Genre: Historical fiction, literary fiction
Age Range: Adult fiction
Synopsis: It’s 1893 and rumours about the return of a legendary flying serpent bring widow Cora Seaborne and her son to a small town in Essex. Cora is an amateur scientist, and she is determined to find a possible “living fossil.” But she soon befriends Reverend William Ransome, the handsome, married local rector who has reasons of his own to doubt the existence of the mythical beast. Cora and Will’s friendship forms across the widening breach of science and faith…but can it survive the pressures of parenthood, London politics, and community surveillance? Perry includes lots of interesting local historical detail, especially through Cora’s friends Dr. Garrett, a budding surgeon, and Martha, a socialist. Ultimately, the atmosphere promising the fantastic (the ambiguous possibility of the supernatural à la Tzvetan Todorov) disappears under the realist lens of the novel and its greater interest in character development.
Despite the promise of DRAGONS, The Essex Serpent is a realist historical novel and a meditation about the opposing cultural forces of faith and science. It’s well constructed, but I don’t think I was in the right mood to appreciate this book. I think I was expecting something in the vein of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Norrell and Mr. Strange, where meticulous historical detail and a commitment to the style material realism is married with fantastical content. Actually, I was hoping for a reimagining of Bram Stoker’s The Lair of the White Worm (1911), where Dracula’s creator imagined the appearance of a dragon in late-Victorian England.
BUT, The Essex Serpent is instead a self-conscious meditation on the production of fantastical stories.
So, spoiler alert: there is an Essex Serpent, but it’s (intentionally) a bit of a let-down. A giant eel…not the equal of Mary Anning’s discovery of the ichthyosaur or plesiosaurus and DEFINITELY not a great flying dragon.
When the beast is found, it’s dead and decaying on the beach after it’s been destroyed from within by tapeworm – Cora’s dream brought down into the mud (325). I mean, the description of “a pair of gills “showing “a crimson, meaty frilling that resembled the underside of a mushroom” is deliciously disgusting, but readers aren’t allowed to enter too fully into the nerdy thrill of biology à la Planet Earth. Instead, readerly response is guided towards…disappointment. A minor character writes to the protagonist Cora about the discovery of a giant twenty-foot eel-like creature washed up on the beach, “no more strange, no more dangerous, than an elephant or crocodile” (330). The letter writer even exclaims “What a letdown!” (330).
So, instead of being disappointed, let’s use this moment to think about the tension between historical realist novels and historical fantasies.
Will Ransome’s observation that “the mystery had not been solved so much as denied” could stand in for the message of much neo-Victorian literature (326). The Victorians were so wacky and full of promise with their dreams of social justice and progress and mythology…too bad they didn’t live up to their potential.
As someone who studied Victorian literature at grad school, I feel torn about neo-Victorian fiction….So often, neo-Victorian literature is weighed down by the knowledge of the future, by knowing that Darwin’s science becomes mainstream, by knowing that the First World War is coming.
The Essex Serpent is written in the style of A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book (2009), which meticulously fuses the lives of Victorian children’s authors (E. Nesbit, Frances Burnett, J.M. Barrie, Kenneth Grahame) in order to think about how a society that seemed to worship childhood ultimately sent their children to die in the trenches of the First World War or into the brutal British public school system. An incredible attention to detail, a masterful evocation of place, but lacking in the energy of actual Victorian texts with similar moral themes, like Jane Eyre or Nicholas Nickleby in the case of The Children’s Book or Middlemarch or Dracula in the case of The Essex Serpent.
I mean, scholars have argued for decades that realism is a fundamentally limiting genre. Characters are cut down to what authors (or their publishers) decide should be possible for them. Adding history to realism is doubly limiting.
The heroes and heroines of historical fiction (realistic or not) are often a little anachronistic…they have to think and feel like contemporary readers. If protagonists are too authentically historical, they’d probably alienate readers. As a result, characters are often pegged neatly into philosophical categories that place them on a “progressive” trajectory. For example, in The Essex Serpent, Dr. Luke Garrett is fascinated by Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis, who was a groundbreaking Austro-Hungarian physician who advocated for – GASP – handwashing and disinfection between procedures. But here’s the thing: Semmelweis wasn’t super famous in his own time and his methodology was widely rejected by the medical establishment. So, we often have essentially modern protagonists moving through a world ruled by values that neither they nor their readers share. Yet, because realist authors often feel the ethical compulsion not to mess with history too much, protagonists can’t be truly successful in enacting their modern ethics onto their historical world.
Ironically, some of the crazier characters of the period who defied social expectations don’t make good historical “realist” fiction, because their individual feats couldn’t be replicated widely across society or because they fit into a “Great Man/Woman” model of history that’s been replaced by sociological analysis.
Where is the great novel about Mary Seacole, the British-Jamaican rival of Florence Nightingale? The title of her memoir, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands (1857), says it all. She’s writing wonderful adventures, not realism. Writing a book about Seacole, perhaps, risks being Not Serious. M.T. Anderson’s very serious The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation (2006) locates its narrative at the fringes of Enlightenment science at the turn of the American Revolution to consider how scientific narratives of race were constructed, but he’s writing YA. When authors writing “serious fiction for grown-ups” are so hemmed in by what they knew was probable, you can understand the desire and fear of fantasy.
This tension between fantasy and realism in historical fiction isn’t unique to The Essex Serpent.
Washington Black (2018) by Esi Edugyan features a similar tension between the promise of revisionist fantasy and the limitations of the historical record. As a young slave in Barbados, young Wash is given to an eccentric scientist, Titch, as an illustrator/assistant. When reality is so terrible, Wash is given the fantasy of science – a flying balloon in which he and Titch escape the plantation. But the fantasy of intergenerational, of slave/master friendship, and of escape-through-innovation comes (literally) crashing down. The narrative picks up again with a similar theme when the now-grown Wash ends up falling in love for the biological illustrator, Tanna, who is the daughter of a marine scientist. For the second time in the novel, science fails to liberate Wash because it is constrained by institutions governed by conservative ideologies. Eventually the plot takes on a dream-like reverie and an inconclusive ending, unravelling into something like, but not quite fantasy.
Why are authors scared of fantasy and adventure? They have legitimate, ethical reasons…Because, on the other hand, you have the wildly revisionist revenge fantasies of Quentin Tarantino in Django Unchained, Glorious Basterds, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. These films erase real, historical violence with fantasies of violence. They provide cheap thrills instead of a path towards authentic healing. Tarantino’s fictions work as film rather than literature because they move too quickly for thoughtful engagement.
So, if we want to engage creatively with the past without erasing injustice, cultural difference, or trauma, where do we go from here?
On the one hand, we have serious historical fantasies like M.T. Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing (race & the American Revolution) or Catherynne M. Valente’s Deathless (2011) (the shifting ideologies of the Soviet Union), and historical realism that is structurally creative as to move readers out of the deadlock of anachronism, like Anthony Marra’s puzzle-like story-cycle, The Tsar of Love and Techno (2015) (the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Russia).
But there are also some current narratives that succeed in addressing our desire for fantasy, even if their resolutions are primarily realistic. Here, I’m talking about Taika Waititi’s films, Boy (2010) and Jojo Rabbit (2019).
There’s been a lot of controversy about Jojo Rabbit as a potential trivialization of the Second World War, where ethical ambivalence seems to get sidetracked into conversations about whether the film is funny or sentimental, or not. But watching Jojo Rabbit alongside Boy suggests that Waititi has a shared concern that runs through the ten years between the films’ releases:
What do you do when you’re a child growing up in a place where reality fundamentally doesn’t make sense?
These are both films about near-adolescents whose fantasies of manhood – about who they might be when they grow up – are overtaken by the realities about the failures of their idealized father-figures. Alamein Jr./Boy is a Maori kid growing up in contemporary, rural New Zealand; Jojo is (initially) member of the Hitler Youth – they should be on the opposite ends of the societal hierarchy of power. And yet their portrayal of psychologically surviving through fantasy is remarkably similar. In both films, Waititi enters fully into their fantasies, showing Boy and Jojo’s dream sequences or alternate realities. Boy’s father is a hero, a prison escapee, and hangs out with Michael Jackson. Jojo’s Hitler gives him pep-talks when he’s bullied. Boy’s father’s absence is tolerable because he is doing all the things Boy wants the agency to do; Jojo’s fantasy father-of-the-nation is present to support him in all the ways his arrested/missing/dead Resistance father has failed. (Waititi also plays both father-figures.)
In both films, the young protagonists struggle when they come to realize the utter chasm between who they want their fathers to be and how their fathers have failed them. Emasculated by institutional prejudice and emotionally crippled by his wife’s death, Boy’s father, Alamein Sr., feels little responsibility for his children. In Jojo Rabbit, Nazi ideology is revealed to be rooted in unresolved insecurities similar to those Jojo carries with him: fears about masculinity and weakness. In the absence of male guidance, Boy and Jojo both almost – literally – die. To survive, they must first imagine and then fulfil their own visions of manhood. Although strict gender boundaries (external in Jojo’s case, internal and subliminal in Boy’s) prevent the children from initially seeing women as role models. Reimagining of manhood in both cases involves incorporating the “feminine” care ethic. Boy’s Aunty Gracey and Nan and Jojo’s mother, Rosie, all carry the economic and emotional burden of caring for children and providing communities with positive, non-violent visions of their future…visions rooted in commitment and work.
Wait, but weren’t we talking about historical fiction and fantasy?
Boy isn’t a historical film, per se. Boy’s struggle is immediate and ongoing, but the conditions that surround him are determined by historical structures of injustice and by his own personal history and mythology of how his family works. Thus, Waititi’s film functions as an extension of Boy’s work within the narrative. Just by existing, Boy is changing narratives…it needn’t be historical because it is history. By contrast, Jojo’s experience — that of a conventional mainstream child growing up completely absorbed into a totalitarian ideology we now revile — pushes against the anachronistic conventions of historical fiction. He’s a normal child and — according to our moral conventions, at least at the beginning of the film — a de facto monster. He is (conventionally, ethically) a narrative dead end, an impossibility. But children like him existed. Jojo’s real-life parallels, the generation that grew up after the Second World War had to contend with the moral vacuum of the recent past. They’re people like Bernhard Schlink, who wrote The Reader (1995) or Niklas Frank and Horst von Wachter, who were interviewed for What Our Fathers Did (2015). Except these real-life children grew up without the opportunity to drop-kick their rejected fantasy-heroes out the window, like Jojo eventually can. Jojo’s physical manifestation of his psychological fight against Hitler is the fictional consolation that Waititi’s film offers.
All of this to say…
Historical realism needn’t be defeatist and historical fantasy needn’t be ethically cheap. And blending realism and fantasy well takes hard work. But we can do it if we try, and we can enjoy it.