Day 1102: The Essex Serpent

Cover for The Essex SerpentBest Book of the Week!
In 1885, Cora Seabourne is a recent widow and is happy to be so, as her husband abused her. For the first time, she feels free and is not eager to remarry, even though surgeon Dr. Luke Garrett is in love with her.

Cora is interested in fossils and has made a heroine of the early fossil finder Mary Anning, so she moves with her son Frankie and her friend Martha to Essex, where she can explore the sea coast. Soon after arriving, she hears rumors of the Essex serpent, a monster that has been supposedly terrorizing the area. There are rumors of slain farm animals and lost children. Cora hopes to find a living prehistoric animal. The villagers are more superstitious, and an aura of dread soon develops.

Cora finds happiness rambling around the countryside, so she delays introducing herself to the Ambroses, Reverend William and his wife Stella. But when she finally meets them, they become fast friends. In particular, Will and Cora enjoy debating such subjects as science versus religion, a topic made even more controversial since Darwin’s discoveries. Sadly, it soon becomes obvious that Stella has tuberculosis.

This novel evokes the ideas and preoccupations of the Victorian age. Although it has quite a few characters, they are all convincingly portrayed. I was deeply interested in the novel. It presents a fully realized world, vividly imagined and described.

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Day 943: The True Heart

Cover for The True HeartThe True Heart is the book chosen for my Classics Club spin on Monday. I’m reviewing it this week because I have Literary Wives on the same day. It is the first book I’ve read by Sylvia Townsend Warner, and it is an interesting mix.

On the surface, it is a simple tale about the efforts of a naive young woman to win her love. But it has allegorical overtones and Warner admitted that it is her retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche. Let me just say that stories of women who labor long and hard to prove their love for men (and, actually, the other way around) have never been my favorite.

Sukey Bond, straight out of an orphanage school, is sent to work on a farm as a servant girl. Her escort part of the way is Mrs. Seabourn, a clergyman’s wife, and even though Sukey is afraid of the unknown, she is sure that Mrs. Seabourn would not take her anywhere bad.

On the Noman’s farm, she meets Eric, who appears to be another farm worker, but no one seems to mind if he doesn’t work. Sukey is very naive and inexperienced, and she is surprised when Eric seems to like her. She doesn’t notice how he is different than the other workers. They begin meeting each other away from the farm and decide they are in love.

But one day Eric has an epileptic fit after he sees Sukey kill a chicken. It is not until then that Sukey learns Eric is considered an “idiot.” (He is odd, certainly, but doesn’t really seem mentally lacking┬áso much as on another plane of existence.) It is also not until then that Sukey learns Eric is Mrs. Seabourn’s son. This puts him well above her in social station, but she thinks Mrs. Seabourn would be happy that Eric has her to take care of him. So, when Mrs. Seabourn comes to take Eric away, Sukey quits her job and follows.

But Mrs. Seabourn is not the person Sukey thinks she is. She is ashamed of Eric and horrified and angry when Sukey presents herself. She sends Sukey away, and the girl is penniless and friendless until she finds work at another farm.

At the home of her new employer, she hears a garbled account of Mrs. Seabourn being snubbed by a “princess” at some event. She decides that if she were to go to Queen Victoria and get Mrs. Seabourn a bible from her, Mrs. Seabourn might be grateful and relent. So, she quits her job again and is off to London.

I hardly know what to think about this novel. On the one hand, it seems unlikely that events, which could go so horribly for Sukey, depend on her constantly receiving help from unexpected people. Too, it was difficult for me to imagine a person could be so simple-minded and naive. (Of course, I assumed she was a little older than she actually was until they told her age at the end.) On the other hand, I don’t think we’re supposed to take this apparently simple tale at face value.

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