The Essex Serpent

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The Essex Serpent
AuthorSarah Perry
CountryUnited Kingdom
PublisherSerpent's Tail
Publication date

The Essex Serpent is a 2016 novel by British author Sarah Perry.[1]


The novel is set in the year 1893.[2] It begins with the a description of the death of a New Year's Eve reveller, later attributed to a mythological creature that was described in a 1669 pamphlet Strange News out of Essex, or The Winged Serpent.[3] This is followed by a description of the recent death of Cora Seaborne's abusive husband.[4]

Cora lives in London with her son Francis and his governess Martha who is also a close companion of Cora's. Francis is described as a strange child with a habit of collecting odd objects in his pockets and showing little to no affection for his mother. Cora has formed a friendship with her late husband's doctor, Luke Garrett, whom she calls 'Imp.' He however, has stronger feelings for her, although he does not reveal them until later. Cora is intrigued by the news of the Essex serpent from her friends Charles and Katherine Ambrose and wants to discover more about it. They tell her that they know of a family called the Ransomes living in the village of Aldwinter where the serpent had been sighted who she could make contact with. Although Cora is sceptical of the family, especially as the father is said to be a priest, she agrees due to her interest in fossils and Mary Anning and therefore the mythical serpent.

Cora is staying in the Essex town of Colchester with Martha and Francis and there she sees the Ambrose's and meets a homeless man Thomas Taylor who earns money by showing people the ruins of an old house. Whilst staying in Colchester, Cora decides to take a walk to Aldwinter, which is many miles away. When she reaches the village she meets a man who is trying to pull a sheep out of the mud, she helps him pull it out but he receives a cut on his cheek from the sheeps hoof. When Cora goes to stay in Aldwinter and meets the Ransome's she automatically takes a liking to Stella Ransome, and later meets the priest, William, who has been equally sceptical of meeting her as she has of him. However, when they meet she realises that he was the man who was pulling the sheep out of the mud and they both begin laughing. Will Ransome doesn't believe in the serpent and calls it the 'Trouble' as it has caused the entire village to be in fear. On his daily rounds of the parish he consoles the villagers, including Cracknell, an old man who lives at a house called Worlds End and skins moles to hang on his gate. Will tries to convince everyone that there is no serpent. The Ransome's have three children, Joanna, John and James. Joanna is described as particularly clever and she immediately gets on with Martha. One night Joanna and John go down to the Blackwater beach with Joanna's friend Naomi Banks to cast a spell. Naomi looks up to Joanna and almost envies her. Cora and Will disagree on most matters, however they form an intense connection through their disagreements and become close friends. Stella is pleased that Will has found a friend and feels no jealousy. However, Luke is jealous and Martha is confused and unsure of Will and Cora's bond. Luke's friend Spencer, who is also a doctor has feelings for Martha, who does not return them. However, she does not tell him this as he is described as 'embarrassingly rich' and she knows she can use him to help her solve the problem of London housing.

Throughout the book the fear of the serpent is present within Aldwinter and is made more prominent by the death of Cracknell, who is found dying on the shingle by Francis. Francis watches him die with curiosity. The next day he is found dead and the villagers believe it is the doing of the Essex Serpent. There is another very strange event when Cora goes to talk about fossils at the local school and suddenly Naomi banks begins laughing and snapping her head back and forth to the door, it seems infectious and soon the whole class of girls is doing the same thing apart from Joanna. It scares Cora and she tells Will about it later. She wants to understand what happens so suggests to Stella hypnotising Joanna to find out more. Stella agrees and Luke Garrett comes to hypnotise Joanna. However, half way through the process, Will arrives and rages at Cora for doing this. Cora does not feel she's done anything wrong as he had Stella's permission. Will becomes so angered by the serpent he goes to the church and removes a carving of it that is engraved into one of the pews.

Joanna has become interested in science and books and feels as if she has grown out of her childish spells. Naomi feels rejected by her friend. Her mother is dead and her father is an alcoholic. She goes to look for her father in the local pub 'The White Hart' but instead meets some rowdy men. Soon after Naomi goes missing and only leaves a note saying 'Here I come, ready or not.' The villagers and her father believe she has been taken by the serpent. Meanwhile in London, a young man, Edward Burton is stabbed. He is brought to hospital and Luke Garrett hears about it. Against regulations he forces himself to be allowed to operate on the boy by stitching up the layer that has been punctured around his heart. It has never been achieved before and the hospital staff don't want him to do it as it would ruin the hospitals reputation. However, Luke manages it and the boy lives. Stella falls ill with TB and she and Will travel to London to see a doctor. Dr. Butler suggests injections of Tuberculin whereas Luke says he could cure her by deflating each lung in turn to clear out the other one. Will is afraid, especially of Luke's methods, but Stella is calm and only interested in her disease. Martha takes an interest in the boy who was stabbed through her fight for better London housing, and whilst she, Spencer, Luke and Charles Ambrose are visiting him, his stabber sees them on the street and tries to attack Spencer. Luke throws himself on the attacker and his hand goes into the knife blade causing him an extremely serious injury. Not long before Luke had sent a letter to Cora declaring his love. Cora receives this letter around the same time she receives one from Will, which although very differently, shows his love for her too. She is angry as she feels she has only just escaped her husband and now she must be tied down again. She sends an angry letter to Luke, who has realised that he will not be able to operate again. Once she knows what has happened to Luke she sends another letter, apologising. However, Spencer is appalled at Cora's cruelty and will not allow her to see them again. Towards the end of the book Spencer is told by Charles that Martha has feelings for Edward and not him, and although he is sad he takes this humbly, unlike Luke is furious at Cora and tries to kill himself, only stopped by the thought of Spencer.

Will no longer has the option of using Lukes method to cure Stella, but is somewhat relieved. Stella becomes more and more ill, but Will and Cora haven't had much contact since Joanna's hypnosis. The children are sent to London to live with the Ambrose's whilst Stella is ill. Stella becomes infatuated with the colour blue and collects many blue objects and writes in a blue notebook. One morning an awful smell fills the village and causes some of the villagers to vomit. Will and a few others set out to discover the source of the smell and find a huge dead fish on the beach. They realise it to be the serpent, although it is not frightening as they had though. It looks like a very long eel. They discover that it has dies of tapeworm. Katherine Ambrose writes to Cora to tell her that the serpent has been found, but also that she mustn't hide from her feelings. Cora agrees. Cora and Will eventually reconcile and Cora comes back to visit Aldwinter. She talks to Stella and Francis forms a special bond with Stella as they understand each other and their interest in collecting things. Cora goes on a long walk with Will and their relationship develops into a sexual one. However, afterwards Will feels guilty as he both desires Cora and loves Stella. Cora and Will both have contrasting feelings towards each other of desire and distaste. One night, Francis is walking on the beach and he meets Mr. Banks, Naomi's father. Mr. Banks is unnerved by the boy especially as Francis keeps telling him that he can see something through the fog. They hear a grinding noise and Mr. Banks believes that the true serpent is still out in the water. He flees, but Francis carries on to discover what it is. He finds out and sends a letter to Stella as he wants to tell her. When he tells her she says she wants him to help her carry out a plan.

The Ambrose's visit Colchester with the Ransome children. Thomas Taylor is there and he has taken on a young boy who he calls 'Ginger.' However, Joanna sees the boy and recognises it to be Naomi, just with cut hair. The Ambrose's bring her back to Aldwinter where she reunites with her father. Joanna and Naomi become friends again and they go walking along the beach where they hear the same grinding as Mr. Banks and Francis. They are afraid and think it's the serpent, however, they go closer and see that it is just Mr. Bank's old boat. Joanna runs to tell Will what lay behind the mystery of the Essex serpent and he comes to look. Meanwhile Francis runs to Cora, saying he feels guilty about something he has done. She realises through a note he gives her what has happened and runs down to the beach. She meets Will, Joanna and Naomi on the way and they run down to the beach and discover Stella underneath the old boat surrounded by blue things. They pull her out and revive her.

The book ends with Luke still angry at Cora and Spencer sad about Martha, as she now spends her time with Edward Burton. The Ransome children live with the Ambrose's in London and Will is living with Stella in Aldwinter, although he still holds Cora in his thoughts. She lives alone in London as Francis is at boarding school, although at the end of the novel she sends a letter to will describing her contrasting feelings of love for him.


The Essex Serpent won the British Book Awards for 2016 Book of the Year[4]


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