The Essex Serpent: A Novel

by Sarah Perry

Hardcover, 2017

Call number





Custom House (2017), 432 pages


"Costa Book Award Finalist and the Waterstones (UK) Book of the Year 2016." "I loved this book. At once numinous, intimate and wise, The Essex Serpent is a marvelous novel about the workings of life, love and belief, about science and religion, secrets, mysteries, and the complicated and unexpected shifts of the human heart--and it contains some of the most beautiful evocations of place and landscape I've ever read. It is so good its pages seem lit from within. As soon as I'd finished it I started reading it again."--Helen MacDonald, author of H is for Hawk. An exquisitely talented young British author makes her American debut with this rapturously acclaimed historical novel, set in late nineteenth-century England, about an intellectually minded young widow, a pious vicar, and a rumored mythical serpent that explores questions about science and religion, skepticism, and faith, independence and love. When Cora Seaborne's brilliant, domineering husband dies, she steps into her new life as a widow with as much relief as sadness: her marriage was not a happy one. Wed at nineteen, this woman of exceptional intelligence and curiosity was ill-suited for the role of society wife. Seeking refuge in fresh air and open space in the wake of the funeral, Cora leaves London for a visit to coastal Essex, accompanied by her inquisitive and obsessive eleven-year old son, Francis, and the boy's nanny, Martha, her fiercely protective friend. While admiring the sites, Cora learns of an intriguing rumor that has arisen further up the estuary, of a fearsome creature said to roam the marshes claiming human lives. After nearly 300 years, the mythical Essex Serpent is said to have returned, taking the life of a young man on New Year's Eve. A keen amateur naturalist with no patience for religion or superstition, Cora is immediately enthralled, and certain that what the local people think is a magical sea beast may be a previously undiscovered species. Eager to investigate, she is introduced to local vicar William Ransome. Will, too, is suspicious of the rumors. But unlike Cora, this man of faith is convinced the rumors are caused by moral panic, a flight from true belief. These seeming opposites who agree on nothing soon find themselves inexorably drawn together and torn apart--an intense relationship that will change both of their lives in ways entirely unexpected. Hailed by Sarah Waters as "a work of great intelligence and charm, by a hugely talented author," The Essex Serpent is "irresistible. you can feel the influences of Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, and Hilary Mantel channeled by Perry in some sort of Victorian seance. This is the best new novel I've read in years" (Daily Telegraph, London)"--… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member Oandthegang
I am bewildered by the popularity of this book. Its cast seems drawn from a list of currently modish types, some characters being saddled with aspects of more than one. The plot is hackneyed. I will allow that despite this it did keep me reading right to the end, but I would certainly not recommend it for anything more than something to fill some time.… (more)
LibraryThing member janerawoof
High expectations for this one--I envisioned a Daphne du Maurier-like gothic but was sadly misled. It started out promisingly: a widow in late 19th century England, Cora, an amateur naturalist, travels to Essex where she hopes to find the [is it legendary or real?] Essex Serpent, living in the local river. This seemed like a kin to the Loch Ness Monster from any description. Cora hopes to discover a new species or, perhaps, a dinosaur that has lasted so long. She lives with a vicar and his wife. Then the story turned into the tales of several characters, the vicar and family; two doctors; Cora's servant Martha; Cora's autistic? son, and some villagers. I thought I'd get a frisson of horror, but the book became quite ordinary. There were flashes of excellent writing amid the melodrama, which rescued it from complete banality. Gorgeous cover, in the style of William Morris.… (more)
LibraryThing member VanessaCW
What a fabulously quirky and unusual book! Set in the Victorian era when scientific discoveries were being made and debates abounded, amateur naturalist Cora Seaborne, also a widow, moves to Aldwinter in Essex to further her studies. It is in the midst of village gossip about an enormous serpent which has supposedly returned to haunt the eerie Blackwater marshes. Cora meets the local vicar, William Ransome, and together they form a strange bond whilst trying to prove or disprove the mythical beast theory. This is mostly their story.

The Essex Serpent is impressive, entrancing and atmospheric, full of fascinating, interesting and well drawn characters. I particularly love Cora, she has quite a sense of humour. It is very much a character driven tale. It is beautifully written and extremely evocative of the era. The descriptions are so vivid that I almost felt I was there! The story deals with a variety of themes from science to religion to politics and to love in all its guises.

An engaging, captivating and absorbing read, which I enjoyed tremendously. I can highly recommend it, especially to historical fiction fans. This is the first book I have read by Sarah Perry and it won't be the last.

Many thanks to for giving me the opportunity to read and review The Essex Serpent, which will be published on 2 June 2016.
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LibraryThing member LizzieD
I did enjoy The Essex Serpent especially when I was reading. It didn't haunt me when I put it down though, and if I had not owed ER a review, I might not have picked it up often enough to finish it anytime soon. It is an examination of several aspects of late Victorian society: rural superstition, urban poverty, women's rights, science, medical practice, religion. I think perhaps Ms. Perry tried to do too much because a deeper purpose or meaning or analysis seemed promised on the next page or the next one and never quite appeared.
That said, the characters were instantly intriguing. Cora, freed from an abusive marriage by her husband's death, takes her son and companion to Essex in the pursuit of scientific enlightenment. There she meets friends of friends, Will and Stella Ransome, who become her friends too. They live in a remote village where a 17th century sea serpent is rumored to have reappeared. Cora is convinced that it is a living fossil; Will, the local vicar, is convinced that it is simply superstitious Trouble. Mix in Cora's Marxist companion Martha, who is loved by the very wealthy Spencer, friend of brilliant surgeon Luke, who is in love with Cora - not to mention the Ambroses (those friends of both Cora and the Ransomes) and the four children plus a neighbor's child plus a couple of old men, and you have a stew that is fun to consume but somehow leaves the reader unfilled in the end.
I did like it. I liked Perry's writing in general and admired some of her set pieces. I just wish somehow that it had been more.
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LibraryThing member written
This book really sounded like a book I would enjoy reading. Unfortunately it wasn't. I managed to get through to the end while telling myself "it will get better". I didn't like any of the people in this book. I really didn't care what happened to them. I just wanted the story to end. Sorry.
LibraryThing member keristars
I'm not sure how I feel about The Essex Serpent, is it a positive or negative feeling overall, but I certainly read straight to the end to find out what happened to the characters, and I found it interesting in the way it used traditional Gothic themes and structure.

The Gothic elements here are primarily in the Victorian, rural/estuary Essex setting, and in the conflict and play between Science and Superstition.

The characters from the city are all doctors or scientists or otherwise "modern", basically the type to eschew superstition, including the central character Cora, who aspires to be a natural scientist and likes to collect rocks and fossils. Her companion Ruth is a socialist bent on fixing the city's housing problem for the impoverished, her son Francis is likely on the autistic spectrum and appears to distrust emotion and certainly doesn't display any himself, and her dear friend Luke is a brilliant surgeon who takes on cutting edge techniques and cases.

When Cora's husband dies, she takes her son and Ruth to Essex to spend time in nature and maybe discover some rare fossils. Here, especially in the small country, seaside village of Aldwinter, are the representatives of Superstition. Vicar Will is a direct contrast to Luke - equally brilliant in school, but choosing to dedicate himself to religion in a backwater town. His wife Stella is (superficially) a delicate, flighty person, wholly unlike Ruth, and their eldest child Joanna first appears when she is attempting to cast a magic spell to hurry spring with her best friend and brother. Essex is the site of ruins from an earthquake many years before, and in Aldwinter especially there are rumors of a monster, some kind of sea serpent, that is threatening the village.

So and thus, London and its people are modernity and science. Essex and the people there are the past and superstition. The two mingle, not just because of Cora. The science goes to Essex and muddles things up, the irrationality of the country finds its way to the city. The story finds a happy medium, of sorts, as it examines the flaws of the two perspectives, and the rightness of each as well. Each character moves towards that middle by the end.

I enjoyed the process of the story and the evocative imagery. It is fairly vividly late Victorian, which was enjoyable to read (though I wondered about the lack of servants anywhere!). I appreciated that even as steeped as it is in the 19th century thought and what was known of the world, nods are given to modern sensibilities - one character is quietly queer, mass hysteria is shown from a recent perspective, but also many of the medical or science things we now know are bunk are treated that way.

The themes ended up feeling uneven and superficial. I couldn't really figure out what the author was trying to say, and ultimately felt that finding a middle balance was a weak way to do it, especially with the book being so Gothic. I wanted more conviction and more strongly Good/Bad character dichotomies. (Which I admit I did like the way everyone is cast in grey...that's just not what I want from this kind of book.) Every main character has their plot tied up to show them finding a new middle ground and how they're growing as people, but none of that felt much like an ending. It's almost like the book just fizzled out, or ran out of things to say, or something. The resolution of Cora's love story plot, too, was frustratingly middle-of-the-road, when I wanted it to have a stronger statement. Though, again, I do appreciate the shades-of-grey/real-people-are-like-this elements of it.

I think I also am bristling against the treatment of Science vs. Superstition (or Religion or Emotion or whatever) that ultimately organizes the plot threads. It's almost a feeling of Modernity being framed as less good than the wholesome religion and country living - even though the whole book is about how people need the logic and steadiness to counter runaway base emotions and thoughtlessness. (But also, life isn't living without emotion. It was kind of annoying that the apparently autistic child's happy ending is when he shows affection for his mother.)

So, to sum up, I like the idea of this book, and enjoyed reading it, but I did not like the thematic conclusions it makes and wish that it had taken a more vocal stance about them, without being so middle-of-the-road. I wish it were more like those Sensational novels of the 19th century, with a clear Good/Bad character division, and not so much of a downplaying of modernity and science in order to create that balance.
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LibraryThing member Cariola
What a wonderful novel! When I began it, I was afraid it was going to turn out to be some kind of fantasy or magical realism--neither of which I enjoy. But this is a novel as driven by character and ideas as by plot, and the writing is absolutely beautiful. Sarah Perry also has a gift for creating an atmosphere that totally draws the reader into a specific time and place--in this case, London and the small Essex town of Aldwinter in the 1890s.

Cora Seaborne, newly widowed, seems to have ambivalent feelings about her deceased husband, a wealthy, powerful, but cruel man. In some ways, he shaped her into a new person and a new life; but he also stifled any sense of self that she might have developed. Now on her own, she decides to follow her whims, the primary one being to study paleontology on an amateur level. With her companion Martha, an early feminist with reformist tendencies, and her odd 12-year old son Frankie (who today would likely be considered mildly autistic), Cora packs off to Lyme Regis, where Mary Anning had set off a craze for fossil hunting. But when rumors surface that a strange sea creature, last seen in 1669, may have reappeared in the waters near the small town of Aldwinter, Cora can't resist the opportunity to find something truly remarkable. Her friends Charles and Katherine Ambrose, wealthy aristocrats, provide an introduction to the local parson, Will Ransome, a married father of three with a similar interest in fossils. Will and Cora embark on an unexpected and passionate friendship that threatens to become much more. Their debates on the conflicts between science and faith shape the heart of the novel.

But this is not the only theme running through The Essex Serpent. There are questions about the nature of love in its many forms: friendship, passion, loyalty, empathy, responsibility, parenthood, and more. These are fleshed out through a series of wonderfully drawn secondary characters: Will's wife Stella, an ethereal creature whose illness pulls her into a strange faith of her own making that centers on all things blue; Luke Garrett, a brilliant surgeon in love with Cora; his devoted friend George Spencer, a wealthy young physician who spends his fortune on charitable projects to impress Cora's companion Martha; Frankie, who seems incapable of loving anyone; and the quirky townsfolk of Aldwinter. Questions of class are never far from the surface; Charles Ambrose, for example, believes in a kind of simplified social Darwinism that keeps individuals in the places they are meant to be.

All these elements, characters, and ideas twist and turn and intertwine like the body of the elusive serpent while the plot carries the reader along for the ride. There's nary a dull moment here, and a good number of keen insights and startlingly beautiful passages. The Essex Serpent is an all-around winner, the best reading experience I've had so far this year.
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LibraryThing member teresakayep
I’ve been very much looking forward to the U.S. release of this novel by Sarah Perry. It has a Victorian lady naturalist, a minister, and a mysterious sea monster. What could be better? And the reviews from the U.K. have been overwhelmingly positive. Alas, I was disappointed.

I do give Sarah Perry credit for being original. The Essex Serpent is like none of the other neo-Victorian books I've read. It’s an original. That may speak well of Perry’s talent as a writer, but it didn’t do much for me as a reader.

The first problem I found is that it takes a ridiculously long time to get started. Well over 100 pages. There are lots of characters beyond Cora Seaborne, the recently widowed fossil collector, and William Ransome, the country vicar with a big family and devoted wife, Stella. There’s a pair of doctors, Luke Garrett and George Spencer. And then there’s Charles and Katherine Ambrose, a good-hearted couple who bring the characters together. And then there are various children, most notably Cora’s son Francis, who appears to be autistic, and the Ransomes’ clever daughter, Joanna. And Cora has a companion, Martha, who appears to be in love with her. After Cora’s abusive husband dies, the first hundred pages of the book are mostly the various characters making introductions and eventually meeting. In every case, the characters form ideas of who they will meet, and they are invariably surprised. It gets tedious.

What the book does not show is Cora actually doing much investigating. Instead, it focuses on atmosphere, most notably the hothouse environment of a small community where everything seems uncertain and no one knows what to do about it. Perhaps if I’d known it was more about atmosphere than story, I would have been more patient with the slow (agonizingly slow) burn. As it is, I felt like most of the interesting material was barely touched on when a plot that appears to go nowhere gets all the attention.

The book does get better as it goes on. Passions can’t be denied, and there are consequences to face. By the last third, I was keen to see how it would turn out. But that didn’t quite make up for hundreds of pages of waiting for something to happen.
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LibraryThing member sianpr
An absolutely wonderful book. Perry weaves a complex and multilayered tale centred on Cora Seabourne, the widow of an MP, and the people who inhabit her world. The narrative is spun around the local legend of the Essex Serpent. Essex is vividly conjured up as are the characters. Wonderful and heartening.
LibraryThing member DubaiReader
Gothic Victorian novel.
According to GoodReads, this book has been nominated for eight awards to date, but I'm afraid I found it rather slow and it failed to hold my interest. On several occasions I had to rewind the audiobook as I had lost my train of thought, which left me wondering if this might be a book that is better read than listened to.

The central character is Cora Seaborne, who is narrated with a most peculiar accent. As the story begins, she is widowed by her overbearing older husband, but left well provided for. She had done her duty as a wife but felt relieved to be free of him. Able to do as she pleased, she dropped all female pretenses and moved to Aldwinter, Essex, where a serpent was rumoured to have been seen in the dark marsh waters. Cora is fascinated by nature, and by fossils in particular; she hopes the serpent will turn out to be a living fossil.
In Aldwinter she is drawn to the local vicar, Will Ransome, with whom she spars about many topics, including the relevance of religion.

Set in the 1890's, this novel also includes references to social housing and surgical breakthroughs, but these elements felt a bit superfluous and incomplete.
Many secondary characters play a part and of these I was most drawn to the poor doctor who attended Cora's husband and who fell hook-line-and-sinker for Cora, and to Francis, Cora's (probably autistic) son, who spent hours counting the feathers in a pillow, both forwards and backwards.

I have to say, the cover art is divine, five stars to the artist who designed it.
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LibraryThing member -Eva-
When Cora Seaborne’s husband dies, he celebrates her newfound freedom by surrendering to her Victorian scientific curiosity by hunting for the mythical Essex Serpent together with a local vicar, who, despite being married, grows closer to Cora than either of them had anticipated. This is written beautifully, if somewhat too flowery for my taste, and has a very interesting premise. Unfortunately, the story veers into territory that is within my peeves area, so I couldn't fully enjoy it. My two biggest problems are (1) that the main characters "fall in love;" is it ever possible to have characters be simpatico without falling in love - the story would have been better for it, I promise. (2) The most interesting story line, the one of the Serpent, has a lot of build-up and strange events connected to it, but ultimately goes nowhere; I'm especially irked that the school-incident, which I found wonderfully creepy, is never explained. It is an engaging read overall, but I wish more of the scattered threads would have been tied together at the end.… (more)
LibraryThing member Tess_Elizabeth
I received an ARC of The Essex Serpent in exchange for an unbiased review.

3.5 stars

THE ESSEX SERPENT is the story, loosely, of newly widowed Cora Seaborne, an unconventional Victorian woman who is fascinated by natural history and the budding sciences of the late 19th century. After the death of her abusive husband, this passion takes her to the marshy county of Essex where rumors of a monstrous serpent are circulating along the estuary towns. Here she meets the married reverend William Ransome, and they begin a relationship every bit as unconventional as Cora herself.

I really wanted to love this book and was so excited to get my hands on a copy, but after reading it, felt a little let down. THE ESSEX SERPENT is less a supernatural story about Cora and her adventures to find the Essex serpent, and more an atmospheric snapshot of a time and place. It's beautifully written, but the characters feel underdeveloped, and the multiple side-plots extraneous to the central narrative. It seemed like a book that wanted to be a little of everything, without really knowing what it was. It's frustrating because you felt like with every turn of the page it had the potential to be something really special, but it just never got there.
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LibraryThing member MaureenCean
Perhaps as high as 3.5 Thank you to Library Thing for the ARC and the opportunity to share an honest review. I was drawn instantly to it for the beauty of the cover art. I wish I could have it every day in a planner or a rug or pillow. So pleasing to the eye. There were a few things that prevented me from adding the fourth star. It was truly slow moving, almost to the very end. I also found the characters a little too stereotypical, particularly in Cora's case. Why must the portrayal of feminism include casting aside what makes us feminine and behaving like a man? It just seemed that every character was so easy to label. And the last thing is something I have mentioned before. Apparently I'm getting prudey as I proceed through middle age. The sex scene, amounting to a mere half paragraph, was disquieting. See pg. 354 if you just can't wait...To wrap things up on a more positive note, some of the narrative pieces, especially at the start of chapters, talking of nature, the seasons, the state of the village and its inhabitants, reminded me of a favored author, Neil Gaiman. I could even hear him in my head as I read it, since he often does his own audio productions. It was quite nice. And while there is much that could be discussed on the themes of science vs religion and romantic vs platonic love, I think perhaps my favorite is the idea of William as religion and Cora as science, at once both together and apart.… (more)
LibraryThing member cacky
Too many topics. Too many characters with a story to tell. The result is a muddled novel. Sad to say that the best thing about this book is it's amazing jacket design.
LibraryThing member eclecticdodo
I was initially put off this book by the themes of science and religion, thinking it would be the usual clash between two modes of thought that I have never seen as incompatible. However I am glad I was persuaded to give it a try. The story centres around rumours of a flying serpent living in the marshes, and different people's attitudes to it, as well as the relationships between them. There is no violent clash between differing world views, only mutual respect and conversation. This is historical fiction and suffers rather from putting modern ideals and attitudes in the minds of a previous generation, but that did not spoil my enjoyment.… (more)
LibraryThing member AdonisGuilfoyle
Wasn't sure about this one. For the first half of the book, I was thinking, 'Why do I keep buying populist novels, because they never live up to the hype?' The plot meanders along, vaguely tied in with the legend of the title and a widow who travels with her proto-autistic son and 'companion' to investigate, and the characters are either cliched - Cora, said widow, an 'independent lady' of the 1890s whom everybody loves - or annoying (I could not stand the bloody vicar!)

But then, and I had a feeling this would happen, I clicked with a character ('Isn't it odd how strangers come over the threshold and you never know what they might become') - Luke Garrett, the talented but taciturn surgeon (who of course has a crush on Cora, gag). I imagined him to sort of look like David Bamber as Mr Collins in the 1995 Pride and Prejudice, which isn't exactly heart throb material, but he also has that underdog vibe that I love, like Childermass in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. I was nearly in tears when *improbable event* struck him down, and then Cora very nearly literally twisted the knife.

I think characterisation saves this novel from abject boredom. Apart from Cora and the slappable vicar, the personalities are all believable and mostly sympathetic, with my favourites being Luke, his hapless mate Spencer, and Stella, the vicar's wife. And even Cora is a strong, if forced, heroine who stays true to her beliefs - no sickening happy ever after at least.
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LibraryThing member mckait
The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry is a beautifully written story. So many quirky, yet lovable characters, and such an array of feelings. One moment I almost felt as if I had picked up a volume of poetry, so beautifully written, and the next, darkness looms. This book takes us on a journey through a year in the lives of an assortment of people, whose strengths and weaknesses make them so very real. The unexpected happens often, hearts are broken and lives are mended. And the ending is nothing short of a work of art. The ending can make or break a book, and there is nothing broken in this story of Cora and Martha, Will, Francis, and all of the others whose lives touch, with Cora as the connector of them all. I loved it.… (more)
LibraryThing member Well-ReadNeck
This winding romance takes place in Victorian England. Cora, a recent widow, moves with her 11 year old son to the coast where she hears a rumor about the presence of the Essex Serpent, a mythological creature. She meets a young vicar who disbelieves the rumors and discourages the belief in superstition and the Serpent. The narrative itself takes on the voice of the time and place of it's setting. The many subplots that meander through the book are sometimes unnecessary for the principle story. For fans of romance set in Victorian England.

I received an advanced copy of this novel from LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program. Thanks!
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LibraryThing member bookmuse56
A graceful ingeniously written historical fiction set in the 1890s Victorian England that delightfully simmers with suspense, and defying the known sensibilities of the times. The mystery of the reappearance of an elusive beast, a cerebrally-minded young widow, and a compassionate vicar are the drivers that lead the reader into the conversations of science & progress vs superstition & belief. While the beginning was a little slow for me, the intertwined complexities of the relationships made this an addictive read for me. The beautiful cover foreshadows the awesome descriptive language of the landscape, along with the stellar storytelling drawing the reader into the world in which these characters live makes for an entertaining read.… (more)
LibraryThing member Pencils
A terrific story visiting the usual nineteenth century issues in a very engaging and entertaining way. Cora's search for the Essex Serpent provides opportunity to explore religion, nature, science, thought, belief and hysteria. Cora and her friends are "real" people - inconsistent, endearing and infuriating, and as familiar and as strange in the way people from the past can be.

For a story so concerned with pain - physical, emotional and all pains remembered - it's enjoyable, and satisfying. Maybe because it's also about surviving and carrying on? Recommended.
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LibraryThing member Mishker
Cora Seaborne is a recent widow to an abusive husband and is reveling in her new found freedom. Dr. Luke Garrett saw Mr. Seaborne through his illness and is now enraptured with Mrs. Seaborne. He is also on the verge of performing open heart surgery, if only he had a willing participant. Taken with new found spirit, Cora travels to Essex with her son, Francis and friend Martha where there have been renewed rumors of a serpent haunting the town. There, in the small parish of Aldwinter, Cora meets Will, the local vicar, his beautiful and frail wife Stella and their children. Cora and Will, seemingly opposites, and with very different views of the serpent, strike up an unlikely friendship. As Cora spends more time in Aldwinter, the mystery and hysteria surrounding the serpent grows challenging the bounds of friendship in all directions.

The Essex Serpent is haunting and magical while being very firmly set in the reality of Victorian England. Rich and vivid writing makes the scenery and characters jump from the page. I was transfixed with Cora from the moment that she watched her husband die with a mixture of resolve, hope and giddiness. I loved that Cora was inspired by Mary Anning, a real paleontologist and so happily took up digging through the mud of a small farming village so unlike her London home. The mystery of the Essex serpent itself provides a mystery as well as a platform for the small parish of Aldwinter. I was intrigued by the real accounts of this 'Strange News Out of Essex,' but even more so by the fictional characters reactions to the serpent. Everything from hysteria to disbelief is displayed in the parish. However, it was not the serpent that was really the main focus of the book, but the unlikely friendships of the characters and how they progress. As much as I loved Cora and Will's friendship, I was interested in Stella and Frankie as well as Martha and Joanne. The Essex Serpent also shone light on a variety of Victorian London issues: advances in medical technology, housing crises, poverty, women's rights and gaining knowledge of the environment. Overall, a curious and addicting tale with as many facets as the serpent's scales that will be sure to take you on a delightful journey.

This book was received for free in return for an honest review.
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LibraryThing member hollysing
I thank NetGalley for my advance readers copy of The Essex Serpent. The story appears to be absorbing. I will be reading (and reviewing) [The Essex Serpent ] in August with my online reading club. Full review to follow.
LibraryThing member lauriebrown54
When Cora Seaborne’s husband dies, no one in the household is sorry. He was a sadistic and abusive man, who leaves Cora with scars both physical and mental to remember him by. But he also leaves her with a bit of money, so she no longer has to stay in the mansion with the bad memories; she, her autistic son Francis, and her socialist companion Martha move to a village in Essex, where she hopes to find fossils like Mary Anning is doing. There she meets the Ransomes: William the vicar, his wife Stella, and their three children. Cora and Stella immediately take to each other as if they had grown up together; Cora and William find themselves in a different sort of friendship, arguing in a jovial way, frequently via letter. But all is not fun and games in Aldwinter; the legendary Essex sea monster (a real bit of Essex folklore) seems to be back, drowning young men, stealing goats, and generally scaring the people silly even though no one has seen it.

This is a book you climb into and live in with the characters. The descriptions of nature, of people, and especially of Stella are the literary equivalent of pre-Raphaelite paintings; exquisitely detailed and saturated with life. There is a great cast of characters, and intellectual and social issues are explored. I loved this novel; there is a lot of depth to it. Five stars.
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LibraryThing member DebbieMcCauley
1893 London: Cora Seaborne’s abusive husband has just died and she is left with her autistic son Francis and socialist companion Martha. The family dog seems the only one to mourn her husband, and soon dies. Unorthodox Cora has an interest in palaeontology. Hearing of the hysteria surrounding the return of the 'Essex Serpent', not seen since 1669, but now apparently returned to terrorise Aldwinter village from the Blackwater estuary, she determines to find out whether the serpent is actually a ‘living fossil’. She meets Aldwinter's rector, William Ransome, whose fearful flock feel under judgement. His wife Stella lives in a blue-tinged state of euphoria brought on by tuberculosis. Superstition and faith compete with science and fact as Cora and William are drawn to each other, forming a deep friendship, although opposed on almost every topic. I picked this book up for its cover, a fabulous William Morris inspired Victorian floral which is repeated in the attractive yellow endpapers. The story was fairly good, Cora has found freedom in her husband’s death and turned her back on Victorian society. The story includes social history and the class system, touching on crime and housing squalor in London as well as the 1884 Colchester Earthquake. Not compelling, but needed completion to solve the mystery of the ‘Essex Serpent’!… (more)
LibraryThing member Helenliz
I'm not quite sure what to make of this. It took me a little while to work out when it was set. Certainly the prologue was not in the least bit definite. I felt it sits in the 1880s to 1890s bracket, which other readers have confirmed.
Starting at New year, it begins with deaths, that of an unknown man and Cora's husband. Frankly, the world seems to be better off without the second of these, as there are indications that he was physically and mentally abusive to Cora during their marriage. She describes it has he shaped her, yes, but I would use another description. However, with his death, she begins a new, freer, phase of her life. In this, she contrives to entangle a number of people, all of who find her frustrating and beguiling by turns. I get the former, the latter, not so much. She annoyed me, with her faith in science, but then that seemed not to allow for any other way of seeing the world. She was somewhat selfish and unfeeling, seeming to accept the attention lavished on her, but be reluctant to be more than a recipient of this. She struck me as shallow.
The cast of characters in this novel is quite extensive and varied. Some of those I found a lot more interesting than Cora herself, but she sits at the centre of this, like a serpent, coiling herself around people and squeezing. The serpent of the title turns out to not be what it is imagined to be, and it is in interesting view of the way myths are made.
It was enticing enough to draw me in, but I found the main character to be too unappealing to really care all that much how her story turned out.
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