The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry (2017), is well written and introduces an interesting if stock set of characters: a country parson and his wife (who is dying of tuberculosis); a recently widowed woman whose new independence gives her the chance to pursue her interests; the assistant who secretly loves her; the brilliant medical doctor who also loves her; the son who is lonely and probably autistic, and so on. The novel seems to falter about a third of the way through. Although I kept reading, the remainder never quite lived up to the promise of the first third.
The serpent itself is obviously a symbol. From the title of the book itself, to the residents who report its supposed appearances, to the main character’s interest in finding a modern-day ichthyosaur, we’re constantly invited to think about its meaning: the serpent is a catalyst. It causes change and upset, romantic attachments and separations, social dislocation, a return to old superstitions or a loss of moral values. It’s clearly a symbol of the dislocations and upheavals caused by the approach of the modern world. But to what end?
The center of the novel is the friendship that develops between the country parson, William Ransome, and the divorced woman, Cora Seagrave. Gradually it deepens, despite the parson’s love for his wife and the woman’s awareness of the social factors that separate her life from his. The parson is devoted to his wife and children and to his vocation in the remote small coastal town where he lives, Aldwinter. His parishioners expect him to deal in some way with the rumored serpent, in which they deeply believe. He doesn’t believe, at best thinks the beast is a superstition, but he can’t find the sentiments and words to bring understanding and comfort in his sermons. Their belief, his disbelief, in the context of the Darwinian world of late nineteenth-century England, offers commentary on the nature of reason and faith. The parson and the widow are different in their views of the world and of religion, yet they share deep-thinking similarities. In the end, although they have their moment in the woods, it hardly seems to matter.