About The Author
Sarah Perry was born in Essex in 1979. She has a PhD in creative writing from Royal Holloway, has been a writer-in-residence at the Gladstone Library and, from January to February 2016 was the UNESCO World City of Literature Writer in Residence in Prague. Her first novel, After Me Comes the Flood, was longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and the Folio Prize, and won the East Anglian Book of the Year Award in 2014. She lives in Norwich.
Her new novel, The Essex Serpent, now out in paperback, is a love story between Cora Seaborne, an educated and fiercely independent widow and mother, and William Ransome, an enlightened provincial vicar, set against a vividly drawn backdrop of Victorian London and Essex, and exploding with the conflicts of science and religion that lit up the era. Below, exclusively for Foyles, we chatted to Sarah about taking the Gothic outdoors, writing out her own fears, desires and anxieties, and why the past is more interesting for its sameness than its otherness.
Author photo © Jamie Drew
Questions & Answers
You've acknowledged that your 2014 debut novel, After Me Comes the Flood, slowly emerged over many years, as you honed your writing skills. Did the acclaim it received affect how you went about writing The Essex Serpent?
I’m afraid so! Writing After Me Comes the Flood was like having my teeth pulled, reinserted into their sockets, then pulled again, over and over. When I began it, the only fiction I’d written as an adult was a short story for a BA assignment years before, so I had no idea what I was doing, only that what I was doing was most emphatically not good enough. The Essex Serpent, in contrast, was a kind of joyous outpouring – I wrote the first draft in about nine months, expecting to need to raze it to the ground and build it back again, but much of that draft remains. Partly it was easier because writing a novel is like any skill: it gets easier with practice. But partly it was because I felt liberated. I’d done a Creative Writing MA, an experience I am incredibly grateful for; but it left me haunted with the suspicion that I should be a different writer altogether, perhaps turning out slender autobiographical volumes about a young woman of spiritual temperament living in Hackney. When the critical response was so kind it was like finally setting a burden down: I felt free to write as I pleased.
In an article you wrote when your debut novel was published, you mention that your PhD explored the power of place, particularly interiors, in Gothic fiction, acknowledging that in After Me Comes the Flood, 'The house where John Cole finds himself is invested with as much power as any of its residents'. Was the writing of this novel guided by a desire to take the Gothic outdoors?
I don’t know that the desire to do this was conscious at the time, but certainly I grew aware that this was precisely what I was doing. We are quite accustomed to the idea of the Gothic interior: the crypt, the attic, the creaking stair. But the idea of the Gothic natural world is one which I think is quite unexamined. There is no reason why everything which makes the Gothic sense of place function cannot work out of doors – a deserted salt-marsh with gulls crying like people in pain, a pine forest as quiet as a cathedral, a bloody sunset: all of these can evoke the sensations of terror, sublimity and the uncanny which are intrinsic to the Gothic.
Did the idea for the novel begin with the story of the Essex village of Henham's dragon? What was it about this particular myth that appealed to you?
Yes – I was travelling through the Essex countryside when we passed a sign to Henham, and my husband idly told me about the legend of the dragon. By the time we reached home, I had the plot in mind, and had begun to know my characters. I suppose it appealed to me partly for its own sake (what was that serpent – a hoax? Mass hysteria? An oarfish?) and partly because it seemed the perfect device on which to hang themes about faith and reason, delusion and science, and so on. And, of course, I’m an Essex girl, and so feel a strange sort of pride in its myths and legends, and its coastal landscapes – maybe particularly because Essex is more usually the butt of bad jokes than the setting for Gothic novels!
Cora is a great admirer of Mary Anning, a major contributor to the field of palaeontology around half a century before the time in which The Essex Serpent is set. Had the position of women in science advanced to any great degree by the late-Victorian era?
It had, to a certain extent – though as is so often the case many of the pioneering women of the 19th century are all but forgotten. We all know about Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Marie Curie, but other brilliant women like the physicist and engineer Hertha Marks Ayrton and the Darwinian scientist Alice Bodington are overlooked. Women were also very active in politics in the 19th century - Eleanor Marx, who makes a cameo appearance in the novel, was marvellously radical and had a tremendous impact. So in writing The Essex Serpent I wanted to write Victorian women who weren’t helplessly trapped by husbands and corsets and convention, but who were as ‘modern’, as revolutionary and as courageous as, for example, Emmeline Pankhurst, Malala Yousafzai, Rosa Parks and Rosa Luxemburg.
At the heart of the novel is the friendship between Cora and William Ransome, a vicar. As someone who was brought up in Strict Baptist community, is there still something autobiographical about exploring the tensions between the religion and the modern world?
I’m afraid so! I never wanted to write autobiographically (though I enjoy reading memoirs very much), but realise now that wherever I go, there I’ll be. I can’t help writing out of my own fears and desires and anxieties: no-one can. I suspect that even if I were to write, for example, hard sci-fi set in the distant future on the outer reaches of a yet-undiscovered nebula, at least one character would be suffering some sort of faith crisis, probably while falling oddly in love and going for lots of long walks on a misty coastline.
Your ground-breaking surgeon, Dr Luke Garrett, also battles with orthodoxy with his revolutionary techniques. Who were the real-life inspirations behind him?
I find something particularly haunting and pleasing about cardiac medicine: even when you are watching videos of open heart surgery (which I did with some frequency, including while eating lunch) it’s impossible to set aside what is simply a pump made of muscle from everything it represents: love, fidelity, desire and so on. It was always a particularly tricky branch of medicine because of course the body cannot survive without the heart for longer than a few minutes, and so in order to perform cardiac surgery it’s necessary to keep the blood circulating artificially.
We’ve been conducting amputations and cosmetic surgery and the removal of tumours and so on for centuries, but successful cardiac surgery didn’t really take place until the 20th century. But surgeons tried, and I read some extraordinary accounts: in 1891 one young surgeon in Edinburgh was certain he could safely remove a bullet from the heart of a soldier, and when he lost the patient on the table was so distraught he went home and shot himself. Luke Garrett is – like me – fascinated by Ignaz Semmelweis, a 19th-century Hungarian physician who discovered that ‘childbed fever’ was a result of bacterial infections from doctors not washing their hands. He was so reviled for his views that he wound up in a lunatic asylum (where, with terrible irony, he died of a bacterial infection).
Cora's son, Francis, shows many signs of being on the autistic spectrum, at a time before the condition was recognised. How did late-Victorian society account for behaviour like his?
The frank answer is that I simply don’t know! When I began to write Francis I didn’t set out to portray a child on the autistic spectrum and so I didn’t research 19th-century child development and so on. But - like many of us, I suspect – I know and love several people with varying degrees of autism and have always been fascinated by what we think of as ‘normal’ behaviour, and how we respond to people who sit beyond that really quite arbitrary and flexible boundary. Much of what Francis does is, in the abstract, completely logical – for example, when bored he recites the Fibonacci series, and he tries to understand the world by little experiments. Neither of these things are especially odd, and in fact they are quite sensible responses to the world: they are merely unusual. I suppose I am always interested in people who won’t be comfortably categorised.
Another narrative strand in the novel is the political campaign to improve the lot of the many poor Londoners stuck in slum housing, with politicians of the time lacking much understanding or empathy. Is there any commentary intended here on the present-day gulf between the political class and ordinary working people?
Absolutely. What most interests me about the past is not its otherness but its sameness: when as a child I’d be taken to visit Roman forts or Norman castles, what seduced me most of all was imagining the girls of my age who’d stood where I was standing – how they too had longed to grow up, had friends and enemies, probably were always getting in trouble with their parents. I wanted to portray a late nineteenth century which was in many respects ‘modern’, rather than a sort of Victoriana theme-park of pea-soupers and smelling-salts. By the 1890s you could travel by Tube and walk along an Embankment lit by electric lights, you could have a tooth pulled under anaesthesia, join a union, read the Times, buy frozen lamb shipped over from New Zealand, and so on. I suppose the obverse of saying 'they were rather like us' is to say 'and we are rather like them', and I do fear that we are regressing to a decidedly Victorian state when it comes to housing, and a tendency to think of those who live in poverty as in some way deserving it due to a lack of virtue rather than mere ill fortune.
You're already hard at work on your next novel and hinted that it's set in Prague, where you were UNESCO City of Literature Writer-in-Residence earlier this year. Can you reveal anything else about it yet?
I am being uncharacteristically coy about this novel – not out of any sort of writerly superstition but because I am a little afraid that if I talk about it publicly someone will say, 'What?! You can’t do that!', and that would be the end of it. But I can say that, yes: it is set, largely, in contemporary Prague, and that I am moving more deeply and darkly into Gothic horror territory than I have done before. At present it has a slightly alarming epigram from the book of Ezekiel: 'An end is come, the end is come: it watcheth for thee; behold, it is come', which is as good an indicator as any of what kind of book it will be.
Sarah Perry was interviewed by Jonathan Ruppin exclusively for www.foyles.co.uk