Thursday, 14 July 2016

Strange news from Essex

Just finished Sarah Perry's The Essex Serpent, which is a riveting read. Set in 1893, the landscape of the Blackwater estuary is in many ways the star of the book — Perry does for rural Essex what Hardy did for Wessex. Most of the action is set in the fictional village of Aldwinter, which is on the River Blackwater and appears to be somewhere around St Osyth and Brightlingsea.

The reader comes to know Perry's village intimately — the mist rolling across the salt marshes, the village church with its carved serpent on a pew, World's End cottage at the end of the village and home to the slimy-coated Mr Cracknall, Traitor's oak, the ribs of the wreck known as Leviathan, the changing skies and the rubbing of boats on shingle as the locals fear that something lurks out on the water.

There's lots of simmering passion between wealthy fossil-hunting widow Cora Seabourne and married local vicar William Ransome as they take long walks through the Essex woods, plus more love interest in the form of pioneering surgeon Luke Garrett.

Perry makes good use of historical detail; Cora first stays in Colchester, where she meets Thomas Taylor who lost his legs in the Colchester earthquake of 1884 and now begs by his shattered house. The myth of the Essex Serpent comes from a real source too, the 1699 pamphlet Strange News From Essex, alerting the villagers of Henham-on-the-Mount to the Essex Serpent.

The Essex Serpent is enjoyable for its exploration of Victorian themes, science versus faith, the stirrings of feminism, the slum housing of Bethnal Green and advances in surgery. And on a personal level, as my great great grandfather died from tuberculosis at the age of 33 in Whitechapel in 1872, it's very moving to read Perry writing of the disease's debilitating effects on one of the novel's main characters.

Overall it's an enticing, beautifully-written book for anyone who likes Essex history intertwined with a Victorian love story.

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