The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

I am a big fan of literature written in or set in the Victorian era. Even so I often wonder what exactly it is that appeals so much to modern readers (myself included) about this time period. Maybe it’s that such a lot of English literature that we read at schools, colleges and universities comes from the 19th Century. Or maybe it’s a TV thing: period dramas seem to have an enduring appeal to viewers, which spills over into our reading habits.

The Essex Serpent, set in the late 19th Century, tells the story of widow Cora who travels into Essex in search of scientific discoveries. She soon hears the tale of the Essex Serpent, a mysterious creature that stalks the village of Aldwinter. It was last ‘seen’ in the 17th Century, but a rising tide of hysteria seems to be gripping the villagers. Cora views this as a scientific adventure and hopes to be able to bring a newly discovered species to London to display. In this she disagrees with William Ransome, the local vicar who is filled with faith, yet also entirely rational when it comes to the presence of the serpent. They are drawn together into a friendship and mutual affection, which threatens to develop into something more.

This story is so beautifully told, with amazing descriptions of natural landscapes, but also a focus on historical detail from a time period where the world was under-going rapid change and discovery. The relationship between Will and Cora is subtle and entirely believable, but also the focus on medicine, science and socialism draws the reader into a much broader world than that of just two characters. In fact we follow several different characters from a variety of backgrounds, all trying to find their place in a world that is changing around them at a rapid pace.

A well-told, intelligent work of historical fiction that I would most definitely recommend.

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