The Sunday Edition

Novelist Sarah Perry on faith, fear and our fascination with monsters

In British writer Sarah Perry's latest novel "The Essex Serpent," a mythic beast terrorizes the village and science and superstition hold equal sway. This rich and compulsively readable novel was Book of the Year at the 2017 British Book Awards.
Sarah Perry is the author of the novel The Essex Serpent. (Jamie Drew/HarperCollins Canada)

[Originally aired on September 24, 2017]

It is 1893, and there is strange news out of Essex.

A mythical serpent, believed to have terrorized the area three centuries earlier, has been spotted again in the river.  A man washes up with his neck twisted the wrong way around. Sheep go missing. School girls experience mass hysteria, and the whole community is gripped by a restless fear.

The marshy landscape they live in seems to be rising against them. Perhaps it is a sign from God, or the devil. Perhaps it is even the end of the world.

So begins Sarah Perry's new novel, The Essex Serpent.

At its heart are two people trying to discover what really lives in the river: woman of science, who believes the serpent belongs to a previously undiscovered species, and a man of God, who sees the rumours as proof the members of his flock have lost their way. They are set at odds by their worldviews, but bound together by a powerful attraction.

A rich, literary novel set in the Victorian era that asks big questions about science, faith and fear is an unlikely contender for the breakaway hit of the year, but that is exactly what The Essex Serpent has become. It was a number one bestseller in Britain, and it was named Book of the Year at the 2017 British Book Awards.

Sarah Perry's comments have been edited and condensed. To hear the full interview, click 'listen' above.

Why we're so fascinated with monsters and strange stories

I think that we all — in the words of Mulder, from The X-Files — want to believe. We want there to be something strange, something mysterious, something beyond headlines and beyond internet blog-posts, that is still waiting out there to be discovered. This is something that Gothic fiction has always explored, and what's really interesting is that historically, the Gothic and tales about monsters and strangeness tend to occur in the aftermath of periods of scientific development and reason. It's as if we all get a little bit sick of everything being explained away, and we think, "No, but I love mystery. I love strangeness."

A woodcut from a 1669 pamphlet called ‘The Flying Serpent or Strange News Out of Essex’.
What the figure of the Essex Serpent represents

The monster represents something different to all of the people who are afraid of it. You and I could be walking down a dark alley and glimpse something, and I would fear it in a very different way than you would fear it — because we bring to fear our own imagination, our own deep-seated concerns, our own psyche. So for example, the young girls in the village experience it in this kind of mass hysteria in the classroom, and it has a quasi-sexual quality, that there's the worm and the bud, as Blake said. Whereas there's a member of the church who's obsessed with the end times … and he thinks that it's a harbinger of the apocalypse, a punishment from God. Each character — their Essex Serpent is specific to them, and is built according to their own desires and their own fears.

What we get wrong about women in the Victorian era

One of the things I'm very interested in is the way we define Victorian women, because what tends to happen is that we define women by their oppression, and not by their interests and their vitality. Although you could divorce at the end of the 19th century, you could only really do it if you were wealthy, and on fairly limited grounds. However, that does not mean that women were not very active in all kinds of fields. They were active in politics, in social justice, in the criminal justice system, in mathematics, engineering, medicine, the trades unions, proto-feminism … and so with [my protagonist] Cora, people often say, "Oh, she seems very modern," and then I get terribly cross and want to send them speeches by Annie Besant. She's not modern, she is solidly Victorian, but we've forgotten what Victorian women were like.

The Outcast by Richard Redgrave, 1851. Oil on canvas, 31 x 41 inches. Royal Academy of the Arts, London. A patriarch kicking his daughter and her illegitimate baby out of the house (Wikimedia Commons)
There has been, historically, a vested interest in silencing the voices of women, because if you say, well, Victorian women were in the home, they were very domestic, that's the way it's always been, what that sounds like is that once women stepped out of the home, that was a breaking of a socially and almost religiously sanctioned agreement. Once you start pointing out that women were voting in local political elections in the 1840s in the U.K., then you start to realize the urgency of pursuing gender equality. So talking about the voices of these women isn't just an artistic thing, it's really quite an important political thing.

Why the style of "The Essex Serpent" so closely resembles Victorian fiction

My writing style comes from an odd place, which is that I was brought up in a very, very strict religious sect [called the Strict Baptists], and so I was not exposed to popular culture, really, until I was mid-way through my teens. There was no television, no pop music, no cinemas, no parties, nothing like that, but I was richly supplied with classic literature. I memorized [parts of] the 1611 Bible and can still recite passages of it. So I was never, ever going to write in a hard-boiled, contemporary writing style, full of colloquialisms. What I wanted to do with The Essex Serpent was to play with style and to pay homage to the 19th century fiction I enjoyed, but to mix it up a bit by dropping in things like, by the way, they had electric lights in the London Underground, and it was a very modern age, actually.

The parallels between the Victorian era and our world today

There's two sides to this. One of them is a very easy side, which is that the material world of the end of 19th century was very similar to ours. If you had a toothache, you would have your tooth pulled under anaesthetic. If you needed to get around London, you would go on the London Underground. You'd be reading the Times newspaper and worrying about the trades unions congress. It was a recognizable, modern society.

But much more interesting, and much more nebulous, are things like debates around social housing, which is raised briefly in the book — the extent to which governments tend to ally poverty with moral virtue, so if you need social housing, the social housing will be pretty ghastly because you should pull yourself together and not be so poor. [That's] a very Victorian mindset, that it's your own fault, so don't expect the government to help you and go to a charity — and that's something that's quite resonant to Britain today.

The remains of Grenfell Tower, a residential tower block in Kensington, west London, following a fire in June 2017. (PAUL ELLIS/AFP/Getty Images)
The way the current government in the UK is running, without wishing to get too polemical, is deeply, deeply, reminiscent of that. After I wrote the novel, we had the tragedy of the Grenfell Tower … and on social media, people were sharing passages from The Essex Serpent related to social housing and saying, how much have we moved on since the 1890s?


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