Sarah Perry’s latest publication, “Essex Girls: For Profane and Opinionated Women Everywhere”, is a tiny little book based on a Harriet Martineau lecture she gave; it’s an entertaining read for any woman who doesn’t like to shut up.
Sarah Perry is best known for her second novel “The Essex Serpent” and is herself is an Essex girl, born in Chelmsford. One of my favourite lines in the book – and this was originally a speech, after all – is her description of Essex as “those 1,420 square, flat miles stuck between London and the sea”.
Perry remembers growing up with the Essex girl trope at the edge of her consciousness. The Oxford English Dictionary contends that this use of the phrase originated in 1991, but Perry used a Google NGRAM tool to demonstrate its development from 1989. She claims it is “more or less a construction of the Thatcherite era”.
Perhaps this book is a stab at an Essex girl manifesto. “What is an Essex girl, if not a woman who cares nothing at all for a good reputation?" writes Perry. "I began to understand that perhaps she was feared and despised because, having rejected one female duty, she was better equipped to reject them all.”
Like me, Sarah Perry was raised as a Strict Baptist, and you would think there could be nothing further from an Essex girl than a bookish little Puritan maid avidly devouring the Scriptures. But education gives rise to rebellion against injustice. She writes: “From that chapel pulpit and in those chapel pews only men were ever heard to pray, or to speak, or to read aloud from the Bible…[the faith] required me to be obedient to men, and to hold my tongue in church…I was taller and stronger than the few boys I knew, and if not cleverer I certainly thought I was: was I really to be pliant, and acquiescent, when this ran so counter to my nature?”
Given our similar Strict Baptist upbringing, it’s not surprising that the names and themes Perry clocks are those which invariably draw my eye: “Foxe’s Book of Martyrs”; the persecution of women; witchfinder Matthew Hopkins; and Harriet Martineau herself, member of a fine and extensive Huguenot dynasty much celebrated in Norwich.
Unlike the archetypal Essex girl, this book is a bit thin. It was first of all a lecture, so that explains the paucity of breadth and depth; in my view, the publishers should have given Perry time, and a brief, to widen her remit. I felt cheated that some of the examples of female feistiness were Essex girls only in spirit; Emily Hobhouse in particular seemed to be shoe-horned in, and is in some ways the archetype’s antithesis, since she was an upper middle-class pacifist from Cornwall. The trope of the Essex girl surely depends upon her being a member of the lumpen underclass, at least by birth.
Journalist Harriet Martineau, abolitionist Anne Knight, Protestant martyr Rose Allin – none of these were dirt-poor women, nor were they promiscuous. A distillation of sexism, Essex girls are meant to be endlessly “up for it” – they embody a highly sexualised version of womanhood.
In contrast, Perry is drawn to the supernatural and the disembodied. She invokes ghosts in a way that allows her latitude in her choice of subjects; her ghosts glide from county to county in order to claim a place in this book.
Nonetheless, I would rather she had devoted the chapter on Emily Hobhouse to the indomitable Sky News reporter Beth Rigby, who is consigned to a footnote. Rigby is genuinely an Essex girl, born in Colchester – a loud woman with a large, red lipsticked mouth and an inability to pronounce the final “g” of gerunds. She rudely jostles and shouts questions at politicians outside No. 10 Downing Street – they are mainly men. In the footnote she is given, an interview with The Observer (May 2020) is quoted: “I thought I’d poshed-up my accent at Cambridge. But then I joined the FT…A colleague, who was very posh, took the mickey out of the fact that I can’t pronounce my Gs. I was absolutely crushed.” She found Sky News a more hospitable place for her pronunciation; however, she is currently suspended from her job for having broken Covid rules at a party thrown by that other fearsome reporter Kay Burley.
Perry concludes her book by saying that all the women she includes are “Essex girl territory… They are what it means to be disreputable, disrespectful, disobedient; to speak out of turn, and too loudly, and too often; to be irritable and irritating; to be bodies which are distasteful and inconvenient; to be a thorn in the flesh of the established and the ruling classes; to be at liberty”.