THE ESSEX SERPENT, by Sarah Perry. Custom House/William Morrow, 416 pp., $26.99.
Sarah Perry’s second novel, “The Essex Serpent,” which has won some major awards in Britain where it was published last year, begins with a glimpse of the creature of its title: “something vast, hunched, grimly covered over with rough and lapping scales.” It is New Year’s Eve 1891, near the little Essex village of Aldwinter off the Blackwater estuary. The man who spots this apparition is, in fact, far gone in his cups, but the region has been abuzz with rumors that an ancient dragon has returned. Strange and awful happenings continue to be reported: a baby snatched, a sheep gutted, a man gone mad, another found dead in the marshes, “naked, his head turned almost 180 degrees, a look of dread in his wide-open eyes.” Perhaps the beast was released from its lair by the terrible earthquake of eight years ago; perhaps it has been sent by an angry God as punishment for the villagers’ sins.
Into this drama and perturbation steps Cora Seaborne, a recently widowed Londoner, now released from a marriage that was cruel and degrading on a Brontëan scale. She is a student of Darwin’s theory of evolution and devoted to paleontology and has come to the region having read of great fossil finds. News of the supposed serpent in the Blackwater estuary sends her off to Aldwinter in a great ferment. She hopes to the point of belief that it is a survivor from millions of years ago and “evidence,” as she explains to a friend, “that it’s an ancient world we live in, that our debt is to natural progression, not some divinity.”
Cora is accompanied by her son, Francis, an odd, affectless 11-year-old boy, and his nanny, Martha, a confirmed and vocal socialist. The cast of characters grows to include the rector of Aldwinter, William Ransome, a man of rational religion, his consumptive wife, Stella, and their children, one of whom, Joanna, is given to self-styled pagan rituals. William detests all this serpent talk, which has resulted in terror, superstitious practices and religious mania. Though he and Cora form a close — too close — friendship, he doesn’t care for her Darwinism either. He believes it’s a fad and worse: a symptom of orthodox religion’s loosening bonds which, as the hysteria over this monster shows, have led people into “folly and darkness.”
The coastal setting that Perry conjures so beautifully allows these sentiments to flourish. To the superstitious, the Blackwater estuary’s willful tides, deceptions of light and aura of the primeval suggest the existence of a beast, “implacable, monstrous, born in water”; to Cora, who longs to see a creature from the primordial past, the same effects are exhilarating.
Meanwhile, back in London, further plot lines are developing apace. Luke Garrett, a brilliant surgeon who fell in love with Cora while attending her husband in his last illness, is galled by her letters, which are filled with reports on her friend the vicar. Some reprieve from Luke’s misery comes when the opportunity arises to perform pathbreaking cardiac surgery on a stabbing victim, Edward Burton. The operation, one of Perry’s several fine period vignettes, is simply enthralling — capturing the weirdness of inner organs laid bare, the techniques of 19th-century surgery and the excruciating tension of performing a delicate, unprecedented procedure.
Edward Burton’s story now laces itself into the weave as, during his recuperation, he and Martha, who comes to visit him, grow close, both sharing views on the wretched state of the London poor. Martha has another admirer in the shape of the wealthy George Spencer whom she finds odious on class lines — though she does, opportunistically, draw him (and his money) into her schemes for housing reform. Subplots proliferate, ideas do battle and cases of unrequited love continue to multiply.
As “The Essex Serpent” is a novel in which ideas play a big part, some of the characters are more posited than convincing. Still, Cora, especially, is a full human. Her experience of marriage to a virtuoso of subtle, undermining cruelty is briefly, but powerfully described. With her husband’s death she is freed and becomes for a time the sort of lead woman one finds in pretty much every historical novel these days: independent-minded, physically vigorous and contemptuous of fashion. But Perry does not leave it at that. A couple of crucial events allow the admirable Cora to see that she has been blundering along, complacent about herself and, in fact, guilty of selfishness and cruelty. These reversals and sharp darts of psychological insight combined with a sense of the substance and feeling of late 19th-century ideas in bloom — make this a fine novel, both historical and otherwise.