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There is a serpent, and not just in Essex

For all its beautiful prose and good storytelling, Sarah Perry’s novel The Essex Serpent ultimately falters, offering an incomplete view of Christianity and a portrait of friendship confused by sexual desires divorced from their proper context.

Ouroboros, single and in pairs at Saints Mary and David's Church, England (Wikipedia/SiGarb)

Aristotle once observed that the most perfect form of friendship occurs between “those who wish the good of their friends for their friends’ sake” because “they love each other for themselves.” This highest friendship, rooted in virtue, seeks the well-being and good of the other person, not the utility or pleasure gained from the relationship. But it’s a fallen world, and little wonder that Aristotle adds this disclaimer: “Such friendships are of course rare, because such men are few.”

Aristotle’s definition—and disclaimer—comes to mind in reading Sarah Perry’s novel, The Essex Serpent, which won this year’s prestigious Fiction Book of the Year award in Britain. In this eerie tale of 1890s England, Perry dramatizes the complexities of human friendship, and along the way explores the relationship between faith and reason, as science and religion struggle to make sense of mystery. Yet for all its beautiful prose and good storytelling, her exploration ultimately falters, offering an incomplete view of Christianity and a portrait of friendship confused by sexual desires divorced from their proper context.

The Essex Serpent tells the story of Cora Seaborne, a widow whose marriage to a man of subtle cruelty has left her emotionally and physically scarred. Relieved by her husband’s early death, Cora takes her son Francis to the coastal county of Essex, looking for fossils and rediscovering her freedom. There, she hears the legend of the mysterious Essex Serpent, a sea monster said to inhabit the waters of the Blackwater estuary. Convinced it may be a living dinosaur, Cora moves to the (fictional) village of Aldwinter to investigate. There she befriends the clergyman William Ransome and his wife and family, forming relationships that will change them all forever. But an evil lurks in Aldwinter. A man dies in the river; cattle disappear; madness and disease afflict the town. As hysteria grows, Cora and William seek answers, finally confronting the possibility that the darkness of the Essex Serpent might be beyond scientific explanation—indeed, that it might perhaps be something wrong with the world and with the human heart.

The clergyman William Ransome is a man of faith, and Cora Seaborne a modern woman of science. Cora cannot understand his belief in Christianity, deploring how “in the modern age a man could impoverish his intellect enough to satisfy himself with myth and legend.” Rejecting Cora’s materialistic view of the world, Reverend Ransome knows that not “everything can be accounted for by equations and soil deposits.” As he puts it in a letter to her, there is also the realm of the spirit: “something beats in us beside the pulse.”

Yet paradoxically, for all his faith in the spiritual realm, Ransome remains uncomfortable with anything mysterious or inexplicable, particularly the Essex Serpent. Cora’s challenge of this reveals that she sees something in Christianity that Ransome cannot: “But is your faith not all strangeness and mystery—all blood, and brimstone—all seeing nothing in the dark, stumbling, making out dim shapes with your hands?” But he rejects this view of religion, as something from “the Dark Ages, as if Essex still burned its witches!” “No,” he insists, “ours is a faith of enlightenment and clarity.” Ransome asserts that religion ought to remain “polite,” to which the unbelieving Cora, with an outsider’s true insight, responds: “if you insist on your faith you ought at least to concede it’s a strange business and very little to do with well-ironed cassocks and the order of service.” Here the atheist has justly corrected the priest; yet we might argue that real Christianity is not one or the other, but both—clarity and mystery, sustained at once.

But the novel’s real drama lies in the tangled web of friendships, fraught with unrequited loves, that surrounds Cora Seaborne. Martha, Cora’s maidservant and companion, loves her mistress in a way modern culture would quickly label as homosexual. The brilliant, eccentric surgeon Luke Garrett loves Cora; the aristocratic George Spencer loves the working-class Martha for her strength of character and the zeal of her Socialist ideals. And at the center of it all, we see William Ransome’s growing love for Cora as his intellectual equal, a love that deeply troubles him as a man of the cloth who is also happily married to the beautiful, but sickly, Stella.

Then, in a terrible scene at a party, this circle of friends suddenly recognizes the love and sexual tension crackling between William and Cora. Martha and Luke, in their frustrated mutual desire for Cora, fornicate after the party. The Reverend Ransome has sad recourse to the sin of Onan. We might question whether these scenes are actually necessary to communicate the heartbreak, brokenness, and animal instincts that deform human relationships. Yet to her credit, Perry depicts these acts for what they are, hollow substitutes for the love and communion found in a committed relationship.

That’s why it is so disappointing that Perry fails to elevate the novel’s vision of human friendship, instead clouding it with moral ambiguity and sexual sin. Reconciled after a time of estrangement, Will and Cora commit adultery in the forest, while Will’s wife Stella lies wracked by tuberculosis at home. The presence of windfall apples suggests a reimagining of the Fall of Man in Eden, only in the novel’s retelling, there are no real consequences. The scene is tender, passionate. Will feels that “Not to touch her now would be to breach a natural law.” But neither person considers the good of the other. Emotion and appetite conquer their reason, as Will, the clergyman, ignores what is best for Cora’s soul, while Cora disregards the marriage and Christian ministry of her friend. As an author, Perry cloaks this fall in an ambiguous sweetness that leaves us dissatisfied: Will, who returns to be faithful to his wife, nonetheless keeps his love for Cora alive in his heart. Cora returns to London but writes to Will with hope that someday he will “come quickly!” As such, Perry’s novel leaves readers without any sense that Will and Cora have harmed their souls and damaged their friendship. Are we supposed to be happy for them?       

The only deep friendship Perry portrays can be found between the secondary characters of Garrett and Spencer, a friendship for which Garrett risks his life, and which in turn keeps him from committing suicide when he later despairs. But the rest of the relationships have deep disorders, and we see that Aristotle’s maxim about perfect friendship is right: such men are few.

Finally, while the Essex Serpent may have a scientific explanation, Perry’s novel leaves open the possibility of another serpent, a force of evil that lurks in the world and in the human heart. What Perry leaves unnamed, we know to be the devil (in the world) and sin (in the human heart). This is what twists our desires and sours our loves. That’s the bad news. But ironically, though Perry’s novel has a clergyman for one of its protagonists, the book completely misses the Good News. True friendship, love, and peace can be found in God’s grace. The author is right: there is a serpent, and not just in Essex. But Christians know that, long ago, the serpent’s head was crushed under the foot of Christ.   

The Essex Serpent
by Sarah Perry
Serpent’s Tail, 2016
Hardcover, 432 pages


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About Dr. Kelly Scott Franklin 27 Articles
Dr. Kelly Scott Franklin is a writer and Assistant Professor of English at Hillsdale College

2 Comments

  1. Holy St Mary crushes the head of the serpent with her foot. See https://icxcmary.wordpress.com/mary-crushes-the-serpent/

    “Heaven itself has evidently confirmed it when the Mother of God appeared to St. Catherine Labouré in 1830. There were various elements of this vision, and among them was an image of a serpent under Mary’s feet. The saint was told to have a medal struck according to the vision. This apparition of Our Lady is one of the few that have been formally approved by the Church after thorough investigation of its authenticity. This reality of her power over the devil is also important for our understanding of Our Lady’s role in helping us in our own “spiritual warfare.” …

    When [Blessed Pope Pius IX] promulgated the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in 1854 in his apostolic constitution Ineffabilis Deus [he wrote]: ‘The most holy Virgin, united with him [Christ] by a most intimate and indissoluble bond, was, with him and through him, eternally at enmity with the evil serpent, and most completely triumphed over him, and thus crushed his head with her immaculate foot.’” [Much Western sacred art of which Mary is the subject depicts her with a serpent beneath her feet.]

    To say that Mary crushes the serpent is not to imply that she does so independently of the power of Christ. Pope Pius IX makes it clear above that it is because of her indissoluble and intimate union with Christ that she can crush the enemy of our salvation. But there is more. Involving his servants in his work is simply the Lord’s chosen way of acting. He always remains the Source of whatever power is exercised against the devil or for the building up of the Church. But if He were to do everything Himself, there would be no need for prophets and priests and apostles and teachers, and all the ministries of the Church. Therefore He appoints his servants to carry out his will, by the power of his Spirit and his grace. As the Scripture indicates, the Lord has appointed his Mother to crush the head of the serpent, by the application of his own strength and redemptive grace. He has sent her to the front lines of the battle, as it were, by placing enmity precisely between her and the satanic serpent…”

  2. Author Franklin is correct about a phenomenon that is not Kantian but Diabolic. There is a Serpent that slithers into the soul of Man which Teresa of Avila frequently pounces upon with holy violence in her masterpiece of contemplation the Interior Castle. Most of us who seek God initially struggle with contempt for others, a sense of superiority above the stupid herd, a vision of oneself as messianic. Teresa crashes us down to earth and mentions the fall of the most gifted virtuous intelligent of all his creatures Lucifer the bearer of light. Virtue as can be used for evil. John Paul II realized that. I could tell when I was near him. Which is reason I believe for his deep devotion to the Mother of God. The quintessential modal of that virtue humility as close as can be to her Son.

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