Cora Seaborne is a recent widow, having been released from an unhappy union by the death of her husband. What she has longed for, and experiences in her widowhood, is a release not just from an unhappy marriage, but also from what she sees as the constraints of having to be “a woman.” She would far rather be pure intellect and study and live free than to play into any traditional roles for women.
As a result, she abandons London and goes to Essex to follow her interest in geology, fossils, and the recently resurfaced rumors of the Essex Serpent. In the 17th century a serpent supposedly terrorized the Blackwater estuary and the residents of Aldwinter believe a recent earthquake has freed it once more.
The novel recounts Cora’s time in Essex, but also follows all of the people who figure prominently in Cora’s life, both in London and in Aldwinter. Part mystery, part exploration of the uneasy tension between science and Christianity at the time, part love story, part social commentary, The Essex Serpent covers a lot of ground, and all the while, Perry’s style could easily be mistaken for a Victorian novelist’s work. There’s a care, an ornate development, in her sentences that reminds me of Hardy. It requires care from its reader, and it’s a care that is repaid.
This novel received a great deal of attention in England this year, and has only recently come available in the U.S., so it remains to be seen if American readers will embrace it the same way English readers have. They certainly should.