For me, the cover is always the beginning. The Essex Serpent gives me all the Slytherin feels: emerald and sage, scales and flowers, it is a thing of beauty. And so are the words within.
Set in 1893, men rule the world. But upon the death of her abusive husband, Cora Seabourne has freedom – freedom to become a scientist, freedom to live a happy and safe life, and freedom to love and fuck who she pleases. She’s a new Jane Eyre or Elizabeth Bennett – one who’s intention is to pursue her vocation as an independent woman who doesn’t need and frankly doesn’t want a man.
On the wake of the worldwide Women’s Marches The Essex Serpent reminds me how far women have come, and how much further we have to go.
Sarah Perry’s (After Me Comes the Flood) novel, appropriately published by Serpent’s Tale, follows Cora who’s seemingly unfortunate fate provides her release and freedom from an abusive husband. Fascinated by science and a keen naturalist, with her unusual son, Cora moves to Essex where tales of a formidable serpent fill the superstitious minds of the locals.
It is in the small Essex town of Aldwinter that Cora meets the local Vicar, William Ransome. Perry uses luxurious language, nature, and whispers of The Gothic (think mystery, mist, and maidens). She paints a portrait of opposing forces: William is married, Cora is a widow; he is a man of faith, she a woman of science. He believes the serpent is merely a myth, she believes it is a species yet to be discovered. All at once they are enemies and best friends.
The novel is a testament to friendship and its powerful force. While sex and intimacy can be used and abused, friendship is the purest form of love.
On the pages we watch Perry map the love of two kindred spirits, the force of friendship surpasses the boundaries of gender and society and religion. The two have a friendship so pure and true, all else falls away: “William Ransome and Cora Seaborne, stripped of code and convention, even of speech, stood with her strong hand in his: children of the earth lost in wonder.” As a reader, I was akin to their friendship, jealous of what they had, and bewitched by their love.
All this is set in the wild and boggy estuaries of Essex – a place Perry has described in prose so ornate at times it slips into poetry. The writing, fluid and dreamlike, captivated me and forced me to become obsessed with Cora’s obsession – the earth and the secrets it holds.
To the common (wo)man, the earth is just that – rocks and stones and dirt, but to Cora, the earth is a “graveyard with gods and monsters under [our] feet, waiting for weather or a hammer and brush to bring them up to a new kind of life”. And like the tides of the Essex estuary, the relationship between Cora and Will ebbs and flows; they navigate the gap between science and faith, love, and friendship.
The monthly chapters of The Essex Serpent are interrupted by letters between the two, confessionals that hold thoughts and emotion they would never speak aloud. It is these letters that remind me of our modern day written words that allow us to speak freely – texts and messages and emails. Some say that technology is ruining relationships of today, and in some ways it might, but it also gives friends and lovers alike a chance to form words and sentences with time, care, and deliberate action.
The book may be read as a love story of sorts (by those who probably wish for all books to be love stories), but at its core, The Essex Serpent is the chronicle a young widow who finally has freedom in an oppressive world.
Cora’s venture to solve the mystery of The Essex Serpent is only available because her husband has died. This is exceptionally striking to me. I, as a woman, have the freedom to marry or not, to decide my own fate, to pursue scientific discovery if I wish. How horrible to think there are still girls and women in the world who would be free only if a man in their life has died. Cora’s story exists because she has a choice – a rare, valuable thing of her time. And yet this remains rare for so many women today. The Essex Serpent makes me pause. Choice is central to what it means to be human.