I spent the majority of my childhood in Essex. As soon as you mention the name of the county good old stereotypes pop into peoples’ heads. They imagine a race of orange tinged boy racers and cosmetically challenged women speaking with an estuarine twang who live along the Thames. But there’s another side to Essex.
When I return to Southend-on-Sea I’m always amazed to find that there is only one direction out of the town. It’s hemmed in by river estuaries to its north and south. And the geography continues as you head further northward. It’s a very wiggly coast. There’s the Crouch, the Roach, the Stour and the Blackwater rivers. Those are the main ones and then there’s a myriad of smaller tributaries that branch from them. All those little waterways have kept it very rural indeed. It’s this beautiful countryside that is the setting of The Essex Serpent, a novel by Sarah Perry that I’ve just read. It comes highly recommended and has the prettiest cover that I’ve seen for a long time. It’s recently been dramatised and is showing on Apple TV.
It’s a story set in Victorian times and draws on myths of sea serpents and dragons lurking in those waters. Inspired by the work of the fossil collector, Mary Anning, the main character Cora, an eccentric young widow from London, develops an interest in paleontology. Could the serpent that is reputed to live in the Blackwater estuary be a plesiosaur? Cora hopes to find out. In the absence of a bona fide sea monster she has a bit of a fling with a local vicar while his wife is dying of TB. Now you wouldn’t expect that in those prim and proper times would you?
And so it seems that us Essex lads and lasses aren’t the only ones who are tarred with a misguided stereotype. Sarah Perry points out at the end of the book that the Victorians might not have been as strait laced as they’re usually portrayed to be. They were a lot more jolly….and saucy that we normally imagine. I’m intrigued. That’s why Matthew Sweet’s ‘Inventing the Victorians’ has made it onto my ‘Books to Read’ list.
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