Pre-loved book haul.

I’m currently postponing a considerable amount of Uni work to write this blog post, which is far more interesting! Anyway, a few weeks back, I adopted some unwanted, lovely new books from my relatives. Here, I shall be going through some of my fiction and non-fiction choices…

My first adoption is ‘Walking Dickensian London’ by Richard Jones.

walking dickesn london

If you enjoy classic literature and like London, then you’ll enjoy this. This is a delightful 200-page commissioned guide, covering twenty-five walks through the Victorian quarters of London, all associated with the life of Charles Dickens. The book opens with a modest biography of Dickens, revealing that it was a broken heart, poverty and a stifled intellectual desire that finally plunged him into writing in 1833. I’ve also learnt from this section that Dickens directed and acted in Willkie Collins’s 1857 play, ‘The Frozen Deep’.

Collins was another nineteenth-century writer who is perhaps best known for his psychological thriller novel, ‘The Woman in White’ (1859).

The Woman in White
BBC One’s 2018 adaptation of the “Woman in White”

At the bottom of page nine, you will find a short key which helps identify local churches, train stations – if you’re commuting to London beforehand, the walking route – highlighted blue, as well as city parks and gardens. Directions are generally broken down by short paragraphs, focussing on historic points of interest. My favourite walk is “Tower Hill to Barbican”, not least because Barbican is home to the Museum of London and the Barbican Centre – where I’ll be graduating (fingers crossed), but because the whole route is described as going straight through the “very heart” of the City of London and has a “warren” of very ‘Dickensian’ back alleys. I would say that since this guide is relatively old (published, 2004) and it feels slightly dated in terms of its layout and aesthetics. Nevertheless, a very interesting book. It’s relatively lightweight and a perfect companion to slip into your backpack. I feel inspired to embark on some walks!

My second adoption is
‘Walking Shakespeare’s London’ by Nicholas Robins.

As you may have noticed, this is related to the last book as a ‘Walking Guides’ series. This guide contains twenty walks and compared with Dickens, the introduction on Shakespeare is, perhaps unsurprisingly, quite short as very little was known about the bard himself. The introduction states that one of the most evocative Shakespearean buildings you’ll find in London, Shakespeare’s Globe, is incidentally one of the most modern additions, reconstructed from the original Globe Theatre in 1997 and 200 metres from the old site. This guide is similarly scattered with photographs, route maps, information on local buildings like Temple Church (p.112) as well as lots of context on historical society, Shakespeare’s contemporaries, political figures and literature in time gone by. This guide’s wide-ranging presentation of information offers an immersive insight into the past and is, therefore my preferred addition of the two.

My third adoption is ‘Nathaniel’s Nutmeg’ by Giles Milton.

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I took ownership of this book from my Dad who has had nothing but very high praise for it. In 1616, an English adventurer, Nathaniel Courthope, stepped ashore on the remote island of Run, six-hundred miles from the coast of Australia, to persuade the native islanders to grant a monopoly to England over their nutmeg. You may forgive the book for having such a seemingly mundane title, but if you’re interested in British naval history and the Age of Discovery, I have seen this book being frequently described as a “truly fascinating” read. The book is based on a little-known but very true story and from what I’ve read so far, Milton has interwoven imaginary writing in his own re-telling of the story of the spice trade; so we may call this a factual book with a little creative licence. Naturally, with any book covering our historic imperial past, there is the issue of a racist ideology which crops up as early as page two: “(the islanders of Run) are peevish, perverse, diffident, perfidious people…” Nevertheless, it serves the correct purpose of acknowledging ignorance of society of the time. I am yet to read this novel as it’s on my summer reading list, but I have high hopes for its depth of information.

‘The Essex Serpent’ by Sarah Perry.

I truly felt lost within the mists of time.

Last month, I wrote a less than positive book review on Sarah’s Perry debut novel ‘After Me Comes The Flood’. Though, it was the upcoming author’s second novel ‘The Essex Serpent’, which I was actually introduced to first. Based on some stellar reviews, being shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award and winning the Waterstones Book of the Year 2016, I was very much looking forward to getting stuck into the 417-page novel. Besides all that, Essex is where I’m from!

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Inside the front cover, with a William Morris design.

Tell Me About It ———–‘The Essex Serpent’ is set against the backdrop of 1890s Britain during a time of technical development and scientific endeavour. Cora Seaborne, recently widowed, has been liberated from an unhappy marriage to an unpleasant civil servant. Relieved of her duties and “stripped of code and convention” she seeks refuge in her late childhood memories and escapes the rigidity of the claustrophobic city for the wild and open landscape of the Essex county, in the Spring. In traditional feminist style, Cora doesn’t identify with the conventional expectations of a Victorian lady. Instead, the young ‘Mary Anning’ dresses for practicality and enjoys getting close to the mud and the raw beauty of the natural landscape. When Cora hears the folktale of the Essex Serpent which has apparently come to life and is abducting the locals of the Blackwater Estuary, she cannot resist investigating.

“There is strange news out of Essex…”

Writing Style———–I feel that there is a high level of intelligence to Sarah Perry’s writing as she has a wonderful gift for composing poetic and flowing descriptive passages of the Essex of her childhood (Sarah Perry did study Creative Writing at Royal Holloway); such as those of the marshes across the Essex coast and the sensoria of the wet woodlands. I truly felt lost within the mists of time and winds off the coast. There is also the beautiful prologue that explores the way in which time manifests itself in different ideas and abstract forms. It’s the kind of writing I aspire to achieve, though regrettably with only moderate success!

An original woodcut of the Essex Serpent. Credit: The Guardian.

Themes & Characters —————There are various themes which ‘snake’ their way throughout the narrative of the story. The most prominent character, the local parish priest, who is a person of faith but reluctant to surrender to superstition. Whereas Cora, a woman of science, is irresistibly drawn to folklore and fear-inducing rumour. Their burgeoning friendship as well as juxtaposing characteristics make for a delicate and intriguing relationship. The nature of faith and faith in nature intertwine throughout Perry’s novel, which has a strong respect for friendship and a humanity. I also appreciated Perry’s contemporary approach to a traditional social setting with her recognition of Cora’s son, Francis’s Autism, which would have undoubtedly gone undiagnosed in Victorian times

Thoughts?————– The Essex Serpent is compelling, though equally complex and again I felt the plot began to lose its way, which is a great shame. The story repeatedly jumped between characters and philosophical concepts, as opposed to focusing on the narrative and the mystery itself. About halfway through, long and winding passages filled with red herrings and abstract ideas overwhelmed the story, and I just couldn’t finish it! And so to me, the Essex Serpent remains a mystery. You could argue that this only fulfils the wistful beauty of the parish myth. However, ‘The Essex Serpent’ is an initially promising book with simply lost potential. Perhaps I’ll come back to ‘The Essex Serpent’ one day and even write a revised review!

Despite my personal difficulties with getting through the novel, I would still very much recommend it for its beautiful passages alone, with a 3.5-star rating. This paperback publication also includes a selection of thought-provoking questions for budding reading groups to prompt discussion, and there’s an interesting interview with Sarah Perry in the back. Have you read ‘The Essex Serpent’? Tell me your thoughts!

First published in 2017 by Serpent’s Tail.

Written by Sarah Perry, front cover design by Crow Books.

ISBN: 978-1781255452