[I read this novel in its four parts, each time writing about that part before moving on to read further. This means that I never knew what was coming next, or how it would end.]
18 May 2017
So far, nearly a third of the way into the novel, I’m not believing a word of it. I don’t know why writers in the 21st Century pick a period from history, do a bit of research and then launch into the project of pretending they can recreate a plausible version of it. Some can, but Sarah Perry seems to have no interest, for instance, in how middle class men and women would have spoken to each other in the 1890s. Cora Seaborne, the main character, always speaks to men as her precise equals – and, to a man, they appear to take this completely for granted and respect her for it. It’s as though, if you simply ignored them, all the layers of deference, reserve and incomprehension that characterised any social interactions between men and women simply didn’t exist.
In other words, Sarah Perry does what most writers of historical fiction do: into her version of the period she has chosen, she has placed a woman from our own time. I guess this must be Perry’s real aim, to make it easy to identify with her heroine. It would explain why Cora speaks as we speak today – and why Sarah Perry writes in a completely modern idiom. Instead of the measured, formal cadences of late Victorian writers, she writes with the familiar, conversational informality of now. At random, from page 112: ‘Stella felt, as she often did, dazed with the good fortune which she knew to be a gift she had done nothing to earn.’ This could be from a novel set in our own century and, for me, this means that something important is missing. Once Perry has decided not to use the language of the 1890s, all the reader is going to get is the comfortable impression that not only are these people just like us, they think like us too.
This clearly works for a lot of readers. The novel, with its immediately sympathetic heroine, comes garlanded with praise, and I’m not surprised that one of the most prominent plaudits comes from Jessie Burton, author of The Miniaturist. That novel, published in 2014, is another in which the main character is a modern woman parachuted into a different time. I’m seriously beginning to believe that this is exactly what some novelists are aiming for. And I’m starting to see why their novels remind me of those episodes of Dr Who in which the setting is a period in which the doctor and his assistant can dress up in clothes from the BBC costume drama department. Nobody they meet is ever horrified by the feisty assistant’s forwardness or lack of feminine reserve. But people don’t watch Dr Who for historical insights. I’ll shut up about it now. Maybe.
Something else that reminds me of The Miniaturist: there is more than a hint of the uncanny. In Jessie Burton’s novel it’s a craftswoman who makes doll’s house versions of things in the real house, including details she can’t know about and appear to change…. In The Essex Serpent it’s an underwater monster the local rector dismisses as superstition. Like the locals, our heroine wants to believe in it, but from the opposite end of the science spectrum. Like the main character in John Fowles’s far more thoughtful take on the Victorians, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Cora is an amateur naturalist on the lookout for fossils. She hopes the Serpent is a survival from the age of the dinosaurs. Ridiculous, we might think – except that in the opening teaser chapter there’s a vivid enough suggestion of a creature that might really be out there, seen by a man whose drowned body, we are later told, was discovered badly wounded on that same night. He was drunk, we know, but even so… maybe it isn’t just a scare-story.
As if I care. This novel ticks so many of the boxes that go with novels set in this era that I can imagine the Post-it notes around Sarah Perry’s computer screen. Feisty women prepared to make their way in a male-dominated society? Check. Religious doubts sown by the theories of Darwin and Lyell? Check. The plight of the working class in the cities (a risk-free nod to the liberal tendencies of any modern reader)? Check. This sort of thing can be done well, if you’re A S Byatt or Sarah Waters. They are novelists who spend time not only on getting the issues right – that’s the easy bit – but on getting the mind-set right. The constriction of women’s lives, in the 19th Century in Byatt’s Possession and in the early 20th Century in Waters’ The Paying Guests grows out of the different narratives, and feels exactly right. Perry seems not to have given any thought at all to the lives of real women in the 1890s.
But I should tell you about the plot. After that very evocative suggestion in the first chapter that there really might be a Serpent, we are in the company of a doctor learning about every last detail of the human heart. (We guess that Perry will take the opportunity to explore the different aspects of this particular organ as the novel progresses.) We accompany him to the unhappy household of one of his patients, Michael Seaborne – and I don’t know whether Perry is trying wants the name to hint at the watery Serpent in some way. He’s a politician, and he’s always been very nasty indeed to the wife we meet very soon, Cora. They are wealthy enough for her to have a paid companion, Martha, and their intimacy is confirmed not only by her putting her arm around her mistress’s waist, but by her habit of getting into bed with her to comfort her in her unhappiness. This must happen quite often, because Michael treats her in a manner bordering on sadism. She has a scar in the shape of some object he pressed into the skin next to her collar-bone, and when he dies of his illness she finds it difficult to pretend to grieve.
There’s a son who seems to be on the autism spectrum, although the Victorian characters can’t explain his oddness as we would be able to, because this is the past, after all. There are friends, the Ambroses in Cora’s case and the long-suffering Spencer in Luke’s. Charles Ambrose, presented as a dandy – clothes are at least as important in this novel as names – had been a colleague of her husband’s in the mysterious world of politics. And Cora, during her husband’s terminal illness, had become increasingly friendly towards Luke. She always calls him ‘the Imp’ because of his smallness and mischievous wit, and writes intimately conversational letters to him. Perry doesn’t even attempt to pastiche Victorian epistolary style, and she has Cora pepper her letter with phrases that sound more like those of a lover than of a friend. They sound, in fact, like the letters a young female student in our century would write to a man she likes. Luke is delighted to point out that a particularly frank letter, imploring him to visit her, is dated 14th February and is therefore ‘technically a Valentine’s.’ Meanwhile, the friendship between Martha and her mistress appears to be of equals. (Martha is the one who is interested in the reform of housing policy.)
Cora has written to Luke from Essex, where she’s gone because it’s good for palaeontology. In Colchester, where she and Martha are staying, there’s still evidence of the earthquake that took place eight years previously. There’s a ruined house and the surprisingly articulate beggar outside who alleges he lost his legs in the incident. (It’s from the date of this event that we finally know that the novel is set in 1894.) They accidentally bump into the Ambroses, and Charles Ambrose tells her he must introduce her to the rector of a nearby village, which later proves to be Perry’s unsubtle method of bringing together the agnostic amateur scientist and the staunch Christian. But not yet.
February gives way to March – Perry divides the novel into monthly sections – and… we meet the rector long before Cora does. He is very annoyed by the rumours of the Serpent, a 200-year-old local story revived since the earthquake and fuelled by supposedly unexplained events that he denies are any such thing. He has an unfeasibly loving relationship with his beautiful wife, who seems incapable of finding anything but joy in the marshy backwater they have landed in. Her husband could have done better for himself, but has a real sense of vocation to guide his flock away from the darkness of superstition – another Post-it note – and towards the light of God. He refers not to the Serpent but to the ‘Trouble,’ and would like to destroy a carved representation of it from a ‘Restoration pew’ carved centuries before, when the original legend was still a recent memory. His wife and children won’t let him do it.
Ambrose has written a letter of introduction, but the rector has no interest in inviting a wealthy London widow and the son he assumes will be down from university. (Really, he’s about thirteen.) In the meantime, in stand-alone chapters, there are various little events or encounters. While out walking, Cora shouts at a man she sees, apparently doing violence to a sheep. In fact, the big man she takes for a vagrant is trying to pull it from the mire, and she helps him. She does it in such a hands-on way it becomes clear that this unfeminine approach is a thing with her. In another chapter, two of the rector’s children and the daughter of a superstitious parishioner we’ve met perform a ritual to appease the (classical) gods to rid the land of its curse and to kick-start the spring that is so late this year. (Cora, or ‘Kore’, is an alternative name for Persephone. This is definitely not accidental.) A parishioner, Cracknell, who has renounced God following one death too many in his family, tells the rector he needs to take the curse seriously. And so on.
After all the reluctance, on both sides, Cora is finally invited to visit the rectory. Stella, the rector’s wife and the personification of quiet charm, is sickly following a bad winter cough that she’s only just got rid of. She coughs, only once but very violently, during the dinner that the Ambroses are also invited to. Just saying, because… there’s immediately been a spark of interest between Cora and the rector – I should start to call him by his name, William Ransome – despite, or because of their philosophical differences. He, of course, is happily married man. For now. But she recognises him as the supposed vagrant she helped, and the laughter they seem to find contagious, both at the dinner and at the church next day, is not going away.
Also at the church, Cracknell makes a grand entrance with his shadow cast before him – which makes me wonder about Essex church layout. How many of their doors face the morning sun? After the service, he gets up close and whispers familiarly to Cora, making her feel very uncomfortable. It isn’t only his mossy smell and earwiggy overcoat that disturbs her, but also the idea of having his dark superstitions muddled up with her scientific interest in the Serpent possibly being a living fossil.
Is that enough for now? Luke does finally come to Essex for what that visit. (A hard-pressed doctor seems to have plenty of time for such activities in Perry’s version of the 1890s.) He’s brought Spencer, who seems to be interested in Martha, but she thinks he represents everything that is wrong about the privilege-ridden upper classes. She considers, wrongly, that his pursuit of a medical career is no more than a rich man’s hobby. Is that another Post-it note I can see? Martha, like everybody else in this novel, has a lot to learn. And… there’ll be things I’ve missed out – like Perry’s annoying habit of using informally modern forms of English even when we are supposed to be reading letters written 120 years ago – but if they’re important they’ll come up again.
This novel was very highly praised when it appeared last year. If I’m asked my opinion after I’ve finished it, I’ll probably just say that a lot of people like it. I like historical fiction when it’s done well – I’ve mentioned Sarah Waters and A S Byatt, and there are Hilary Mantel and others that I like – but done like this it feels pointless to me. I had an insight into what the problem when I glanced at the Author’s Note at the end: ‘I am indebted to a number of books for having opened the door to a Victorian age so like our own I am almost persuaded I remember it.’ I don’t take issue with the idea that the Victorians were human beings with the same appetites and drives as our own. John Fowles did a wonderful job of mining this very seam, 50 years ago now, in The French Lieutenant’s Woman. But an author doesn’t have licence to pretend that the differences are somehow negligible. They aren’t, and the best writers deal with the challenge of imagining people whose lives have been steeped in attitudes and moral assumptions that are so dissimilar to ours as to appear completely alien. Good authors don’t simply write stories about people who are just like us, but in fancy dress.
So, what happens in Part 2? The plot goes on its way, part melodrama and part teasing (possible) love story. Or stories. These two, inevitably, are interconnected. Whilst Stella, Will’s beautiful wife, is not getting any better despite the arrival of spring, Will and Cora’s friendship becomes stronger than ever. (There are bluebells in March in Essex, apparently, and Stella has a growing near-obsession with the colour blue. She finds it cooling, or something.) And, in the background, Luke thinks about Cora too, and Spencer finds Martha’s ideas about London housing more and more interesting….
Will and Cora carry on behaving as though only they can’t see what is blindingly obvious to everybody else, including the reader. Each of them is constantly surprised that they can enjoy the company and opinions of someone whose philosophy is so flawed. (This is, more or less, the phrase Perry uses.) Just before the end of Part 2, it cools – tell you later – but during April and into May they are so friendly there would be scandal if Stella wasn’t so patently approving of it. But she isn’t quite on the same planet as the other characters, seems not to think about society’s accepted norms. She does not expect to live long, although she hides any blood she coughs up, and seems to approve wholeheartedly of the evident love between Will and Cora. As ever, they only notice the meeting of minds. In a self-consciously resonant episode, they witness an occurrence of the Fata Morgana illusion, a boat floating high above the horizon in the distant mist. They are both so amazed by it they hold one another’s hands… and are astonished to have responded in this way. Later, in a letter written from the British Museum, it’s Will who explains the phenomenon to Cora. They write a lot of letters, but never about what is really going on between them.
In London, Luke is able, thanks to a message from a nursing sister who would have been a surgeon herself in a later century – that isn’t exactly how Perry puts it, but it nearly is – is able to perform an operation on the wounded heart of a man who has been stabbed. He has to overcome the seemingly unscientific prejudices of his colleagues – it’s the man’s heart, one of them says, failing to block the door to the man’s room – but he does it. It isn’t a deep injury to the heart, but it would have been enough to kill the man, and Luke’s bravery and meticulous skill are enough to confer hero status on him. He’s already a hero to Spencer, present at the operation, who has in the past let him practise stitching on an injury of his own. Close friendships are another theme…
…or not so close. Spencer’s interest has been piqued by Martha’s enthusiasm for no-strings housing provision for workers in London – are you believing any of this? – and he is reading the pamphlets she pushes in his direction. He has written to Ambrose to urge proper reforms in parliament, ones that will end, for instance, the Peabody Trust’s stipulation that its tenants must be morally fit. Perry, her research showing, has Martha describe (to Edward, I think, the man Luke operated on) how current practices reward bad landlords following the clearance of slums, only for most tenants to be left either homeless or in even worse accommodation. Which makes Martha, after Cora, Will and Luke, the fourth character driven by a favourite cause. She mocks the bees buzzing in Cora’s bonnet… and perhaps she has a point. Martha, by comparison, seems more interested in people.
Meanwhile, it seems, there are different kinds of serpent. Luke likes the snake of Asclepius, used to draw it as a child, and now has a charm in its image. At their one disastrous meeting, Will doesn’t exactly think of Luke as a serpent, but as a ‘creature’ threatening his daughter. What he doesn’t know is that Stella, more than ever away with the fairies, has given her permission to him to hypnotise their daughter. This is Joanna, the one behind the little ritual in Part 1 but who has since put such childish things behind her. She has befriended Martha, admires Cora, and wants to be like them. At Cora’s request, Luke is hypnotising her and the other girls who had collapsed into mass hysteria when Cora’s little talk in their school appears to make the possibility of the Serpent all too real. It’s Naomi, the other girl present at the ritual but now almost ignored by her former friend, who had triggered the hysteria. Or it was Cora, dabbling with forces she couldn’t control. There’s been mention of witchcraft – the locals don’t like a clever woman with no taste for the latest fashions – and the hysteria reminds somebody of the Salem trials….
If I’ve given the impression that I like the way Perry draws threads together, that isn’t what I intended. It’s hokum. Even the more thoughtful sections, like Martha’s visits to Edward, the man Luke operated on, somehow get lost in the melodrama of the main plot. Edward’s slow and apparently incomplete recovery could be a warning about the limitations of scientific progress. Or, he insists, it’s a judgment: it was his bantering mockery of a colleague we recognise as having depressive tendencies that brought about the stabbing. Earlier, Cora’s son had asked Will, out on a walk with him to the abandoned wreck where that ritual took place, to define sin for him. The rector, out in nature rather than in the pulpit, can’t do it without a struggle. Eventually he describes it as a falling short of what we might aim for – but the boy is only partly satisfied by this.
That encounter between Will and Luke. Will knows nothing of the decision to use hypnosis to get to the bottom of what sent the girls into hysterics, and (like Cora when he was trying to rescue the sheep) assumes it to be nothing good. He pulls Luke away from where he crouches over his daughter, and… for now, it has put Will and Cora’s friendship on hold. Luke had left Essex almost on the next train and, some time later, Ambrose tells Cora she needs to apologise to Will. She tries, sort of, but we see in her letter that she just can’t bring herself to do it. Will’s short reply is the epitome of polite coolness. End of Part 2.
Plot developments. They had to come, I guess, and they do. Perry bows to the inevitable truth that beneath the dressing of Victoriana this is definitely a 21st Century novel. Nothing wrong with that, you might say….
Cora decides she’s had enough of being cold-shouldered, so she invites ‘all the people I ever loved and all the people who ever loved me’ – I might be paraphrasing – to a dinner party. So Luke has to get on with Will, Will has to get on with Cora, and the Metropolitan sophisticates have to get on with the provincials. It might have worked…. As if. What happens is that Will realises that Cora, being a woman, is potentially much more than a friend. Against both their wills (pun probably intended) they are persuaded to dance to the one waltz tune that Joanna can play on the piano. That’s when it happens. He can feel the giving flesh of her waist, and notices, apparently for the first time, various of her other feminine attributes. Meanwhile, Stella is almost visibly fading into the wide, very blue yonder. She floats around ethereally at the party, or takes a window seat propped up by the blue cushion that Cora has bought especially for her. Will, somewhere in his reluctant consciousness, knows that she is no longer the woman she was, the one who bore his weight in the marriage bed and five of his children. Two of them, according to her account of it, were blue. She means they didn’t survive…
…and, as it has been almost from the first mention of her persistent cough, it becomes clear that she isn’t long for this world either. Cora, or somebody, persuades Will to allow her to be examined by a London specialist, and he tells her what she has known for months: she has TB. Luke, present at the consultation, offers surgery – but by now Will has become revolted by the way, as he sees it, Luke treats living flesh with no more respect than ‘offal.’ The science/anti-science battle-lines have never been more clearly drawn, and Will also refuses help from the specialist who offers non-invasive treatment. And Will had always considered himself the rationalist, following in the footsteps of the Enlightenment Christians.
He isn’t looking so rational now. He is so far from his comfort zones in so many ways that Perry’s treatment of him seems almost cruel. Immediately after the party, after he has come to understand the implications of that close physical encounter with Cora and knowing that Stella is not the woman she was, he goes down to the shore of the Blackwater in great confusion. He resorts, like Leopold Bloom on a different shore and in a different novel, to masturbation. Perry doesn’t make it immediately clear, but after he has ‘spent himself’ he definitely doesn’t feel any better. (Meanwhile, a little sexual incontinence has not gone at all amiss with Luke and Martha. They spend the night together, each imagining that the hand placed just there – or just there – is really Cora’s. How we laughed.)
Same night… Francis goes down to the strand as well, there to see in the distance what appears to be a human being crouched over in distress. Is it Will, about his unrectorly business in the strangely blue light? (This is the second remarkable meteorological phenomenon of the novel. It’s no wonder the natives are getting restless.) In fact, it isn’t the rector, but Cracknell. I didn’t mention that his quarrel with God has only got worse since one of his two beloved goats wandered on to the shore and died of exposure. It was the Serpent that did it, he’s decided, and now he’s ill himself. Francis has found him in the last throes of his illness, and the old man asks him to fetch the rector for him. But Francis, for autistically logical reasons of his own, decides not to, forces Cracknell’s head to look skywards to see the wonders on show – which, almost miraculously, he does. There might be no priest, but he’s had his moment of sublimity and it’s good enough for him. He dies. Fine.
Except it isn’t fine. The locals find the body in its contorted pose, decide the Serpent must have had it in for the old man – all those deaths! – and that now it looks as if it’s broken his neck. What’s a poor rector to do? He tries to preach his sermons as normal, but knows nobody wants to hear him even though they attend the service seeking some sort of comfort. Most of them won’t even sing the hymns, which even Cracknell joined in with during that one visit to the church all those weeks ago. Will decides, after all, that he is going to destroy the Serpent carving. His wife can’t stop him now, and Joanna can only remonstrate, look on in horror, and muse on children’s powerlessness even when right is on their side. After this, it doesn’t help Will when it’s decided that his children should stay somewhere away from their mother – or when Naomi mysteriously disappears….
That’s enough of Essex for now. And it isn’t just me saying that – Cora has decided she can’t face the mixed feelings she has around Will (I might be just guessing), and Perry has decided there’s more to be gained by making the next plot developments London-based. I’ve mentioned the medical consultation. Now, the lovelorn Spencer has managed to persuade Charles Ambrose to come with him and Martha (and, for important plot reasons, Luke) to visit Edward the recovering patient. Martha has been seeing him, as I mentioned, and she’s been discussing what might be needed to solve the housing crisis in the East End. It seems the Edward has long had a dream of a better way of doing things, and now he spends hours of his convalescence designing social housing around grassy squares.
Why all this convoluted bringing together of so many of the main characters in what Edward’s mother describes as a dangerous part of London? Why, as an author, send them out on a fact-finding mission in a place that Edward jokingly tells them they will only ‘probably’ return from unscathed? Why, soon enough, is the failed murderer following them with the sharpened knife which, surely, Perry wouldn’t have mentioned if he wasn’t going to use it…?
In other words, who is he going to kill? He can’t get at Edward but, conveniently, the newspapers have printed a photograph of the genius surgeon who saved his life. And that’s the very man he is following now…. And after some all-human-life-is-there scene-setting, complete with cigarette-smoking fairy, maimed barrel-organist veteran of the Afghan Wars and impromptu dancing, one of them is indeed badly injured. The would-be killer had lunged at Luke, had been pulled away by Spencer, but had still had his knife out and ready. In the confusion, as Luke pulls the man off Spencer, his scalpel-hand is sickeningly badly injured. The sliced muscle, visible bones and joints – the lot – are enough to tell us, and him, that he’ll never work again as a surgeon.
I hate it when authors play nasty little tricks on a character like that. It feels cheap – and it only gets worse. Before the fateful excursion into the underbelly of the East End, Luke had sent a letter to Cora expressing his undying love for her – but expecting, he writes, nothing in return. She sends back two letters, the first rejecting him utterly – ‘HOW COULD YOU?’ – but the second, written after she hears of his injury, expressing her genuine pity. But Perry wants to mess with Cora’s head too. (Remind me never to appear in a novel by this woman. She really puts you through it.) In Spencer’s reply to her second letter he turns, for four pages, into a novelist. He keeps the suspense going very well for a beginner, describing the operation Luke had made him promise to do on his ruined hand. He won’t have an anaesthetic, wanting to keep all his faculties at their peak, and… and Spencer is clearly a 21st Century novelist, so there’s none of that considerate tact when it comes to describing unpleasant things. The details are hideous, as Spencer administers the anaesthetic anyway and does his best to repair the severed tendons. But, as Spencer writes, Luke himself had always complained about his poor sewing skills. After the operation, Luke’s index and middle fingers are bent into hooks, and three weeks later he is refusing to do the recommended exercises having ‘lost hope.’
At the end of the letter (and of Part 3), Spencer is as merciless as Sarah Perry herself: ‘Your second letter was a kind one, but don’t you know him well enough to keep your pity to yourself? / I won’t write again unless he asks me. / He can’t write, He can’t hold a pen….’
Bastard – there’s no need to revel in it. And I don’t mean Spencer.
Sarah Perry seems to want to redefine what love is, and what friendship is, and how those two might overlap. It’s a worthy project. But to attempt it in a novel in which the characters are trying to do this in an unconvincing version of a historical time period, and in which she has never once successfully engaged with the late Victorian mind-set, is… is what? Wildly ambitious? A fool’s errand? Whatever, it doesn’t work for me.
The Serpent isn’t a serpent. In the opening chapter of the novel, the one I called a teaser, Perry very strongly suggests that it is real. In Part 4, it is confirmed that it isn’t, that sightings of it are based upon not one, but two naturally occurring phenomena – tell you later – and the villagers’ superstitious belief in some Old Testament (or pagan) form of divine retribution. The latter idea provides Perry with opportunities to raise the issues of sin and guilt. We remember what trouble Will had in defining sin for Francis, and the events of Part 4, whilst bringing him up very close to his ambiguous feelings for Cora, mean that he doesn’t ever quite need to unpack it. Neither does Cora, not really – the last line of the novel, hers, is another tease – and it makes me wonder why Perry’s chosen solution is a fudge.
The whole novel feels like a fudge to me. Stuff happens in Part 4, but none of it matches the horror of Luke’s injury, and Spencer’s description of it in his letter. Spencer himself never does anything so forthright again as the writing of it, instead making his way through life being as useful as he can. He’s a nice chap, and the only true friend that Luke will have, and that’s good enough for him. (What I’m really thinking is that he could no more have written that letter, in that way, than he could have sewn Luke’s hand together if it had been cut to tiny pieces.) Spencer makes it clear to Martha, in his understated way, what his feelings for her really are – and she does her best to let him down gently. So, after some further developments with Luke – tell you about that later too – they live and work together in a way that is unfeasibly perfect for both of them: ‘a marriage of true minds has taken place’ – and how we laughed, again. The horror of the injury can be forgotten, Luke can come out to the depression that almost led to his suicide, and together they can become the dream surgical team. Spencer calls it a ‘chimera’ – Luke providing the brains and the all-round driving force, Spencer the ever more reliable pair of surgical hands. Bless.
It’s all like that. Any jeopardy, any sense that there might eventually be a tragic or otherwise dramatic outcome, simply fizzles out. The Serpent? It’s a 20-foot-long fish, named by Cora or Will as… something-or-other. But there’s still something out there, occasionally visible and making a groaning noise, that Francis sees out on the strand. It’s only intermittently visible through the shifting fog and dim light and… we are to believe that for nearly a year, the missing boat belonging to Naomi’s father has been drifting, just at the edge of sight, then sinking again. It’s nonsense, obviously – but it provides Stella with an idea. Francis, now her best friend, tells only her what he has seen. In the throes of her consumption she has concocted a pseudo-religious mythology of her own and, in a set-piece tableau straight out of a Pre-Raphaelite painting (or a New Age shop window), she is discovered – by Will, Cora, Joanna and Naomi – under the boat in a shrine of her blue treasures.
And she dies in her husband’s arms, yes? A combination of her weakness and the October cold must surely take her to where she’s been longing to go after all these months of waiting, mustn’t it?
You’ve not been paying attention. By now, the feel-good universe these characters inhabit has been firmly established, and dying is the last thing any of the main characters is going to do. Near the beginning of Part 4 Luke, having selected a strong oak as a gallows and taken off his belt for a makeshift noose, stops at the last moment when he thinks about how devastating it will be for – guess. For Spencer, of course. How could he do it to his dear, infuriating (etc.) friend? Naomi, having disappeared for weeks and months, has cut her hair and is living as the crippled beggar’s boy assistant. We already know that he is much better off than he makes out – this is Perry-land, remember – so an assistant who can draw caricatures is a bonus. He’s happy to share his takings with the lad, and to provide bed and board for him at the house of the sister who looks after him.
So Stella not only doesn’t die. By the following month – sub-sections of this novel are marked off in months, and we’re in November by the end – she is in recovery, under the care of the London specialist, and even manages a weekly excursion out. She is helped by the husband who is even more devoted to her than ever. You couldn’t make it up.
You couldn’t make any of it up, and that’s been my problem with this novel from the start. Sarah Perry has a PhD in creative writing, and that’s a very nice thing to have. It lets you write novels that get a lot of praise, and… and what? It doesn’t make you a successful student of human nature. And, on the evidence of The Essex Serpent, it doesn’t mean that you’ll necessarily create plausible characters it’s possible to care for. There are themes here – I haven’t even begun to mention her take on childhood and adolescence, which is better than her take on adulthood as far as I’m concerned – and there are questions raised about parent-child relationships. It should all be more interesting, but… it just isn’t. The Ambroses, Charles and Katherine, are childless – but it is they who offer to look after the Ransome children and discover – this still being Perry-land – that they really, really enjoy it. Naomi, following her weeks away, fits back into her father’s life as though she’s never been away. He doesn’t resent or punish her behaviour, despite his heavy drinking and the hardship of the loss of his boat. Meanwhile, Stella seems to have allowed Francis to move so far back along the autism spectrum that he more or less falls off it. He has a far better relationship with Cora, on the evidence of the touching little scene following his admission of feelings of guilt regarding Stella’s death ritual, than he ever did before.
Rituals, atonement, redemption. These ideas are raised more than once, and I wish Perry had done more with them. We largely do without rituals in the 21st Century, so she seems to have decided that they were overrated in the past. Following the twin discoveries of the rather dull truth behind the Serpent story, church attendance falls back to its rather disappointing pre-Serpent levels. Stella, in recovery – which begins the moment she opens her eyes to see her husband and the others, come to save her – is happy to let her blue treasures be washed away by the tide. And the sacrifice ritual is an embarrassing memory of childhood for Joanna and Naomi. (And I’ve just remembered: Spencer seeks a kind of forgiveness for the wealth that has always embarrassed him by secretly buying up and improving the flats where Edward and Martha live. Months ago, Edward had been threatened with eviction, but the mysterious new landlord doesn’t run things like that.)
Is there anything to be enjoyed in this novel? What about the love stories? Martha, having told Edward she won’t marry him, seems to have done just that by the end. And, this being the novel it is, she doesn’t resent the ten years of her life she gave to Cora. Spencer and Martha we know about. Luke… never forgives Cora, but it doesn’t really seem to matter. And as for Will and Cora…. They are content, sort of, to be just good friends. This, in spite of a sexual encounter that might or might not have gone beyond the fingering that Perry describes. (She doesn’t call it that, any more than she calls masturbation by its name, but that’s what happens.) Will feels guilty and not guilty – and both he and Cora seem determined to out-do one another in the oxymoron stakes. ‘He does not miss her, since she seems so insistently present.’ She says ‘I want everything, and need nothing.’ A double helping of fudge, then.
And that tease at the end. After telling Will, at the close of her letter, ‘I love you and am content without you’ she adds a short afterthought: ‘Even so, come quickly!’