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Visitations in the Night

By (July 1, 2017) No Comment

The Essex Serpent
By Sarah Perry
Harper Collins, 2017

I’m not afraid . . . But something’s here—something’s going on—something isn’t right”: so Cora Seaborne writes to her devoted friend Luke Garrett in Sarah Perry’s neo-Victorian novel The Essex Serpent. Cora has taken up residence in the small Essex town of Aldwinter, drawn by curiosity about the mysterious events causing uneasy speculation, even panic, among the area’s regular inhabitants. In the 17th century, a pamphlet called STRANGE NEWS OUT OF ESSEX told the story of “a monstrous serpent with eyes like a sheep” that rose from the water to terrorize and even kill, then disappeared again. “For nigh on two hundred years,” one of the locals tells Cora,

we had neither hide nor hair of it till the quake came and something was shook loose down there under the water—something was set free! A great creeping thing, as they tell it, more dragon than serpent, as content on land as in water, that suns its wings on a fair day.

Cora, who traveled to Essex initially to hunt fossils, is not susceptible to fear of the supernatural, but she is thrilled at the possibility that this elusive sea creature might be “one of these dinosaurs they say might’ve survived extinction,” kin to the prehistoric beasts whose skeletons had been uncovered by the famous early-19th-century fossil hunter Mary Anning. But Cora’s scientifically-minded enthusiasm is not the only response to the serpent sightings, and as Perry’s novel unfolds, the mythic monster becomes a cipher for fears, dreams, and secrets of many kinds.

Cora’s chief ally in investigating the mystery of the Essex serpent is also, paradoxically, her main intellectual antagonist. William Ransome is the Rector of Aldwinter. Like Cora, he is impatient with the wild rumors circulating about “some kind of leviathan with wings of leather and a toothy grin,” but he is motivated to uncover the truth not by the spirit of scientific inquiry but by frustration that “his parish could have succumbed to such godless superstition.” William does wonder, though, if he can turn his parishioners’ trepidation to their spiritual advantage: “few things turned the heart to eternity more surely than fear,” he reflects.

Though William shares Cora’s conviction that “there’s no monstrous serpent here,” their fundamental outlooks are entirely opposed. His relationship to nature is that of a profoundly religious man:

He felt his faith deeply, and above all out of doors, where the vaulted sky was his cathedral nave and the oaks its transept pillars: when faith failed, as it sometimes did, he saw the heavens declare the glory of God and heard the stones cry out.

Cora, in contrast, sees religion as “a sort of blindness, or a choice to be mad—to turn your back on everything new and wonderful—not to see that there’s no fewer miracles in the microscope than in the gospels!” It is a shame, she insists,

that in the modern age a man could impoverish his intellect enough to satisfy himself with myth and legend—could be content to turn his back to the world and bury himself in ideas which even your father must have thought outdated.

“I’ve turned my back on nothing,” William responds; “I have done the reverse. Do you think everything can be accounted for by equations and soil deposits?” Against her suggestion that he has no right to be skeptical about the serpent given that his faith is “all strangeness and mystery . . . all seeing nothing in the dark, stumbling, making out dim shapes with your hands,” he asserts that his God “is a god of reason and order, not of visitations in the night!”

As Cora and William both recognize, this difference in world view “ought by right to exclude friendship, and [they] are a little baffled to discover it does nothing of the kind.” In fact, they become so close that those around them struggle to accept their inexplicable intimacy. It is typical of Cora in particular, though, to flout convention. Recently widowed, she is both mourning and celebrating the end of a marriage that strangely conflated love and suffering:

her fear of [her husband] was so very like her love—attended by the same fast-paced heart, the same broken nights, the same alertness to his footsteps in the hall . . . she could not tell how strange it was to be subject to pain as much as pleasure.

Now she is free of both that marriage (from which she bears literal scars) and the general constraints of Victorian femininity. “Martha says I’ve never looked odder or uglier,” she writes to Luke,

but you know I’ve always thought beauty a curse and am more than happy to dispense with it completely. Sometimes I forget that I’m a woman—at least—I forget to THINK OF MYSELF AS A WOMAN. All the obligations and comforts of womanhood seem to have nothing to do with me now. I’m not sure how I am supposed to behave and I’m not sure I would, if I knew.

She’s very aware of the gap “between what I ought to be, and what I am.” Her friendship with William feels happily outside the limiting norms of courtship, not just because he’s already lovingly married, to the ethereally charming Stella, but because of (she thinks) “his complete failure to notice she was a woman.” She is similarly happy in her friendship with Luke Garrett, and then disappointed when he writes to her declaring his love: “with hardly a few months’ freedom to her name, someone wanted to put their mark on her again.”

The conflict between religion and science and the constraints of Victorian marriage are both staple themes of Victorian novels as well as of modern reimaginings of the period and its genres. In The Essex Serpent, however, neither of these issues provides a compelling unifying vision for the novel as a whole. For one thing, the serpent turns out to be an interpretive red herring. Though its rumored presence does bring some of the novel’s main characters together, most notably Cora and William, it is wholly peripheral to other aspects of the plot. The discovery of what really lies behind the supposed sightings is anticlimactic both for the characters and for us—twice. First, a terrible smell leads Will and the villagers to the edge of the water where they discover a decaying creature

wingless, limbless, its body taut as a drum’s skin and gleaming silver . . . eyes large in diameter as a clenched fist looked blindly out, and behind them a pair of gills split away from the silvery flesh and showed, deep within, a crimson, meaty frilling that resembled the underside of a mushroom.

Foul and exotic as the carcass is, “not the most superstitious of men,” Will concludes, “could’ve believed this decaying fish to be a monster of myth: it was simply an animal, as they all were; and was dead, as they all would be.” Is its putrefied flesh a grim counterpart to Cora’s assertion that nature reveals as many miracles as the gospel—is its message that we need look no further than the sea to discover demonic forces? Neither Will nor the novel draws any such conclusion: “the mystery had not been solved so much as denied.” Will does wonder about his own inability to believe in something outside his ordinary reality: “Why had it always seemed to him so preposterous that in the estuary something was biding its time—was it a question not of failing to believe in the serpent, but of failure to believe in his God?” No crisis of faith ensues for him, however, on these grounds or on the grounds that both this and the second explanation that emerges for the supposed serpent are wholly earthly, with no deity either required or affirmed.

One reason these discoveries about the Essex serpent stand as neither revelations nor resolutions is that the novel’s attention is dispersed across a range of characters whose activities do not—as they would in a Dickens novel—turn out to be variations on a single theme. Cora’s friend Luke, for instance, is a ground-breaking surgeon who carries out a daring and innovative procedure on a knifing victim’s heart. Perry’s description of the surgery is graphic and gripping:

The tension of the skin had caused it to open in the shape of a blind eye. Burton had so little fat on him that the gray-white bone of the rib was visible beneath the severed skin and muscle. The opening was insufficient, and having first washed the flesh in iodine Garrett took his knife and made it larger by an inch in each direction. . . . With a fine bone saw . . . he cut the rib to four inches shorter than creation intended, and put it in a pan held nearby. Then with steel retractors that would not have looked out of place in the hands of a railway engineer he opened up a cavity and peered within. . . . The marbling of red and purplish-blue, and the scant deposits of yellow fat: they were not the colors of nature. Once or twice the muscles all around the opening flexed slowly, like a mouth arrested in a yawn.

It’s an extraordinary moment, medically and historically, and indicative of the careful research that underlies Perry’s stylish reconstruction of the period. What, though, does it have to do with the novel’s eponymous serpent? Perhaps a parallel is intended between Luke’s ruthless excavations of human flesh and Cora’s fossil-hunting: both in their own ways are signals of modernity, investments in the value of the literal over the metaphorical, and in objective inquiry as the path to progress. This—and its logical corollary that religion, superstition, and other kinds of magical thinking need to be abandoned or they will hinder development—is not a consistent pattern across the novel, however. To the contrary, many of its most artful moments arise from mystery, desire, or outright delusion, such as the irrational euphoria of William’s ailing wife, Stella:

It is the spes phthisica, which confers on the tubercular patient a light heart, a hopeful spirit. She brims with joy unspeakable and full of glory, beatified by suffering, devoutly occupied in her taxonomy of blue. Like a magpie decking its nest she gathers talismans around her, of gentian seed packets and sea glass and spools of navy thread, and all throughout her eyes are fixed on heaven.

Stella’s fatal happiness makes it seem almost a blessing that Luke is attacked and debilitated before he is able to perform a potentially life-saving operation on her. Perhaps, then, the novel’s aim is to sustain us in ambivalence: Is it worth knowing the truth if the price is beauty? Is life worth saving at the expense of magic?

Another element that, while intrinsically interesting, diffuses rather than concentrates the novel’s meaning is its interest in social reform—another pervasive Victorian concern, of course, and thus true to the period but, like Luke’s surgeries, seemingly tangential to the rest of The Essex Serpent. Cora’s close companion Martha is a socialist:

Community halls and picket lines were her temples, and Annie Besant and Eleanor Marx stood at the altar; she had no hymnbook but the fury of folk songs setting English suffering to English melody. . . . When Martha walked from Limehouse to Covent Garden she saw not high windows and Doric columns, but the laborers toiling behind them. It seemed to her that the city’s bricks were red with the blood of its citizens, its mortal pale with the dust of their bones; that deep in its foundations women and children lay head to toe in buried ranks, bearing up the city on their backs.

Martha recruits Luke’s wealthy friend and colleague George Spencer to her cause, inspiring him to philanthropy, only to be frustrated that—as Cora has also found—friendship and collaboration too easily slide, on his side at least, into romantic interest. Later she joins forces with Edward Burton, the patient saved by Luke’s operation. She raises his consciousness about the world in which, before his surgery, he’d simply “taken his allotted place without complaint”:

What he saw about him now was a sick body convulsing as it shook off its fever—disease coursing in the arteries of its roads and canals; poison silting in the chambers of its halls and factories. He was awake—painfully, restlessly so: he ate his bread wondering what long hours the dying men worked in the flour mills; he watched his mother stitching scraps and knew her worth to be less than that of the bricks in the street.

Edward is aware that “this new fervor was indistinguishable from what he felt for Martha”; again, companionship leads to desire for more. Like Cora, Martha resists marriage, which she sees as not just a personal but also a political constraint:

Don’t ask me to enter an institution that puts me in bonds and leaves you free. There are other ways to live—there are bonds besides those sanctioned by the state! Let’s live as we think—freely and unafraid—let’s be bound by nothing but affection and by holding our purpose in common.

Cora’s challenge is to balance desire and independence, Martha’s to make sure her life lives up to her radical convictions—a nice convergence between their stories, but not one that brings us any closer to either the serpent or the surgeon.

There is another candidate for the novel’s unifying theme, one that is not so conventionally Victorian or neo-Victorian. Perry’s epigraph comes from Montaigne’s On Friendship: “If you press me to say why I loved him, I can so no more than because he was he, and I was I.” It is true that friendships provide the most persistent pattern across The Essex Serpent: the novel features many relationships that sustain the people in them even as they surprise those around them by not conforming to expectations. Cora’s with Luke Garrett is one, as is hers with William Ransome, and also Martha’s with George Spencer and then with Edward Burton. Luke and Spencer too have a strong if often fraught bond, one that culminates in “a marriage of true minds” and a “practical arrangement” through which the disabled Luke continues his surgical work vicariously, through the medium of Spencer’s skilled hands. One of the most interesting relationships in the novel is Cora’s with her son Francis, whose emotional aloofness and preoccupation with patterns, counting, and collecting seem intended to place him on what today we would call the autism spectrum. Cora struggles with his apparent inability to love her back:

“there was little she could do but continue to watch over him, as best she could.” Like so many of the book’s odd couples, they find their own kind of equilibrium: “if their relationship bore little resemblance to the careless warmth she witnessed between other mothers and their sons, it was serviceable enough, and it was theirs.”

Without the epigraph as a clue, however, variations on love and friendship would not have occurred to me as among the novel’s governing concerns, and even with its prompt I still felt no essential connection between them and the monstrous sea creature in any of its literal or symbolic incarnations. I finished the novel with no sense that in order to fulfill its artistic design, all of its different pieces, however individually interesting and well-executed, had to be included as and where they were. To be sure, it’s a fair question whether a novel’s parts must combine into one meaningful whole, or whether it should offer the satisfaction of a conclusion, not just an ending. There’s more than one allusion to William Morris in The Essex Serpent, and he, of course, is famous for his elaborate repeating wallpapers, in which the stunning effect comes from colour and repetition, and from intricate details, not from any singular focus. Perry’s aim may have been similar: to assemble and then arrange and rearrange fragments of Victorian life into an arresting design that in its own way remains open-ended, borderless. Still, whether the novel’s dispersed effects were intended or not, for me the resulting fiction lacks the kind of coherence—both aesthetic and intellectual—that I value in the novels I admire most.

Many of those novels are Victorian novels, and The Essex Serpent displays many of the same qualities I enjoy so much in them. Perry’s evocative descriptions of her settings—including both the estuaries of Essex and the bustling streets of London—are reminiscent of Dickens. So too are her bursts of playful, rhythmic language, especially her opening pages, with their distinct echoes of the famously repetitive beginning of Bleak House:

One o’clock on a dreary day and the time ball dropped at the Greenwich Observatory. There was ice on the prime meridian, and ice on the rigging of the broad-beamed barges down on the busy Thames. . . . Time was being served behind the walls of Newgate jail, and wasted by philosophers in cafes on the Strand; it was lost by those who wished the past were present, and loathed by those who wished the present past. . . .

In Lincoln’s Inn and Middle Temple lawyers eyed their calendars and saw statues of limitations expire; in rooms in Camden and Woolwich time was cruel to lovers wondering how it got so late so soon, and in due course was kind to their ordinary wounds. Across the city in terraces and tenements, in high society and low company and in the middle classes, time was spent and squandered, eked out and wished away; and all the time it rained an icy rain.

In the clear pleasure she takes in words themselves, in her flair for convincing yet idiosyncratic characters, and in her attention to the way ideas as well as feelings matter to the ways people choose to live, Perry lives up to the nineteenth-century predecessors whose world she has stylishly reinvented. One thing Dickens never does, though, even at his most excessive, is leave you wondering what it all adds up to. In this respect, The Essex Serpent, like its namesake, turns out to be something less substantial than anticipated.

Rohan Maitzen is an English professor in Halifax, Nova Scotia; she is an editor at Open Letters Monthly and blogs at Novel Readings.