The stand-off between pagan superstition, Christian rationalism and science is a central theme in Sarah Perry’s second novel The Essex Serpent. Perry was brought up a Strict Baptist; Strict Baptists, like monks, live in the world but not of it. The mortal world is nothing but an illusion, a nightmare to be endured before ascending to Glory. Scientific discovery is relevant to Man but not to God. Like it or not, a kind of twin-track reality runs around the head of a former Strict Baptist. Describing religious faith at the recent Hay Festival, novelist and former Catholic Colm Toibin quoted the story of an old Irish woman who, asked about her belief in fairies, said: “Oh, I don’t believe in them, but they’re there.” That just about sums it up.
I was raised a Strict Baptist too; but Sarah Perry’s chapel was Strict and Particular Baptist, whereas ours was just Strict.
My sister and I used to joke that we were “Strict but not Particular”; yet nobody of our acquaintance understood the meaning of those words in the context of the Baptist faith. Somewhere in the world there were, apparently, Baptists who were not just Strict, but also Particular, although in what way we were strict and they were particular was a mystery. 1
In interviews, Perry calls her chapel a ”sect”. It has taken me many, many years to allow that our chapel was a sect, let alone a cult – although I now believe it was one, of a sort. I feel a flush of disloyalty even writing that down: like a betrayal of my people, my family.
Perry says “The King James Bible…was the constant presence in my life from the moment I drew breath“ and describes her early life in terms I might use for my own. Baptist children spent hours in chapel. Hours and hours and hours, with nothing to do but listen. Interminable sermons obsessed over just one short sentence from the Scriptures - from the poetic, but arcane, King James Version of the Bible.
The whole church was suffused with hypocrisy back then. Preacher after preacher exhorted us – the children, sitting in the pews – to read the Bible all the way through. God knows I tried. I struggled through Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, but Deuteronomy defeated me. Turns out none of my extended family had read the Bible all the way through. Not one of them.
At home, Strict Baptist children used to be isolated from most forms of popular culture, especially television. So we read every piece of printed material available in our homes, many times over. For me, as for Perry, this included Victorian novels and the seminal works of John Bunyan.
In spite of this coincidence of upbringing, I initially found it difficult to get into “The Essex Serpent”. I’m not that keen on gothic fiction, and “The Essex Serpent” isn’t an easy read – it demands attention. It’s written in hazy, dream-like prose, as if you’re swimming underwater and can only see things obscurely, with strange lights shimmering at the edge of your vision.
At the heart of the book is a gothic mystery – the story of the Essex Serpent, akin to the Loch Ness Monster - which to me was purely fanciful. However, there’s also a strong love story with two central characters and a host of subsidiary ones, all of whom I found compelling; and then there’s the landscape of Essex, so powerfully drawn that it’s breath-taking. In the passage below, Luke Garrett – ‘a surgeon, with a hungry disobedient mind’, an atheist scientist – sets out to kill himself because Cora has rejected his love for her:
‘Though the moon had not yet set, the sky in the east was stained with light and the fields gave rise to mist…Some time back he’d lost the Colne and neither knew nor cared where he might pitch up: if he could, he’d have walked clean out of his own skin. The Essex land to his London eye was uniform in its strangeness: all the fields were ploughed black, save here and there where barley stubble glowed pale under the setting moon, and the low hedges seethed with life.’
The novel is set in the 1890s. Its main character is Cora Seaborne, a victim of wife-battering who is elated – although also disoriented – when her husband dies; she makes the most of her unexpected freedom by pursuing her obsession with fossils. This takes her to Essex, and to Will Ransome, a country vicar with a frail and wraith-like wife. Much of the book is about love for Cora; although the one person who seems to fail to love her is her apparently autistic son, Francis.
Why is Cora loved by so many? The answer appears to be: because she is broken. Various small, fluttering, struggling birds feature distressingly throughout the text, pleading - like Cora perhaps - to be rescued.
Luke Garrett writes in a letter of their first meeting, when he was called as a doctor to attend Cora’s dying husband:
“I have loved you from the moment you came into that bright room in your dirty clothes and you took my hand and said no other doctor would do – I loved you when you asked if I could save him and I knew then you hoped I would not and I knew that I would not try…And I love your mourning dress which is a lie and I love you when I watch you try and love your son…’
With broken birds, the stark question is: will they fly again? Tiny bones and feathers may never mend well enough once snapped; if they don’t, the bird can’t realistically survive. Cora could choose to give in and marry the physically repugnant Luke Garrett – it would be the kind, perhaps the decent, thing to do. She dares to say no. It’s with the raw and earthy Will Ransome that she finds recovery and flight.
There are many poignant stabs at the heart in “The Essex Serpent”. One of the strongest, for me, was when Perry describes how, following his father’s death, Francis’ strange habit of silently appearing in doorways abruptly stops. It’s not spelt out, but the reader understands that there is no longer any need: on the death of his father, his mother is safe.
Other difficult, and often taboo, themes are there, too. The following is an incredible description of a pre-pubescent girl’s experience with men in a pub, which many women will immediately recognise:
‘One evening, coming home from a fruitless search for her father, she passes the open doors of the White Hare. The scent of drink is so familiar it’s as if she’s breathing her father’s breath, and she dawdles on the doorstep. Men beckon her in, and admire her red hair, the pewter locket she wears…She grows aware of a kind of power she had no idea she possessed; she pirouettes when asked, and laughs at their admiration of her ankles, of the white bones of her knees. To be admired is so delicious, and so strange, that she allows them to tug at her ringlets, and examine the locket where it lies on her skin; yes (she says), laughing, she is covered all over with freckles. She darts away; they call her back, and when she returns, they say, ‘Pretty, pretty,’ and she thinks that after all perhaps she is. Then she’s drawn down onto a waiting lap, and is all at once aware that something is very wrong – she feels both afraid and outraged, but finds it impossible to move; somewhere behind her a man she cannot see makes a noise which is like that of an animal finding food.’
This character, Naomi Banks, then goes missing. She is the motherless child of an alcoholic father; a close friend of the vicar’s daughter, who is the same age. Naomi is notable for her red hair, strands of which her father constantly glimpses in her absence, imagining her body floating in the sea.
You would expect a lot about death from a Strict Baptist writer. Perry and I must both have spent our childhood contemplating death far more than is healthy for any human. She brilliantly describes Luke Garrett’s state of mind as he prepares to hang himself:
‘He looked up at the branches of the oak, and they were sturdy enough for gallows.
‘Just a moment longer there on earth with the mist rising, then – since there was neither a hell to shun nor a heaven to gain he’d go out with the Essex clay under his nails and filled with the scent of morning. He drew in a breath and all the seasons were in it: spring greenness in the grass, and somewhere a dog-rose blooming; the secretive scent of fungus clinging to the oak, and underneath it all something sharper waiting in a promise of winter.’
Perry claims that being brought up a Strict Baptist is not very different from growing up in Victorian times – she is, she says, therefore more able to write authentically of that era; more able to get inside the head of the Victorian.
Here are the thoughts of one of her wealthy characters, who wonders if he’ll have to burn his clothes after visiting the working class streets of Bethnal Green:
‘He looked on their pale thin faces – which often had a sour mistrustful cast, as if expecting at any moment to encounter a boot – and felt they inhabited their proper place. The notion that if only they’d had access to grammar and citrus fruit at an early age they might have one day sat beside him at the Garrick was preposterous: their predicament was nothing more than evidence of failure to adapt and survive. Why were so many of them so short? Why did they screech and bellow from windows and balconies? And why, at noon, were so many so drunk?’
My own Strict Baptist ancestors were walking the streets of Bethnal Green in the 1890s, mired in their own religious fog, and had had little access - so far as I know - to either grammar, or citrus fruit.
In fact, the term “Strict” refers to a belief in “restricted communion”. In a Strict Baptist chapel, communion can only be taken by people who have been baptised by immersion as adults. This is in contrast to many other evangelical churches where “all who love the Lord” can take bread and wine at the Lord’s Table.
“Particular” on the other hand refers to “particular redemption” – the belief that Christ did not die for everyone, just for a particular set of people already chosen for salvation by God.