I wanted to write a brief analysis about The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry, because it made me think about the evolution of our acceptance to women’s rights and modern medicine. It also made me reflect on the struggles we still go through as a society about religion and science. I would say the overarching theme of this novel would be fear of change. Before we dive further let me write a brief synopsis of the story. Our story takes place in London, 1893. Our main character, socialite Cora Seaborne, has just lost her husband to an illness and is left to raise her son, Francis Seaborne, on her own. Cora’s initial reaction to her husband being dead is laughter. Now this may seem cruel, but we later learn he was an abusive man. What I really loved about Cora was that she was fearless in becoming her own person, without her husband. Many people take a long period of time to discover who they are on their own without a significant other, but Cora already knew who she was. Cora always knew she was not suited for the role of society wife or mother. Her interests and passions were science and medicine. She had a particular interest in natural sciences and would spend her days walking in the mud and collecting fossils. Her dream was to discover a whole new species. After her husband’s death, she leaves the bustling city behind and seeks refuge in fresh air and open space at the coastal Essex. She is accompanied by her eleven-year-old son, Francis, and the boy’s Nanny, Martha, her fiercely protective friend.
Upon arriving, they begin to hear rumors that after nearly 300 years, the mythical Essex Serpent, a fearsome creature that once roamed the marshes, has returned. When a young man is mysteriously killed on New Year’s Eve, the community’s fear quickly escalates to terror. Cora, who we come to know as an amateur naturalist with zero patience for religion or superstition, is immediately captivated by the stories. She is certain that what the locals believe to be a mythical sea beast, may be an actual undiscovered species. Through her investigation and her close friends, Charles and Katherine Ambrose, she is introduced to parish vicar William Ransome and his lovely family. William Ransome is just as eager to solve the mystery, but for very different reasons. He is a man of faith and feels his congregation is getting carried away with superstition and are being led away from the righteous path. In coming together, they find themselves developing an intense relationship that will change both of them in ways they did not expect. The Essex Serpent allows us to explore questions of science and religion, skepticism and faith, but ultimately is about the fear most of us have about change.
The love stories that are in this book, to me, are not just about the different guises they can take, but how the fear of allowing ourselves to love differently than what is expected can change our whole perspective on society’s take on how life should be lived. For example, in society’s eyes, Martha should have ended up with George Spencer. She’s poor, he’s rich and totally enamored by her. Perfect Cinderella set up, right? Instead she chooses, Edward Burton, the man who was stabbed in the heart and brought back to life by, Luke Garret who in this fictional novel performed the first successful open heart surgery. I loved Edward Burton’s reasoning for falling for Martha. Here is an excerpt from the book; “She seemed to him neither man nor woman, but some other sex entirely. How she stood in the window with a hand pressed to the scooped hollow of her back, how once between her shoulder blades he’d seen sweat blot her dress: these gave him a thirst he was afraid he could never drink deep enough to sate. But she was also brisk, combative, indifferent to praise- would not give ground, moved him to laughter, never tried to please, played no tricks. Edward knew himself outwitted and outgunned. That she spoke of Cora Seaborne in a manner by turns fond and furious seemed wholly in keeping. She was a being like none he’d ever known and he accepted her completely”. Edward Burton’s love for her differed from George Spencer simply because of how they viewed her and understood her. Spencer assumed she would be with him because, his money went to things she cared about and he was in awe of her passion to help those less fortunate because she was a poor woman herself. Whereas Burton saw Martha simply as a human being, one who was at the same time better than him yet equal.
In the end Edward asks Martha to marry him, to which she says no, but offers him companionship and camaraderie. He accepts and they live together happily. Their love may not be the conventional way society would want, but who is to say that their love is not as intense and fulfilling as those married by the church or court? I really enjoyed where Martha ended up with her life. Now onto the love story and forced triangle Luke Garrett entangled himself in with Cora and Will. I honestly was conflicted about their story. There were moments where I felt the relationship between Will and Cora was truly platonic and they truly were best of friends. Then there were other moments when you could feel the heat and attraction between them both. I feel like their feelings for one another got crossed. I believe that because Cora was a young lonely widow from an unhappy abusive marriage, she fell for the kindness and love he showed his wife. But when it comes to Will, I feel he genuinely fell for Cora and her mind. Now when it comes to Luke, I feel his expectations of Cora were completely unfair. His reaction to her rejection was unfair too. I mean I completely understand he just lost function in his hand and could no longer operate, but to put her rejection as part of his reasons to attempt to kill himself was a bit dramatically unnecessary. That’s why I don’t really care for Luke’s part of the story. I feel like he is kind of a horrible person. I mean he has these unfair expectations of Cora and he sleeps with Martha, full on knowing how much his best friend, George Spencer, was in love with her.
Another thing I found really interesting about the story was the relationship between Cora and her son. It really made me think about how life was back then. What kind of person would Cora be if the society she lived in back then didn’t force her to marry and bear children? Imagine not having that choice. Having children is not for everyone and I feel like that is ok. You really see the disconnected relationship between Cora and Francis. It’s as if Francis knows on some level his mother never really wanted him and doesn’t understand him. And Cora feels that Francis doesn’t even need her. However, I really loved how toward’s the end Francis does something, he thought was right, but feels is wrong, he becomes the child he really is and turns to his mom. In turn Cora, instantly becomes the mother he needs. It was a beautiful moment where they were able to find a purpose for one another in their lives.
Coming to the end of the story, we find that the Essex Serpent is actually an old boat grinding against the shingle. In this case a shingle is a mass of small rounded pebbles, especially around a seashore. The grinding of the rusted boat encrusted with barnacles made a deep growling sound. The boat was completely hidden behind rock and mist. This small simple object was the cause of so much fear and terror in the townspeople. This showed how this small-minded town let their fears of the world changing around them give such a small thing a big shadow. Will was scared about being with Cora because he would lose his wife and turn his children’s lives upside down. Cora was scared to be with Will on a more permanent level because she just obtained her independence and she did not want any more changes in her life that a man would make. Naomi, Johanna’s best friend, ran away because of Johanna not wanting to be her friend anymore and that was a change she could not handle. Luke Garret wanting to commit suicide was in part due to his fear of his new life change of no longer being able to operate. I’m not too sure if I’m completely right in all this, but it’s what I took from the story. I love discussing books that had different themes and conveyed different messages and life lessons. What did you think of the story? Any thoughts, comments, and/or opinions?