'It’s 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!’
‘You think – you really think – that it is one or the other: your faith or your reason?’
‘Not only my reason – there’s not enough of that to set against my soul! – but my liberty.' [loc. 1604]
Strange news out of Essex in the last years of the nineteenth century ... Recently widowed -- her husband's death something of a relief -- Cora Seaborne is swept up by wealthy friends and taken off to the Essex coast, where it is hoped the sea air and the change of scenery will prove uplifting for Cora, her son Francis, and her companion Martha. In the small village of Aldwinter, Cora meets and befriends the vicar, Will Ransome, and his amiable, ethereal wife Stella.
Cora is a keen amateur naturalist, and when she hears stories about a mythical monster (the eponymous Serpent) which may have been released from some muddy abyss by the recent Colchester earthquake, she's excited by the prospect of discovering a living fossil. Her love of science clashes with Will's bone-deep faith, though not at the expense of their growing friendship.
I find it hard to summarise the plot of this novel, and I think that's because it is so much more about the changing relationships between the protagonists than it is about the events which befall them. Luke Garrett, brilliant surgeon, in love with Cora; Martha, stalwart freethinker and admirer of Eleanor Marx; Stella, increasingly obsessed with the colour blue; Francis, whose obsessive curiosity we might now term 'autistic'. Perry writes evocatively of the landscape and light of the Essex coast (where I grew up) and she has a knack for imbuing even minor characters with backstory in a few lines of prose. Cora's and Will's letters, with their descriptions of the natural world (the colour of a hare's fur 'like almonds just out of the shell') are a delight.
I heard Sarah Perry, interviewed with Frances Hardinge (whose The Lie Tree is also set in the Victorian era, and also deals with the friction between religion and science, and the treatment of women) at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. I was fascinated by her comparisons of the Victorian urban life with our own: work, home, leisure ... Perhaps the tragedy at the core of The Essex Serpent is that Cora is too modern for the time in which she's born.