The Essex Serpent comes with hearty recommendations from a variety of sources, and has been named a Sunday Times number one bestseller. I have to say I am becoming increasingly sceptical of that accolade. Perhaps it’s the readership of The Times? After all they are stupid enough to buy the paper and imbibe the flawed and warped neoliberal philosophies of its owner, why should they show any more discernment when it comes to their reading of fiction?
The Essex Serpent is a modern novel written in Victorian style, and is typical of the genre in many ways. There are the traditional preoccupations of the novelist, and the usual modern twists: for example a major character suffers from Asperger’s or some form of autism: since The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night this has become regular trope.
More broadly, the romance is presented in Victorian style, but is modern in content and theme, and includes lesbian affairs. It can be compared to The French Lieutenants’ Woman in seeing Victorian concerns through modern eyes, though it lacks that novel’s playfulness with narrative structure, and its philosophical depth.
There are many issues which allow the writer to draw implicit contrasts between modern and Victorian beliefs, always with the intention of preferring the modern. It seems very modern that the protagonist is a woman, and a feminist, who is freed from domestic servitude and violence on the death of her husband. She is also a geologist with an interest in fossils – hence the Essex serpent. The parallels with Fowles’ novel are clear here, as are the opportunities to draw a contrast between the validity of modern science, and the failings of Victorian religion.
The protagonist’s love for an Essex vicar is at the heart of the novel, and again the links with Charles in TFLW are obvious, though there is not the same extended drama, or should I say melodrama, attached to the denouement of the relationship. There are other aspects that develop the contrast between the modern and the Victorian: so there is the superstition of the locals about the nature of the Essex serpent and the recent deaths on the river, and the focus throughout on medicine, science and social policy – a minor character is a ground breaking surgeon, another suffers from consumption, a third is an MP and another becomes involved with public housing, acknowledging the need for slum clearance, and implicitly the progress that was made at that time in public health. There are some interesting aspects to this, but it seems like there’s been assiduous use of a checklist entitled Social and Scientific Progress during the planning of the novel.
There are some interesting characters in the book, and the children especially bring variety to the story. There is also a sustained use of the colour blue related to the consumptive, who hallucinates in a fevered way and seems to be some kind of symbol of true love and friendship, though I found this quite hard to understand. Knowing she will die, she forgives her husband’s love for his new woman, and is able to relate to the autistic boy, becoming in the process some kind of visionary or prophet. Perhaps I’ve got this wrong. But it didn’t do much for me.
I have to say after a very slow start the plot did pick up speed and I was able to enjoy the second half of the novel much more than the first, but it is a pastiche of a Victorian novel and so does demonstrate many of those qualities of formal language and slow plot development that make that era difficult for a modern reader.