As an adolescent I was forever nursing crushes on female characters from Victorian literature: wild Catherine Earnshaw, demure Little Dorrit and artful Irene Adler, she who will, at least for Sherlock Holmes, always be the woman. If Sarah Perry’s second novel, The Essex Serpent, had been published a couple of decades earlier, my younger self might well have added to that list the book’s protagonist: striking, erudite, melancholic Cora Seaborne.
We begin in London in 1893, where we discover Seaborne, ‘a tall handsome woman whose fine nose was specked with freckles’. Her chilly, distant husband has died, leaving her a young widow. Together with her autistic son, ‘self-contained and contentedly silent’, she leaves the metropolis in search of some sort