Set in Victorian London and an Essex village in the 1890's, and enlivened by the debates on scientific and medical discovery which defined the era, The Essex Serpent has at its heart the story of two extraordinary people who fall for each other, but not in the usual way.
They are Cora Seaborne and Will Ransome. Cora is a well-to-do London widow who moves to the Essex parish of Aldwinter, and Will is the local vicar. They meet as their village is engulfed by rumours that the mythical Essex Serpent, once said to roam the marshes claiming human lives, has returned. Cora, a keen amateur naturalist is enthralled, convinced the beast may be a real undiscovered species. But Will sees his parishioners' agitation as a moral panic, a deviation from true faith. Although they can agree on absolutely nothing, as the seasons turn around them in this quiet corner of England, they find themselves inexorably drawn together and torn apart.
Being a fan of Mary Anning, I couldn’t help but be charmed by the story of Cora Seaborne, a fellow admirer of the female fossil finder. Perry manages to illustrate the debate between the scientific and the spiritual as Cora debates these matters with the local vicar, Will Ransome. They especially clash over the issue of the Essex Serpent, possibly a relic of the Cretaceous haunting the Essex shoreline. Which beliefs are true? When is belief harmful?
Released from a brutal marriage by her husband’s sudden death, Cora gets to indulge her inner naturalist and spend time wandering the trails, forests and shores of Essex. She finds freedom in dressing like a man and trying to forget the societal limitations on her gender. Her son, obviously depicted as somewhere on the autism spectrum, is a cause for concern.
A parallel story is that of Cora’s secretary/companion, Martha, who is a socialist and passionately interested in social justice issues. When a man of means fancies her, Martha uses that interest to point him and his fortune towards housing issues in the East End of London.
There’s a lot going on in this novel, but Perry manages to keep all the balls in the air and the plot ticking along quickly. Recommended for those who enjoy reading about the Victorian time period, albeit with a very modern view point.