationship to us.  I make it sound like sentimental mush, it’s not.  It’s exactly as I imagine something like this happening; with a lot of angst, a whole heap of confusion and anxiety.  When Cora runs back to London and avoids Will by not responding to his letters she has these bewildered thoughts:

Will’s letters are prized, read often, unanswered.  How can she respond?  She buys a postcard…and writes I WISH YOU WERE HERE, but what good did it ever do to speak one’s mind?  In his absence – the world grows dull and blunted; there’s no longer anything in it to delight or surprise.  Then she’s struck by her own folly – to feel so dreary because she can’t speak to some Essex parson with whom she has nothing in common! – it’s absurb; her pride revolts against it.  In the end, it comes more or less down to this; she does not write, because she wants to.

As a reader, this behaviour makes no sense – they love each other, why don’t they just sort it out? – because Perry’s version is closer to real life, that’s why…human frailties, vulnerabilities and insecurities stop us from pursuing the very thing we want the most, driving us to upset and offend albeit perhaps not deliberately.  Will is disquieted at Cora’s silence – it confuses him.

Will and Cora’s intellectual and passionate love is not the only form of friendship Perry explores in The Essex Serpent.  We get familial love, platonic love, unrequited love and childhood friendship.  Cora’s friend Luke, a surgeon working at the cutting edge of medicine, is horrified to witness her blossoming friendship with Will.  He takes comfort in his work, but when Cora rejects him and disaster strikes at work, he feels there is nothing left to live for – though there is friendship.  Will’s daughter never forgets her missing friend from school – the elation they feel at finding each other again made me glow inside.  Cora’s companion, Martha, is a striking and astounding character; obsessed with improving housing for the poor, she campaigns like her life depends on it, she befriends a man in need and they agree to live as man and wife but free of the shackles the ceremony bestows.  She is politically aware and has marxist leanings – she is a kick-ass awesome, no-nonsense, emancipated, bright woman who knows her own mind and won’t be dictated to.

This book is about grand ideas and the themes of love and friendship, but it is ultimately a book about acceptance.  Acceptance of reason over superstition, rational thought over doctrine and vice versa, medical intervention over waiting for fate to take its course.  Acceptance of your station in life or not.  Acceptance of change.  Acceptance of intellect over beauty, accepting when your heart overrules your head.

So, why the tears?  Ok, well.  The truth is, Sarah Perry made me think about the sort of friend I am.  I was found to be scoring mostly Cs in the “Are you a good friend?” multiple-choice Graziaesque self-inflicted questionnaire i.e. could do better. For me, showing someone you care about them is more about little things than grand gestures; remembering a conversation from months back and referring to it, messaging them just so they know you are thinking of them, listening when they are being needy without offering advice, being honest when needed and reliable when necessary; I realised, I probably wasn’t doing very well at any of this.  Time to improve.  I’ve got some amazing friends.  As my life gets busier, I have seen less of some people whose company I really enjoy. Some are more dependable than others, some I’ve wondered whether they are truly committed to me as a friend and sometimes it can be easier not to make the effort.  Since that day in August, I’ve made more of an effort to be the friend I want to be.  Then, yesterday, I read a blog post about being positive and a line stood out:

Care for others even when they don’t care for you. All. The. Time.

And having spent months thinking and worrying about what I could possibly write that could describe how I feel about The Essex Serpent, it finally all fell into place.