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The Essex Serpent: A Novel by Sarah Perry
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The Essex Serpent: A Novel (2016)

by Sarah Perry

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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1,253929,205 (3.74)169
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    wandering_star: Something about the writing style of The Clocks In This House... really reminded me of The Essex Serpent, but I couldn't quite put my finger on it. Then I saw a tweet from Sarah Perry saying how much she enjoyed The Clocks In This House... - so there must have been something to it!… (more)
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Here, I think, is the kind of book you get when an author is too fond of her characters. Sarah Perry's The Essex Serpent is set in a time and place that seems perfectly suited to good story-telling: England in the late nineteenth-century, when a widow newly released from an abusive marriage can move between the airless drawing rooms of middle-class London and the misty beauty of a rural marshland village. Add in socialist agitation, beautiful vicar's wives dying of tuberculosis, a possible prehistoric monster terrorising the villagers, the conflict between Darwinian ideas of evolution and a traditionalist Christian view of the world, and this could have been a lush neo-Victorian Gothic novel of ideas.

But there's little complexity here and less atmosphere, no real sense of creeping dread or unease, no narrative tension, and nothing it seemed new to say about either this moment in history or the themes raised. Some of that seemed, as I said, to come from the fact that Perry was too fond of her characters, too unwilling to have their flaws be truly felt or their actions cause hurt. Perry's prose is strong enough to pull you along, particularly the landscape descriptions, but when I reached the last page I was no clearer about what the goal of the novel was than I was when I began the first. ( )
  siriaeve | Aug 7, 2018 |
Not sure what all the fuss was about for this novel. For me it was a "take it or leave it" read, will not stay with me for long, and was way too long. Nothing new in the type of novel - throw back to old times character driven novels/manners of the era - and since I did't finds the characters well drawn out, I'd rather go back and read Austen and Bronte again! ( )
  Rdra1962 | Aug 1, 2018 |
Not surprised this was Waterstones book of the year. Like a modern rendition of a Hardy novel a la French Lieutenant’s Woman.

Merry Widow Cora sojourns in Essex, delighting in her freedom & with a wish to discover new fossils. And here she meets happily married William Ransome, & the two develop a deep friendship full of disagreements. And then there is her companion, Martha, on a mission for social reform, and a gifted surgeon in love with Cora.

Beautifully written with well-rendered characters, strange and complex, with an amazing sense of place and time. ( )
  LARA335 | Jul 18, 2018 |
‘’Come tomorrow, if you like, to the grave. I said I’d go alone, but perhaps that’s the point; perhaps we are always alone, no matter the company we keep.’’

This novel is as complex, as beautiful and mesmerizing as its cover. It is astonishing, an exciting, majestic literary journey. It deserves all the recognition it gets and then some. It is plain and simple one of the most beautiful, unique novels I’ve ever read. There will be no ‘’but’’ or ‘’or’’ in my review. ‘The Essex Serpent’ is perfection…

Cora Seaborne- a highly symbolic surname- is a young widow with an interest- nay, an adoration- in science and in the workings of nature. She cannot stand anything she considers as superstition but is always keen to learn. Prompted by a friendly couple, she travels to the parish of Aldwinter to experience the frenzy that has come with the rumors of an appearance by the Essex Serpent, a devilish Loch Ness-like monster that has returned after almost 200 years. Her meeting with Will Ransome, the local vicar, will bring forth all kinds of debates between them, all kinds of contradictions between the world we think we know and the one we aren’t able to see.

Perry focuses on three issues. The contrast between Science and Religion. She doesn’t take sides, a token of how skillful she is. She respects both and lets the reader decide. Then, we have the Victorians’ obsession with everything that has to do with the supernatural and the occult and the misunderstood position of the women in the society of the era. She stresses that not all women were victims of the restrictions and the norms, but they had to face disbelief, scorn and accusations as the price for their freedom. For Cora, freedom comes through the death of her husband, a man as tyrannical as he was cold, whose personality can be traced in Francis, Cora’s son, who is an intriguing child, but highly unlikeable.

‘’Girls and boys come out to play...The moon does shine as bright as day.’’

The children form a main point of view in the book. Joanna, Naomi, Francis see the world in their own eyes. They experience the phenomena in personal ways which couldn’t be more different and diverse and the interpretation sets quite a few things in motion. The omens in the community are numerous. People falling victims of a strange illness, young girls experience a fit of unusually lively laughter, the moon is full and red, the crops are failing, the residents sprain their ankles all too easily. The children believe in the signs and try to protect the world from changing into something they don't wish to know.

‘’Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord; and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils.’’

Does the serpent exist? The smell is foul, the sounds otherworldly, the feeling of uneasiness and restlessness has been plaguing the community. Each resident finds the chance to blame everyone else but themselves and stories from the past haven’t been forgotten. Perhaps, the serpent stands as a symbol for the community’s narrow-mindedness and fear of progress.. Their dusty lives constantly influence the young ones and when Cora or Luke try to put some sense into their heads, they’re scorned and attacked. These are people who fear darkness but in truth are in love with it. They don't want it to go away because it provides them with an excuse to live.

‘’We both speak of illuminating the world, but we have different sources of light, you and I.’’


Cora and Will are worlds apart, at first glance. Cora is the naturalist, the science lover, the one who looks at nature and sees causes and effects. Will sees the divine presence, the Hand of God released from medieval superstitions. They argue. They disagree and grow closer, their banter is full of well-drawn arguments (and sexual tension…) but they respect each other’s views even if they’re too proud to admit it. They are against all prejudices, religious and social, but deep down they’re helpless. They try to shed their skin and come to terms with the other’s reality, but this requires a kind of sacrifice they’re not willing to commit. And they’re trapped in a world where the mob cannot be freed by their fears and nightly terrors.

‘’There was a crooked man’’, he said, ‘’who walked a crooked mile.’’

Same thing happens with Luke whose appearance makes people suspicious of his intentions. He is a doctor, highly skilled, highly intelligent, whose offers are denied out of terror. He speaks outright and faces adversity and hostility from minds that are buried in the mud where the Serpent resides. Luke is the most fascinating character along with Cora. Will, on the other hand, well...not so much…

Will is a coward. He denies his moments of clarity and is afraid of his feelings. Cora makes him a complete, rounded character. When he’s alone, he becomes a shadow and yet, he cannot see it or refuse to do so. Cora shakes his mundane life, but he prefers mediocrity. His wife, Stella is a pathetic woman. A figure created out of boredom, docility and piousness in the extreme. Martha, Cora’s maid, is a shrew in heh most negative way possible. She’s full of anger for everything and everyone, she hates everyone’s existence and believes she has to constantly speak her mind (which is usually wrong) ad interfere in Cora’s life in a presumptuous, rude, vulgar manner. Stella and Martha required a lot of patience from me in order to avoid skipping their pages…

I don’t need to stress how exceptional Perry’s writing is. Poetic, lyrical, dark, Gothic. There is stream of consciousness at times, there are diary entries, correspondence. There are passages with descriptions that seemed to have jumped straight out of a tale by Poe. The language may remind you of the Bronte sisters. There are bloody images- with a Viking blood eagle reference- and there is also a hymn to the beauty of the foreboding nature. Rooks and ruins, waves and the moon. The dialogue is perfection, the moments when Perry describes the actions and the state of mind of our main characters simultaneously contain some of the most exquisite pieces of writing I’ve recently found in a novel (and I have found a plethora…). It gives an atmosphere of darkness, an eerie feeling that something is about to happen. One of our characters will cross a personal limit or a new wound will occur.. Who knows...Perry definitely knows how to create anticipation and this is one of the most important aspects in Gothic Fiction, particularly. The Author’s Notes contain a ton of fascinating suggestive reads and they are jewels in themselves.

For me, this book is as close to perfect as it can get. Let yourself wonder in a dark coastal town and look the serpent in the eye...

My reviews can also be found on https://theopinionatedreaderblog.wordpress.com ( )
  AmaliaGavea | Jul 15, 2018 |
‘’Come tomorrow, if you like, to the grave. I said I’d go alone, but perhaps that’s the point; perhaps we are always alone, no matter the company we keep.’’

This novel is as complex, as beautiful and mesmerizing as its cover. It is astonishing, an exciting, majestic literary journey. It deserves all the recognition it gets and then some. It is plain and simple one of the most beautiful, unique novels I’ve ever read. There will be no ‘’but’’ or ‘’or’’ in my review. ‘The Essex Serpent’ is perfection…

Cora Seaborne- a highly symbolic surname- is a young widow with an interest- nay, an adoration- in science and in the workings of nature. She cannot stand anything she considers as superstition but is always keen to learn. Prompted by a friendly couple, she travels to the parish of Aldwinter to experience the frenzy that has come with the rumors of an appearance by the Essex Serpent, a devilish Loch Ness-like monster that has returned after almost 200 years. Her meeting with Will Ransome, the local vicar, will bring forth all kinds of debates between them, all kinds of contradictions between the world we think we know and the one we aren’t able to see.

Perry focuses on three issues. The contrast between Science and Religion. She doesn’t take sides, a token of how skillful she is. She respects both and lets the reader decide. Then, we have the Victorians’ obsession with everything that has to do with the supernatural and the occult and the misunderstood position of the women in the society of the era. She stresses that not all women were victims of the restrictions and the norms, but they had to face disbelief, scorn and accusations as the price for their freedom. For Cora, freedom comes through the death of her husband, a man as tyrannical as he was cold, whose personality can be traced in Francis, Cora’s son, who is an intriguing child, but highly unlikeable.

‘’Girls and boys come out to play...The moon does shine as bright as day.’’

The children form a main point of view in the book. Joanna, Naomi, Francis see the world in their own eyes. They experience the phenomena in personal ways which couldn’t be more different and diverse and the interpretation sets quite a few things in motion. The omens in the community are numerous. People falling victims of a strange illness, young girls experience a fit of unusually lively laughter, the moon is full and red, the crops are failing, the residents sprain their ankles all too easily. The children believe in the signs and try to protect the world from changing into something they don't wish to know.

‘’Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord; and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils.’’

Does the serpent exist? The smell is foul, the sounds otherworldly, the feeling of uneasiness and restlessness has been plaguing the community. Each resident finds the chance to blame everyone else but themselves and stories from the past haven’t been forgotten. Perhaps, the serpent stands as a symbol for the community’s narrow-mindedness and fear of progress.. Their dusty lives constantly influence the young ones and when Cora or Luke try to put some sense into their heads, they’re scorned and attacked. These are people who fear darkness but in truth are in love with it. They don't want it to go away because it provides them with an excuse to live.

‘’We both speak of illuminating the world, but we have different sources of light, you and I.’’

Cora and Will are worlds apart, at first glance. Cora is the naturalist, the science lover, the one who looks at nature and sees causes and effects. Will sees the divine presence, the Hand of God released from medieval superstitions. They argue. They disagree and grow closer, their banter is full of well-drawn arguments (and sexual tension…) but they respect each other’s views even if they’re too proud to admit it. They are against all prejudices, religious and social, but deep down they’re helpless. They try to shed their skin and come to terms with the other’s reality, but this requires a kind of sacrifice they’re not willing to commit. And they’re trapped in a world where the mob cannot be freed by their fears and nightly terrors.

‘’There was a crooked man’’, he said, ‘’who walked a crooked mile.’’

Same thing happens with Luke whose appearance makes people suspicious of his intentions. He is a doctor, highly skilled, highly intelligent, whose offers are denied out of terror. He speaks outright and faces adversity and hostility from minds that are buried in the mud where the Serpent resides. Luke is the most fascinating character along with Cora. Will, on the other hand, well...not so much…

Will is a coward. He denies his moments of clarity and is afraid of his feelings. Cora makes him a complete, rounded character. When he’s alone, he becomes a shadow and yet, he cannot see it or refuse to do so. Cora shakes his mundane life, but he prefers mediocrity. His wife, Stella is a pathetic woman. A figure created out of boredom, docility and piousness in the extreme. Martha, Cora’s maid, is a shrew in heh most negative way possible. She’s full of anger for everything and everyone, she hates everyone’s existence and believes she has to constantly speak her mind (which is usually wrong) ad interfere in Cora’s life in a presumptuous, rude, vulgar manner. Stella and Martha required a lot of patience from me in order to avoid skipping their pages…

I don’t need to stress how exceptional Perry’s writing is. Poetic, lyrical, dark, Gothic. There is stream of consciousness at times, there are diary entries, correspondence. There are passages with descriptions that seemed to have jumped straight out of a tale by Poe. The language may remind you of the Bronte sisters. There are bloody images- with a Viking blood eagle reference- and there is also a hymn to the beauty of the foreboding nature. Rooks and ruins, waves and the moon. The dialogue is perfection, the moments when Perry describes the actions and the state of mind of our main characters simultaneously contain some of the most exquisite pieces of writing I’ve recently found in a novel (and I have found a plethora…). It gives an atmosphere of darkness, an eerie feeling that something is about to happen. One of our characters will cross a personal limit or a new wound will occur.. Who knows...Perry definitely knows how to create anticipation and this is one of the most important aspects in Gothic Fiction, particularly. The Author’s Notes contain a ton of fascinating suggestive reads and they are jewels in themselves.

For me, this book is as close to perfect as it can get. Let yourself wonder in a dark coastal town and look the serpent in the eye... ( )
  AmaliaGavea | Jul 15, 2018 |
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» Add other authors (2 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Sarah Perryprimary authorall editionscalculated
Bonné, EvaÜbersetzersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Brovelli, ChiaraTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Dyer, PeterCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Fagel, RolandTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gerson, NatashaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
McMahon, JuanitaNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Morris, WilliamCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Epigraph
If you press me to say why I loved him, I can say no more than because he was he, and I was I.

Michel de Montaigne, On Friendship
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For Stephen Crowe
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A young man walks down by the banks of the Blackwater under the full cold moon.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Book description
An exquisitely talented young British author makes her American debut with this rapturously acclaimed historical novel, set in late nineteenth-century England, about an intellectually minded young widow, a pious vicar, and a rumored mythical serpent that explores questions about science and religion, skepticism, and faith, independence and love.

When Cora Seaborne’s brilliant, domineering husband dies, she steps into her new life as a widow with as much relief as sadness: her marriage was not a happy one. Wed at nineteen, this woman of exceptional intelligence and curiosity was ill-suited for the role of society wife. Seeking refuge in fresh air and open space in the wake of the funeral, Cora leaves London for a visit to coastal Essex, accompanied by her inquisitive and obsessive eleven-year old son, Francis, and the boy’s nanny, Martha, her fiercely protective friend.

While admiring the sites, Cora learns of an intriguing rumor that has arisen further up the estuary, of a fearsome creature said to roam the marshes claiming human lives. After nearly 300 years, the mythical Essex Serpent is said to have returned, taking the life of a young man on New Year’s Eve. A keen amateur naturalist with no patience for religion or superstition, Cora is immediately enthralled, and certain that what the local people think is a magical sea beast may be a previously undiscovered species. Eager to investigate, she is introduced to local vicar William Ransome. Will, too, is suspicious of the rumors. But unlike Cora, this man of faith is convinced the rumors are caused by moral panic, a flight from true belief.

These seeming opposites who agree on nothing soon find themselves inexorably drawn together and torn apart—an intense relationship that will change both of their lives in ways entirely unexpected. [retrieved 8/30/17 from Amazon.com]
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"Costa Book Award Finalist and the Waterstones (UK) Book of the Year 2016." "I loved this book. At once numinous, intimate and wise, The Essex Serpent is a marvelous novel about the workings of life, love and belief, about science and religion, secrets, mysteries, and the complicated and unexpected shifts of the human heart--and it contains some of the most beautiful evocations of place and landscape I've ever read. It is so good its pages seem lit from within. As soon as I'd finished it I started reading it again."--Helen MacDonald, author of H is for Hawk. An exquisitely talented young British author makes her American debut with this rapturously acclaimed historical novel, set in late nineteenth-century England, about an intellectually minded young widow, a pious vicar, and a rumored mythical serpent that explores questions about science and religion, skepticism, and faith, independence and love. When Cora Seaborne's brilliant, domineering husband dies, she steps into her new life as a widow with as much relief as sadness: her marriage was not a happy one. Wed at nineteen, this woman of exceptional intelligence and curiosity was ill-suited for the role of society wife. Seeking refuge in fresh air and open space in the wake of the funeral, Cora leaves London for a visit to coastal Essex, accompanied by her inquisitive and obsessive eleven-year old son, Francis, and the boy's nanny, Martha, her fiercely protective friend. While admiring the sites, Cora learns of an intriguing rumor that has arisen further up the estuary, of a fearsome creature said to roam the marshes claiming human lives. After nearly 300 years, the mythical Essex Serpent is said to have returned, taking the life of a young man on New Year's Eve. A keen amateur naturalist with no patience for religion or superstition, Cora is immediately enthralled, and certain that what the local people think is a magical sea beast may be a previously undiscovered species. Eager to investigate, she is introduced to local vicar William Ransome. Will, too, is suspicious of the rumors. But unlike Cora, this man of faith is convinced the rumors are caused by moral panic, a flight from true belief. These seeming opposites who agree on nothing soon find themselves inexorably drawn together and torn apart--an intense relationship that will change both of their lives in ways entirely unexpected. Hailed by Sarah Waters as "a work of great intelligence and charm, by a hugely talented author," The Essex Serpent is "irresistible. you can feel the influences of Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, and Hilary Mantel channeled by Perry in some sort of Victorian seance. This is the best new novel I've read in years" (Daily Telegraph, London)"-- When Cora Seaborne's domineering husband dies, she steps into her new life as a widow with as much relief as sadness. Seeking refuge, Cora leaves London for a visit to coastal Essex, accompanied by her son, Francis, and the boy's nanny, Martha, her fiercely protective friend. Cora learns of a fearsome creature said to roam the marshes claiming human lives. After nearly 300 years, the mythical Essex Serpent is said to have taken the life of a young man on New Year's Eve. Certain that the "sea beast" may be a previously undiscovered species, Cora joins local vicar William Ransome in investigating the rumors.… (more)

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