Book Club

October: The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

The next meeting of the Book club will be on Thurs 12th Oct when we will be discussing ‘The Essex Serpent’ by Sarah Perry. Doors open at 7 pm for refreshment and the discussion starts at 7. 30 pm.

Introduction to the book

Set in Victorian London and an Essex village in the 1890's, and enlivened by the debates on scientific and medical discovery which defined the era, The Essex Serpent has at its heart the story of two extraordinary people who fall for each other, but not in the usual way. They are Cora Seaborne and Will Ransome. Cora is a well-to-do London widow who moves to the Essex parish of Aldwinter, and Will is the local vicar. They meet as their village is engulfed by rumours that the mythical Essex Serpent, once said to roam the marshes claiming human lives, has returned. Cora, a keen amateur naturalist is enthralled, convinced the beast may be a real undiscovered species. But Will sees his parishioners' agitation as a moral panic, a deviation from true faith. Although they can agree on absolutely nothing, as the seasons turn around them in this quiet corner of England, they find themselves inexorably drawn together and torn apart. Told with exquisite grace and intelligence, this novel is most of all a celebration of love, and the many different guises it can take.

Discussion Questions

  1. Many comparisons have been drawn between Sarah Perry’s writing and the Victorian novelists who were writing at the time the book was set, including Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins. Do you think this book feels Victorian, or contemporary?
  2. "I'll fill your wounds with gold," Michael says. He means both literally that he will make sure Cora is financially comfortable during their marriage in exchange for the pleasure of hurting her, but also that he will remake her as something more beautiful and interesting than she was before. Cora survived her horrible marriage, but was definitely damaged by it. What do you think the seams of gold are in Cora’s character?
  3. Many of the characters have unequal relationships: Cora and Martha, Spencer and Luke. Do you think that viewing someone as a means to an end necessarily precludes loving them?
  4. Cora’s son, Francis, might today be diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum. Despite his challenges, he gets a lot of pleasure from learning about the natural world. Eccentricity seems to have been more acceptable in the Victorian era, at least for men of a certain class. Do you think Francis would be happier in his time or in our own?
  5. Will is at odds with the superstitious villagers, who insist the serpent is real, whereas he sees their conviction as a sign of their lack of faith. However, he is also wrangling with Cora, who is more interested in science than religious belief. And while Will is a minister of the established Church, he secretly reads Darwin. Do you think he believes faith is fundamentally rooted in the words of the Bible or a more personal encounter with the world?
  6. When Francis asks Will what sin is, he describes it as falling short. When Will and Cora finally have their encounter in the woods, Will’s wife is still alive. How do you think Will would judge this incident by his own definition of sin?
  7. Cora’s physical size and mannish habits of dress are frequently commented upon by other characters in the novel. She rejects a lot of society’s expectations of her as a woman, whereas Stella Ransome is the living embodiment of the perfect housewife. Despite their differences, they are friends. What do you think Perry is trying to tell us by having Cora save her rival instead of quietly letting her drown?
  8. Cora sends her angry letter to Luke at a terrible time — it arrives as all his other hopes are being dashed. If this unfortunate coincidence hadn’t taken place, would we still read the letter as cruel? Should she have expressed her thoughts more kindly or was she right to be angry?
  9. One of the subplots of the novel is the disappearance of Naomi Banks. She and Joanna Ransome argued and Naomi ran away. By the end of the novel, she has returned and Joanna is trying to cope with the imminent death of her mother. Do you think they will become close friends again, for good, or are the differences between them simply too great?
  10. The novel sets up Cora to choose between two men and in the end she chooses neither. Do you think this is a comment on traditional literary plots? Do you think the novel sees friendship as more valuable and enduring than romantic love?

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