Thursday, 22 September 2016

the essex serpent

On Sunday 18th September I finished reading The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry. I'd got fed up of having to avoid learning too much about it before the paperback came out, so I ordered it from the library. It was very good; among the best books I've read for quite a while.

Reading it - and writing about it - is a slightly different experience from the usual because, as mentioned in my post about After Me Comes The Flood, I have become friends with Sarah online (on Twitter, primarily), arising out of being non-concurrent members of Morris Folk Choir.

Different not just because it's someone I 'know' (to some extent) who has written the book I'm writing about (though, although I've no reason to think she would ever read this, I'm writing it as if she might, which actually might not be a bad rule of thumb for everything on this blog about anyone else), but also I'd picked up quite a lot about the book (before and after publication), including the fact that it was being very well received in general by critics and public alike, but I was studiously avoiding reading any of the reviews, to try to learn as little about it as I could. The blurb on the book itself, as often the case, would have told me more than enough about it. (I might seek out some of those reviews now, for interest.)

I think, though I could be wrong, that the inside front cover description was the only place that actually spelled out what the year was (1893). It would have been interesting - but in the end probably rather too gimmicky - to see how far you could get in writing the opening chapter before it became obvious that the book wasn't set in modern times but at the end of the nineteenth century. I knew that one of the things being put across (in the background at least) was how many things we don't think of as Victorian - in terms of technology, science, culture, thought - were around in those days, as well as the large foreground differences between our worlds and within that world which played such an important part in the story.

That the book is very well researched is evident, but never obtrusively or unnaturally or to the detriment of the story. I think I'd have had confidence that it was well researched even if I hadn't known that to be the case, so I was comfortable with all the historical things; the only things which occasionally pulled me up were words or turns of phrase; again, I'm sure they were all properly researched, so it's a tricky balance; using words and phrases which might appear anachronistic but aren't might be jarring and pull the reader out, but going with a stereotypical rather than authentic depiction of Victorian life and culture for the sake of reader comfort or expectation perpetuates that stereotype. And it mentioned the photography of John Galt, who worked for London City Mission (and whose photos I'd included in the magazine on at least one occasion), which was a particular private pleasure.

The book is very well written, and contains a range of strands and themes that never feel like different books lumped together in one, but arising out of the tale of a group of connected people, and give a real feel for the time.

It was partly epistolary, incidentally, which I also like. There were a couple of things which I wasn't sure the minister would have committed to paper; but people have always been indiscreet in letters.

(One of the extremely glowing quotes on the back of the book implied it was a cross between Dickens and Stoker, which might relate to the previous two paras respectively. I preferred it to the writing I've read by either of those authors.)

The relationship between faith/religion and science/reason (with a triangulation from both to superstition) is a primary theme, embodied in the central relationship. I appreciated that the faith-ful characters were represented sympathetically. In fact on reflection it struck me that I don't think any of the characters were represented unsympathetically; which I like.

I had gathered that there was a sex scene; I have read such things before, so I wasn't too alarmed; I hoped, without much hope, that it would not be between our two main characters, but the blurb strongly pointed in that direction. There were two such scenes, relatively discreet as things go these days, and one did indeed involve an adulterous minister.

So this is where I stop writing about the book really and start talking in general terms; or where I am talking about the book I'm doing so from my very particular perspective (and also, incidentally, doing so in a way that means you might want to stop reading if you haven't read the book and plan to; I say you, laughingly, as if anyone but me read this blog).

It's not fair to appear to be criticising a book because it's not telling the story you want it to tell. It's the author's book, telling the story they want to tell. You might say that an author has written it badly (which Sarah hasn't) or that it's implausible or unrealistic (which... well, back to that in a moment); but anything more is mental fan fiction, rewriting classic or successful novels to fulfil your own wishes.

And also the fact that I am about to spend so much time on this point doesn't mean it's the most important thing in the book; it's just the thing I've thought about most. This isn't a book review.

The intensity of a new and special friendship, where there is a real clicking and meeting of minds, is well described. And it is surely the experience of many people that that can happen even when the two people disagree strongly on some or many fundamental or important things. And such a friendship can often turn into an emotional attachment or falling in love, wanted or unwanted, in one or both directions.

In general terms, however, I do wish that more often, on page, stage or screen, I would encounter Christians who suffer a tragedy (typically the death of a loved one) and do not lose their faith, or (as relevant here) Christians who face temptation and resist.

I wondered what difference it would have made to the unfolding of the story if temptation had been resisted? (Perhaps one day, if I am feeling bold, I will ask.) There has been a heedless going forward, then there is the moment of the aborted dance, a realisation of where he is, which others have seen long ago, but it is she who does most of the withdrawing, not he; his earlier withdrawal, after the hypnotism incident, was not for these reasons. Would, or need, the story have unfolded differently for its remaining pages, and beyond? There is of course the knowledge that his wife - who coughed the Chekhov cough very early in the book - is not going to endure far beyond the last page of the story, and when he is not with his wife, loving and caring for her, he is thinking of Cora. Does he, and the reader, hope for or anticipate a post-bereavement future with her (whether that is what she hopes for or anticipates is a different question)? And if that is so, such mental adultery (even if he is not actively wishing for his wife's death, but merely preparing for it) would still be unattractive, to say the least, even without the committing of physical adultery.

And I guess that's the problem for me, because in the story he continues, after that moment of adultery, to be presented as the same sympathetic character as he was, either unchanged or perhaps even changed for the better, whereas to me he has been transformed into, or revealed as, a self-justifying adulterous hypocrite little troubled by guilt or remorse, whose previous apparently scripture-based faith has been revealed as meaningless, lightly tossed over with the familiar justification from the Happy Days theme song that 'it feels so right, it can't be wrong', and that their physical unity is the natural and inevitable fulfilment of their mental unity.

(So, in terms of whether it's realistic or not, it's realism feels in inverse proportion to the reality of his scripture-based faith, or in proportion to his hypocrisy (which hadn't been previously evident). Except that, in reality, some people do seem to perform exactly such a flip. Perhaps I just don't want to accept that it's realistic.)

Once again the When Harry Met Sally question gets the depressing answer that no, it is not possible for men and women to be friends because yes, sex does always get in the way. This is neither the answer I want to hear nor an answer which I believe to be correct, because most of my best adult friendships have been with women; it is always wise to be careful and watch oneself in that relationship, and sometimes it is necessary to work harder at being careful; but it is perfectly possible to be friends and sex need not get in the way, even in the closest of friendships.

(If this were a script, then by now, gentle, imaginary reader, you would have said, 'We're not talking about the book any more, are we?')

I do not say that the story as it unfolds, and William Ransome's actions in particular, are unrealistic or unlikely, because I see such things in the world (and because of course I know my own black heart, no whiter than anyone else's), but the adultery completely transforms my view of the main character for the much worse, in a way which I am not sure is intended, but in a way which I am not sure is shared by many readers.

Nevertheless, if that's the worst character behaviour I read in a book in the next year, or the next month... well, I needn't say I'll be amazed, because it won't be.

And it'll certainly be one of the best books I've read this year.

Reading After Me Comes The Flood was reading a book written by a friend of friends and being impressed that someone you knew at one remove had got a book published and that it was well written, even if it wasn't your cup of tea. Reading The Essex Serpent was to be amazed that one knew even a little the person who'd written such a good book which would surely and deservedly be widely admired and endure. In a note I wrote to Sarah on Instagram I said, 'my goodness, that's a Proper Book, Sarah'; 'proper book' sounds a bit inadequate, but I know what I meant and I couldn't think of a better way to say it.

First line: A young man walks down by the banks of the Blackwater under the full cold moon.
Last line: Even so, come quickly! Cora Seaborne

(It's the end of a letter. There can be no doubt that it's an allusion to the last line in Jane Eyre, also in a letter, quoting the Bible. A letter written by St John Rivers, who turned away from love for his faith, which is one of the reasons he is roundly despised by most readers; but not by me.)

Dedication: For Stephen Crowe
Epigram: If you press me to say why I loved him, I can say no more than because he was he, and I was I. - Michel de Montaigne, On Friendship

The cover is lovely (even with the shiny library plastic sleeve), a William Morrisesque design of flowers with an old-style lithograph/engraving of a snake (cover designed by Peter Dyer, with image copyright credits to iStock and, yes, William Morris). You can't judge a book by its cover, certainly, but I'm sure it prompted more people to pick it up than might otherwise have. Published, appropriately by Serpent's Tail.

(Just had a look at a few of the book reviews in the first two pages of Google results. Reminded that the New Statesman's was rather splendidly titled 'Snakes on a Plain'.)

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