on June 6th 2017
Published by Custom House
Source: Book Tour, From author/publisher
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.
I am a supremely organized book blogger. When I do book tours as soon as I find out the date I am scheduled to post, I put a draft post on my WordPress calendar. That way I don’t get messed up. I’ve known for months that my review of The Essex Serpent was due on July 19. When I went to write this up I looked at the list of other bloggers participating and wanted to see what they thought of the book. I was surprised to find no posts for the people posting before me. I looked at my email. Still didn’t see the issue. Then I saw it. JUNE 19. Oh.
So here is my way-belated book tour review of The Essex Serpent.
I first heard of this book through the enthusiastic promotion of the British release last year by Simon Savidge. When the book became available in the U.S. I decided to read it to see why he was so enthusiastic. We obviously read very different types of books because he considers this to be a very plot driven novel and I think of it as more of a character driven one.
Cora is not a typical Victorian widow. It is implied that her husband was abusive and she certainly is not grieving him. She decides to go with her companion Martha and her young son Francis to Essex because she wants to follow in the footsteps of female amateur naturalists. Hearing rumors of a monster in the estuary thrills her to no end. Her friends urge her to contact the local vicar. She has no interest in that. She doesn’t want to be stuck in company with a stuffy vicar. The vicar and his wife don’t have any interest in her either. They assume she is an elderly lady with a wastrel son but they invite her to dinner to be nice.
This book covers a lot of issues in England at this time. Martha is a socialist who is campaigning for safe housing for the poor in London. At this time to get into good housing you had to prove that you were of good morals. This offends her because the landlords could go out drinking and being irresponsible but the tenets would be evicted if they acted like that. She convinces a young doctor with family money to spare to join in her the cause.
Francis would now be recognized as autistic but in this book he is just seen as a bit odd. He’s mostly left to his own devices because Cora doesn’t know how to interact with him.
Cora has an admirer in Luke Garret, the doctor who treated her husband. He wants to do more and more daring operations and is fighting the medical establishment.
The Ransomes, the family of the vicar, get involved with Cora and her entourage. Will Ransome is the vicar who is interested in science. He knows that rumors of a serpent killing people and livestock are just superstition but he can’t get his parishioners to listen to reason. This talk is tearing his small village apart and then Cora appears and runs roughshod over the town. It is hard to tell what is more damaging – the rumors or the visitor.
The writing is lyrical and mystical. It evokes foggy mornings and salt water breezes. Of course because this is historical fiction and not urban fantasy, there is no magical creature in the river. Seeing how the author resolves all these plot lines and logically explains the serpent is part of the drama.
This is a relatively slow read. It takes time for the writing to sink in. The plot jumps around often so it can be a bit tricky to keep track of who is where at what time. You don’t always know why you should be interested in characters until they start to tie into the larger narrative.
This book is good for people looking to lose themselves in the writing of a slow paced glimpse of life in rural Victorian England with a hint of mystery mixed in.