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Wednesday 14 December 2016

Review: Sarah Perry, The Essex Serpent

The Victorians have left us so many narratives of themselves that we are spoilt for choice if we want to re-invent them for ourselves and in our own image. Sarah Perry’s historical novel – set in 1893 -  is very well crafted and constructed, the scenes tight, the prose never slack, but her characters do tend to those which will be handled without too much difficulty in the polite Creative Writing class discussion or the Sunday School (or Guardian) book club. Oh, true, there is adultery but not too much and even-handed lesbianism and male homosexuality but of a delicate kind to which even a vicar would have to give his blessing. It’s one of the helpful things about the Victorians; they did generally keep their clothes on. There is a minor sexual assault (p 178), but even then everyone appears to remain fully clothed. It sits rather awkwardly but  I assume it is there to provide one more motive for Naomi Banks to run away from home, but those motives are so dispersed through the book that I suspect readers may have forgotten them by the time Naomi reappears two hundred pages later.

Projection of our own wishes into the past is one of the risks in writing – and reading - historical fictions. Another and simpler risk is that of anachronism, the kind which a friend or an editor will spot. Sarah Perry knows her material well and has been left to slip only occasionally: a first-class stamp ( p 415), unknown to the Victorians proud of their classless system - for most of the period, one penny for a letter and a half-penny for a postcard; an urban housing situation which is unsustainable (p 282), a term which belongs in the  literary gutter anyway; and poor William Ewart Gladstone gadding about with hookers (p 48) which sounds to me so wildly out of place that surely I am wrong and it is a Victorianism revived by Sarah Perry. For most of us, Gladstone walked the streets in search of fallen women or prostitutes.

I read the first hundred and fifty or so pages – probably more - with ease and pleasure, but then there is a hundred pages where the chapters become over-burdened with sub-plots, specifically those set in London. These sub-plots take us away from the powerful device of the Essex Serpent, which is one of Perry’s big creative devices. Then it picks up again when the serpent returns. Her other big creative devices are her child characters, who despite what I presume are nods in the directions of autism and gender fluidity, are all splendidly imagined and largely unthinkable as modern children. Her mad woman in the attic, the tubercular Stella, is also very interestingly imagined. 

There is a short scene which moved me at page 387, a scene beautifully concluded, at the bottom of the page, by one of Perry’s infrequent and restrained flashes of humour.

I bought this book partly because I’d read an interview with the author in which she discussed her writing habits and partly because Waterstones had a very attractively bound and jacketed version on sale. The design and presentation of so many books in the shops is dire; this one has been thought about.

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