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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