The Essex Serpent’s MacGuffin is, of course, the Essex Serpent.
The monster is Sarah Perry’s fulcrum to lever forward the plot, plumb the story’s characters, and probe the novel’s various and manifold themes. It can all seem a bit self-conscious and mannered at times, but Perry has, by in large, crafted an amusing story taking elements of Victorian literary style and blending these with modern sensibilities.
Things kick off a bit inauspiciously with some poor schmuck wandering in the Essex marshes at midnight (when else?) and coming to a sticky end (of course!), a classic monster story trope that instigates the rest of the novel’s actions. Thereafter, we meet the doughty main character, Cora, at the terminus of a loveless marriage, and her foils, William Rasome, a moral country vicar, and Dr. Luke Garrett, a brilliant London surgeon. There is a certain amount of romantic frisson among the three with both men admiring and longing after Cora, but mostly, Perry seems intent on having her main characters serve as mouthpieces for differing perspectives, Cora’s focus on nature, the vicar’s religious desire to redeem his congregants, and the good doctor’s single-minded pursuit of scientific advancement. These outlooks collide and compete with dialectic abandon in a series of epistemological exchanges. A host of secondary characters amplify the fun and allow for aspects of late 19th century class inequity, encroaching modernity and growing feminist awareness to be explored.
The Essex Serpent sent various British reviewers into a swoon upon publication judging by the glowing critiques the novel received (I’m suspicious of reviews that are uniformly ecstatic). What I particularly liked was the story’s apparent allusions to a host of Victorian authors including Willkie Collins (e.g. The Woman in White), Henry James, Emily Bronte and Charles Dickens; Perry’s novel seems an homage to these earlier works. And The Essex Serpent’s characters are, for the most part, likable and sympathetic – even the serpent. The contrasting descriptions of the Essex marshes and London neighborhoods are vivid and literary. What seemed less impressive was the smothering, omniscient narrator who’s in all the characters’ heads all the time. We learn much the same thing about personality and motivation as the POV shifts busily among the leads. And, yes, we do get the point that Cora is an intrepid, insightful, observant, worthy-of-love protagonist. Thanks for reminding us.
Back to the MacGuffin – Hitchcock used these to propel his films – it’s great fun to see The Essex Serpent’s almost philosophical debate between competing weltanschauungs framed as a monster story with the putative beast lurking in the corners of rural Essex and in the recesses of the characters’ psyches.