Challenging Misconceptions About Victorian Women: A Q&A With Jessica Shattuck & Sarah Perry About "The Essex Serpent"

EssexIn Sarah Perry's The Essex Serpent, a pragmatic, whip-smart widow and naturalist teams up with a devout man of faith to investigate the veracity of a fantastical claim: a diabolical beast has returned--after 300 years!--to feed its blood-lust yet again, starting with a young victim on New Year's Eve. Here, Jessica Shattuck, author of The Women in the Castle, asks Ms. Perry about how her personal background informed the story, the unlikely duo featured in it, and more.

J.S.: I've read that you had a very strict Baptist upbringing and were prohibited from reading any 20th century fiction. Do you think that made writing a novel set in the 19th century--and very much written in a style reminiscent of the great Gothic novels of that era—easier?

S.P.: It isn’t quite the case that I was prohibited from reading 20th century fiction (I read E.M. Forster, and D.H. Lawrence, for instance); it is more that there was no contemporary culture in the house – pop music, television, cinema trips and so on. And most of the literature and culture that surrounded me was 19th century or indeed a great deal older.

I have no way of knowing whether this upbringing made it easier to write a novel set in the 19th century, simply because I have no other experience against which to judge it! I suspect so, however. I do know that while writing my debut novel (which is set in contemporary Norfolk) I would fret that my writing style was insufficiently modern (whatever that means), and that, after that, writing a novel set in the 19th century allowed me to feel a certain kind of freedom – that my natural lexis, which is drawn from all the influences that surrounded me as a child, and which would have been very similar to what would have surrounded a child born 100 years early, was fitted to the subject.

J.S.:I so enjoyed Cora Seaborne’s character. What was it like to write a woman with such modern sensibilities who lived during the Victorian era?

S.P.: I am so glad you enjoyed her: thank you!

I found it thrilling to write a Victorian woman who challenges false ideas about what Victorian women were like. She does not have “modern sensibilities” in the anachronistic sense: rather, she was as modern as many Victorian women were at that time.

We labor under misapprehensions about Victorian womanhood that I am extremely keen to correct. These were far from the feeble, fainting, fragile women trapped in gilded cages that we so often take them for. I looked at contemporary letters and memoir pieces, and other historical documents such as speeches and government documents, and found that Victorian women – despite all the barriers to equality they faced - were urgent, cerebral, politically active, socially radical, emotionally rich and accorded a great deal more freedom than we assume. For example, there are records of women – including poorer women such as servants – voting in local elections in the 1840s, and some wonderful letters between two young Victorian women show how they cheerfully travelled into London on their own by train or on foot. Women such as Eleanor Marx and Annie Besant were active in politics and in trades unions, and by the close of the 19th century women were training – in some cases at the forefront of their field - in medicine, math and the sciences, and had close relationships with each other and with men. And it was far from just the wealthy women who were able to show agency and spirit in politics: some of Britain’s most important labor laws have their roots in a strike at the Bryant and May match factory in 1888, when young girls and women, many of whom would have been illiterate but had been motivated by hearing Annie Besant speak, refused to work until accorded better rights.

Cora Seaborne and Martha are both intended to give voice to the brilliant, fearless, independent, educated, important Victorian women whom we so often sideline in favor of a more saccharine view. As the historian Rachel Holmes says, “Feminism did not begin in the 1970s, it began in the 1870s.”

J.S.: Tell us about Cora and the pastor, William Ransome. How would their story and relationship have been different if set in Aldwinter, 2017?

S.P.: I wanted to create a relationship which was recognizably human, complicated and messy. Many novels have been written about buttoned-up, sexually repressed Victorians seething hopelessly at each other over cups of weak tea: I wanted to write something different, and something which more reflected the relationships and friendships I had read about in first-hand accounts. For example, a key aspect of their relationship is that it is essentially a passionate friendship, and friends did write to each other in very warm and open terms in the 19th century (and obviously in preceding periods). Same-sex relationships were often very ardent indeed – women often lived together in physical intimacy that we would nowadays regard as gay relationships, but which at that time were simply regarded as intimate friendships. Nor were Victorians the sexually repressed folk that we tend to think they are: I am especially fond of reading one of the letters of Jane Carlyle, who recounts, in a very casual way, that one of their housemaids gave birth in the house while they were on holiday, having managed to keep her pregnancy out of wedlock a secret. This isn’t met with horror and outrage, but only spoken about as a bit of daily gossip: 19th women did have sex, they did have lovers, they were not a different species from us. That Will and Cora are of the opposite sex, and that Will is married, of course creates a tension that would not have been there had they been the same sex. But Will’s conflicts come not from the manners of the age but from something universal and timeless: his love for his wife, and his faith in God. Similarly, Cora’s confusion does not come from the fact that she is a Victorian woman, but only that she is a woman: that she has just come out of an abusive marriage and is unable or unwilling to see the effect that she has on people. I am not sure that much would have been different had these events taken place in 2017: Will would still have loved his wife, he would still have been a man of faith, Cora would still have walked a very uneasy line between intellectual friendship and physical intimacy. I suppose they might have met up in the pub rather than gone for country walks, and might have texted rather than written letters, but these are not the essentials.

J.S.: In your writings over the years, you've set stories in the past, in the present, and in a dreamy state between the two. How do these time periods allow you to explore your curiosities and ambitions?  

S.P.: This is such a lovely and perceptive way of putting it – because in both my books, and in the one I am working on now, I am exploring my curiosities and ambitions, which seems a little self-indulgent in some ways. I suppose I don’t want my imagination to be fettered by anything – not by whether I am writing contemporary or historical fiction, not by prose style, not by subject matter, not by whether I am writing about “what I know”. I am very interested in ideas of universality – about what has outlasted customs and fashions, about what is human rather than a matter of where someone was born, or what they wore, or what they ate. I suppose this may account for why, when I write about the present, readers wonder if I am writing about the past; and when I write about the past, they often wonder if I am writing about the present. Recently I read an extremely cross reader review that said something like, “This is supposed to be a Victorian novel, but it was so confusing, it felt like I was reading a book set in modern times!” and I was--mischievously!-- absolutely thrilled.

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