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Literature / The Essex Serpent

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The Essex Serpent is a historical novel written by Sarah Perry. It was published in 2016 by Serpent's Tail.

The book is set in late nineteenth-century England, and it explores themes like science, skepticism, love, independence, faith, religion, socialism, feminism, politics, poverty, class, or community. The story and its characters aim to subvert many stereotypes we hold about Victorians and their era.

The novel is set in the year 1893 in Victorian London, and in the town of Colchester and the village of Aldwinter in Essex. Its protagonist is Cora Seaborne, a young intellectual widow and naturalist who passionately pursues paleontology.

When Cora Seaborne's tyrannical husband dies, she feels...relieved. She married at nineteen and she was not suited to be a proper lady and a society wife. Luke Garrett, one of the most talented, finest doctors and surgeons of his generation, becomes Cora's close friend and immediately falls in love with her. Cora decides to leave London to breathe fresh air and explore. She travels to Essex with her autistic eleven-year-old son Francis and Martha, who is Cora's companion and Francis's nanny.

In Essex, Cora meets William Ransome, the local vicar, and his lovely wife Stella. She supposes they'll be terribly narrow-minded, but they are both surprisingly intelligent, modern and progressive. All three are charmed by each other. Cora and William are intellectual equals and soon their feelings become more than platonic. George Spencer is Luke Garrett's rich friend, also a doctor, who desperately tries to win Martha's affections. Martha is however more interested in solving poverty and the housing crisis in London.

Much of the plot centres around a mythical serpent that plagues the coast near Aldwinter.

The Essex Serpent won The Book of the Year (British Book Awards) in 2016. Here is a link to Sarah Perry's official website.

The novel was adapted into a limited series by Apple TV+ starring Claire Danes and Tom Hiddleston, which premiered on May 13th, 2022.

The Essex Tropes:

  • Adaptational Alternate Ending: There are several differences in the ending of the Apple TV+ series, and the series also explores the characters' stories past the book's plot:
    • Luke struggles with his injury but never attempts suicide.
    • The "serpent" is revealed to be a whale.
    • Stella dies and Cora regularly writes Will letters which he initially ignores. Six months later he finally goes to Stella and the two walk off together, implying that they are starting a relationship.
  • Affectionate Nickname: Joanna is often called Jo or Jojo by her loving family.
  • Alcoholic Parent: Mr Banks drinks and spends most of his time in pubs. Naomi kind of has to take care of him as well as of herself.
  • Alliterative Family: The Ransomes have three children whose names all start with J. They're called Joanna, John, and James.
  • Alliterative Name: A homeless man from Aldwinter Thomas Taylor who earns money by showing people the ruins of an old house.
  • Ambiguous Disorder: Francis, Cora's eleven-year-old son. He's obsessive and shows little to no affection for his mother or other people. He doesn't express emotions overtly and others are often a bit bothered by his behaviour. He's lucky his mother and governess are understanding and try to make his life as comfortable as possible. He's fascinated with mathematics and certain facts, and he collects various things like dog hair, pebbles, bird feathers, or bird eggs.
  • Bungled Suicide: Luke Garrett decides to kill himself by hanging from his belt from a tree. He does it and almost dies but halfway through, he stops because he thinks of his best friend George Spencer.
  • Career-Ending Injury: Luke Garrett is a talented doctor and surgeon, with dreams and big plans for heart surgeries. He's attacked by a guy who previously stabbed his patient, and his hand gets injured. He will never be able to operate with it again.
  • Compelling Voice: Luke Garrett loves trying fashionable hypnosis on people as a therapy of sorts. Cora wants to understand what is happening to girls after their group mad laughter and she suggests to Stella to have Joanna hypnotised. Stella (Jo's mother) agrees. Luke Garrett uses his calm, quiet voice and he asks her to focus on one place in the room. Halfway through the procedure, Will arrives and gets furious because he sees her helpless daughter lying on a sofa with a strange man standing over her, whispering strange things.
  • Creepy Child: Cora's son Francis is 11 years old and some of his actions are unnerving. While strolling near Aldwinter, he finds old Cracknell dying on the shingle. He watches him die with curiosity. His appearance also fits because he's black-haired and pale.
  • Delicate and Sickly: Stella has been weak since winter, she coughs and constantly has a fever. She gets weak, but remains as beautiful as ever — her fair pale skin gets even paler, almost translucent, her cheeks are red and radiant and her eyes get bright, glossy and sparkling. Ideal of a Victorian beauty. To her family's horror, she's diagnosed with tuberculosis. Dr Garrett offers her experimental operation and his colleague suggests another treatment, but she and her husband are reluctant to use either because both sound dangerous. She lives by the end of the novel, but it's clear she's slowly dying.
  • Disappeared Dad: Francis' father dies in the first chapter. He takes it very well but that's because he doesn't show emotions overtly.
  • Domestic Abuse: Cora Seaborne's tyrannical husband Michael dies at the beginning of the novel. She has a scar with an interesting pattern from having been hit with a candle holder. Some people assume it's a tattoo. He abused her both physically and psychologically.
  • Driven to Suicide: Luke Garrett, a brilliant doctor and surgeon with grand ideas for new medical procedures especially in cardiology, chooses to hang himself after he suffers a stab into his right hand and after angered Cora unceremoniously refuses his declaration of love (to her credit, she didn't know about his injury and his state of mind). She later pities him, which is even worse for Luke. He can't stand that his medical career is over and he can't get over Cora's cruel refusal, so he decides to end it all. He survives and later find some sense in his life again.
  • English Rose: Stella Ransome, the lovely and sweet wife of priest William Ransome and mother of three, who all live in the village of Aldwinter in an Essex parish. Stella is blue-eyed with blond hair (almost white), very beautiful and petite (she's described as "no bigger than a fairy and twice as pretty"), and she's also warm and radiant. She loves collecting and pressing wild blue flowers, she often wears blue clothes and becomes obsessed with the blue colour and blue things in general. She's gradually consumed by tuberculosis and her fair, pale skin becomes almost translucent.
  • Gossipy Hens: Stella loves people and is interested in all news about her friends and all children, women, and men from her neighbourhood. She's never malicious and it's a sign that she's caring and sweet.
  • Grumpy Old Man: Cracknell is an old man from Aldwinter who lives at a house called World's End. Everyone in his family died, except for his two goats. He's rather creepy; for example, he skins moles and hangs them on his gate as a protection against the serpent.
  • Happily Married:
    • Stella and William Ransome are very happy together and adore their quiet domestic life. They live for each other and their three children, and William also loves and takes seriously his job as a priest. They had two other children who died, but despite suffering such tragedy, their marriage remains strong and as loving as ever.
    • Charles and Katherine Ambrose are a happily married couple without children. They are from upper-class London society. Charles is a conservative politician, a member of Parliament. Katherine and Charles adore each other and they are always happy to interact with their friends. It's them who introduce Cora to the Ransome family. They later take care of the Ransome kids when their mother gets tuberculosis and her illness is infectious. Charles becomes very fond of the kids.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners:
    • Martha and Cora Seaborne. Martha works for the Seabornes as Cora's companion and a nanny for her son Francis, but she's more like a family member than an employee. They're intensely close. The heterosexual part is debatable because it's implied their relationship is physical, too, but ultimately Cora considers Martha her close friend, and not a lover or spouse.
    • George Spencer and Luke Garrett are colleagues from medical school and they work at the same London hospital. They are close friends, actually called "bosom friends". George Spencer is from a rich upper-class family and he admires Luke a lot, having recognized he's a brilliant doctor destined for grand things. It's because of this friendship that makes Luke not go through with his suicide attempt.
  • In-Series Nickname: Cora Seaborne calls her friend Luke Garret "Imp". It's meant to be both affectionate and teasing. Martha is actually the one who came up with the nickname and everyone who hears it thinks it's very accurate.
  • Interclass Friendship:
    • Between Martha and Cora. Martha is from the working class, though her family was one of the "good" families that have had stable income and she's also well-read and educated. She works as a governess/nanny for the Seabornes to Francis and she's a close companion to Cora, a lady from a rich upper-class family. They are very close and Cora often takes her out for dinner parties and essentially treats her like her equal. Martha never forgets about her origin and campaigns for workers' rights.
    • Naomi and Joanna's friendship; Joanna is a daughter of a priest and belongs to the upper-middle class. Her friend Naomi is a daughter of a fisherman who is also a local drunk. They go to school together and are great friends. The Ransome are no snobs and the girls are allowed to be friends. When Joanna meets and befriends Cora and Martha (adult ladies), she wants to be more like them and the two girls start to grow apart. There is no malice and Joanna doesn't want to hurt her friend, but Naomi still feels betrayed.
  • Laughing Mad: Cora goes to the local school to talk about fossils and paleontology. Naomi Banks begins laughing and snapping her head back and forth. Her mad laughter becomes infectious and all the girls are laughing, too, and can't seem to stop. Except for Joanna who is confused and embarrassed for her silly classmates. It creeps Cora out and everyone is upset over it.
  • Lie Back and Think of England: Stella believed her marriage life would be like this, with sex out of duty and without pleasure, because that's what she's been told by her mother and other women. However, she absolutely adores her wonderful, open-minded husband and their marriage life is very happy, and it includes a healthy sex life.
  • Love Dodecahedron: To quote from one review, "there are enough love triangles in The Essex Serpent to confound Euclid himself." Cora Seaborne, an intriguing young widow, is the central point of this dodecahedron. Luke Garrett and Martha are Cora's close friends who both love her. Cora likes them a lot, especially Martha, but she doesn't love back either, and moreover, she's beyond happy to be single and free. She, however, becomes strongly attracted to William Ransome who shares her feelings, but at the same time, he still loves his wife Stella. Both Will and Cora feel intense anguish over this. Stella loves her husband a lot, but she's also glad that Will and Cora become so close and she feels no jealousy. George Spencer, a doctor who is Luke's particular friend, falls in love with Martha. Martha enjoys using Spencer's devotion to her for her cause, though it's implied she still loves Cora. Martha then gets together with Edward Burton, a guy who is stabbed and gets a successful heart surgery from Luke. The book ends with Luke angry at Cora for refusing him in a rather nasty way. Spencer is sad, heartbroken but understanding about Martha. Will is with Stella who is dying of tuberculosis and he still thinks of Cora. Cora sends Will a letter, trying to explain her conflicting feelings towards him.
  • Love Letter: Luke writes and sends a letter to Cora, declaring his love for her. Cora receives this letter around the same time she gets another letter from Will, which shows his affection for her too. Cora sends an angry reply to Luke because she doesn't want to be tied down.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Is the Essex Serpent an undiscovered sea creature, some sort of supernatural being, or something ordinary? It turns out to be the last one. Twice.
  • Mid-Suicide Regret: Halfway through his suicide attempt, Luke Garrett keeps thinking of things that are and are not worth living for. The thought of his best friend Spencer, especially how he would deal with his death, actually makes him stop and he survives. He's very angry at Spencer though because he thinks it was a lame reason not to kill himself.
  • Missing Child: Young Naomi Banks goes missing and only leaves a note saying 'Here I come, ready or not.' Her father and most of the villagers are convinced she has been taken by the serpent. The supernatural part is just their imagination; she actually just ran away.
  • Missing Mom: Naomi is a young teen and her mother's been dead for a long time. Moreover, her father is an alcoholic. The girl has it tough.
  • New Year Has Come: The death of a guy on New Year's Eve is mysterious and creepy and it gets attributed to a mythological creature that was once described in a 1669 pamphlet Strange News out of Essex, or The Winged Serpent.
  • Non-Idle Rich: Luke's friend George Spencer is a doctor and he falls in love with Martha, who however doesn't return his feelings. She doesn't tell him this right away and keeps him hooked because he's described as 'embarrassingly rich'. Martha plans to use him to help her solve the problem of London housing. It's also said that he studied medicine just to fill his time. Martha seems to think that it's unfair how many women who are more talented and equally determined have to be content being nurses, making tea, and scrubbing floors. George improves conditions for lodgers in the buildings he buys and the rent is very low. And he plans to work for the poor even after it's clear that Martha lives with another man.
  • Of Corset Hurts: Cora ditches her painful whalebone corset and starts wearing comfortable clothes like her shabby oversized coat to explore the countryside and to go fossil-hunting in the Blackwater marshes.
  • Pair the Smart Ones: Cora and Will are two intelligent scholars. Will is a priest interested in humanities, philosophy, and modern religion. Cora is an avid naturalist. They disagree on most matters, however they form an intense connection through their disagreements and become close friends. Will's wife Stella (also an intelligent woman) is pleased that Will has found a friend and feels no jealousy. However, Luke (as brilliant as Cora and Will, if not more) is jealous.
  • Parental Substitute: The Ransome children are sent to London to live with the Ambroses whilst Stella is ill and infectious. Charles and Katherine Ambrose have hearts of gold and they're really fond of them. Charles finds out he now tries to go home earlier and always keeps bringing the children treats. The kids miss their home and their parents, but they adjust fairly well to their new life.
  • Pen Pals: When Cora stays in London, she keeps thinking of Will and his family. William and Cora correspond and exchange letters about their friends, children, science, and religion or the Essex Serpent. Sometimes they inadvertently reveal their feelings in their writing.
  • Percussive Therapy: Will becomes so enraged by the talk of the serpent and how it affects the terrified people that he grabs a chisel and storms off to the church. Angered, he destroys a beautiful old carving of a serpent that is engraved into one of the church pews.
  • Preacher's Kid: The Ransomes' three children are actually normal children, neither angelic nor devilish. But the trope is brought up when Joanna shows off her piety in the Aldwinter church and kneels to pray in front of Cora and her father. They are both amused and laugh at her (though not maliciously) because she looks like the very stereotype of a preacher's pious daughter.
  • Religious and Mythological Theme Naming: Cracknell's goats are called Gog and Magog. Gogmagog was a legendary giant in Welsh and later English folklore. These names also appear in the Old Testament and Islamic manuscripts. There are also Oaks of Avalon, a pair of ancient oak trees called Gog and Magog, in Glastonbury in Somerset, South West England. The trees were named after the ancient figures Gog and Magog.
  • The Reveal: The Essex serpent is ultimately revealed to be two things. One morning, the village is filled with a foul smell that causes many of the villagers vomit. William and others find a huge dead fish on the beach. They realize it's the serpent, but it's not the scary thing everyone imagined. It looks like a very long eel and it's filled with disgusting tapeworm. Later Francis walks on the beach and he meets Mr Banks. Francis tells him that he can see something through the fog and they hear a grinding noise. Mr Banks is convinced that the serpent is still out there. After some time, Joanna and Naomi go walking on the beach where they hear the grinding as well. They think it's the serpent but it's revealed to be just Mr. Bank's lost boat.
  • Rich Kid Turned Social Activist: George Spencer is a young doctor and his family is described as 'embarrassingly rich'. He falls in love with Martha (from the working-class, but now a lady's companion) who however doesn't return his feelings. She doesn't tell him this right away and keeps him hooked because she plans to use him to help her solve the problem of London housing and deal with poverty in general. George improves conditions for lodgers in the buildings he buys and the rent is very low. He plans to work for the poor even after it becomes clear that Martha won't change her mind.
  • Romancing the Widow: Widowed Cora is courted by Luke. Luke is a doctor who was treating Cora's sick husband and he's clearly smitten with her from the very beginning. She likes him, too, but mostly as a friend. And she realizes she doesn't want to be tied down by marriage again, even though she knows that Luke is a good person and nothing like her abusive husband.
  • The Runaway: Naomi Banks is a young teen who disappears from her home. People are convinced she was taken or killed by the Serpent. It's revealed she ran away from home when she couldn't cope; one aspect is her ending friendship with Joanna Ransome and her knowledge of their class difference, and another her drunk of a father who's not unkind but irresponsible. She actually didn't run away far; she cut her hair and disguised herself as a boy and joined a local homeless beggar. She earned some money with her art skills and sketches. When Joanna recognises her, Naomi returns home to her father and the two girls become friends again.
  • Science Hero: Cora is an avid naturalist, interested in biology and especially paleontology. She's extremely interested in the rumoured serpent terrorising the coast because she believes it might be a living fossil.
  • Sea Serpents: A mysterious sea monster, called the Essex serpent or Leviathan and believed by some people to have wings, is sighted in Aldwinter and seems to terrorize the coast: there is a mysterious death of a man on New Year's Eve, winter won't end, animals turn up dead, more people die or get lost... Cora is interested in fossils and Mary Anning's work, and therefore any news of a mythical serpent is like catnip to her. She supposes it could really exist, though she's sure much of the stories are exaggeration and caused by the general sense of panic and eeriness. She hopes she'll discover it and that it will be a living ichthyosaur.
  • Spirited Young Lady:
    • Cora is called a "spirited widow" in one review. She's in her early thirties. Cora is an independent lady from upper-class English society, rich and attractive. Her husband dies at the beginning of the novel and she realizes she's never been happier. She thoroughly enjoys her independence and freedom. She doesn't much care about her appearance (though if she combs her hair and dresses with care, she passes as good-looking and lady-like) and she's very open-minded. She loves science, especially biology and paleontology and hopes to discover the Essex Serpent, a living proof of evolution and scientific explanation for the monster that has been tormenting the village of Aldwinter.
    • Thirteen-year-old Joanna Ransome, a daughter of an English parson from a prominent family, suddenly feels she has outgrown her childhood games and spells. She has always read a lot and many different books, even if they're not appropriate for her age. Cora's and Martha's examples inspire her to pursue science and knowledge even more and she aspires to be an educated lady. She hopes she might become a doctor or an engineer and string of other prestigious professions mostly reserved for gentlemen. She studies diligently and works on her dreams, but she's aware of unfair inequalities as she won't be allowed to study at university.
  • Spring Is Late: The winter is seemingly never-ending and the spring won't come. Joanna and John Ransome go to the Blackwater beach with Joanna's friend Naomi Banks to cast a spell. They also haven't eaten the whole day as a sacrifice. Strangely, it works and the following day first flowers start blooming and the weather becomes nice and warm.
  • Spurned into Suicide: Luke Garrett chooses to hang himself after he suffers a stab into his right hand, which seemingly ends his promising medical career, and after angered Cora unceremoniously and rather cruelly refuses his love. She later pities him, which is even worse for Luke.
  • Stellar Name: Stella Ransome. Stella means 'star' in Latin, and Stella Ransome is as lovely and as radiant as her name implies. She also has silvery blond hair and is associated with the blue colour of all shades.
  • The Suffragette: Martha, Cora Seaborne's companion and nanny/governess to her son Francis, is a suffragette and campaigner for workers' rights. She's campaigning for London's poverty-stricken inhabitants and she doesn't like how politicians like to render them "deserving" or "undeserving". Cora says that had Martha been a man, she would have been in the Parliament. She's very persuasive and actually gets some wealthy men on her bandwagon and also inspires young Joanna Ransome.
  • Sweet Polly Oliver: Naomi Banks poses as a young boy nicknamed Ginger when she ran away from home. She's later recognized and comes back home to her father.
  • Sweet Tooth: The youngest child of the Ransomes, James, loves sweet things like chocolate. And he almost always either eats something sweet, tries to find some candy to eat or apologises about having eaten someone else's treats.
  • True Blue Femininity: Lovely Stella is obsessed with the colour blue. She wears blue dresses, collects blue stuff (all kinds of it like pillows, bottles, glasses, pebbles), and loves pressing blue wildflowers.
  • Uptown Girl: George Spencer is loaded and falls desperately in love with Martha. Martha comes from a working-class family and works as a nanny/governess/lady's companion with the Seabornes. And interestingly, it's Martha as the poor one who has the upper hand in the relationship. Martha appreciates his affection on a certain level and enjoys having power over him, and plans to use his money and influence among politicians for her cause. She's campaigning for workers' rights. Ultimately she decides against their relationship because she perceives Spencer as one of her enemies, a representative of the rich upper class.
  • Wall Bang Her: Will and Cora meet outside in the evening and they have sex against a tree. Will pleasures Cora with his hand. Afterwards he feels guilty because he intensely loves his wife Stella but he can't shake his desire for Cora either.