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‘When Claire Danes and Tom Hiddleston were cast I was in shock’: Sarah Perry on The Essex Serpent | Sarah Pery

‘When Claire Danes and Tom Hiddleston were cast I was in shock’: Sarah Perry on The Essex Serpent | Sarah Pery

In March 2021, I was driven by a stranger to the Essex coast, and there I found myself in the late 19th century, in a place that had never been, full of people who didn’t were never born.

Anyway, that was the impression; in fact, I had been dropped off in a field on Mersea Island, which is cut off from the mainland of Essex by a causeway inaccessible at high tide. Filming was underway for an adaptation of my novel The Essex Serpent, and since Mersea was one of the places giving way to Aldwinter, the imaginary village where the novel takes place, I had been invited to take a look. The terrain had been colonized by a series of trucks and trailers, and everywhere I looked crew members were rushing about with clipboards and headsets, sometimes intercut with actors in top-of-the-line form or in petticoats deep in the mud of Essex.

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I know Mersea well and had last visited my goddaughter, so as I walked around I had the strangest feeling of double familiarity. On one side were the same old wooden thatched cottages, and the same pebbled seawall underneath, and the cafe where we often bought ice cream – but above all that was Aldwinter, which was familiar to me only because I had invented this. Down on the quay, a fire hose was doing the work of the high tide, and seaweed had been scattered; concrete bollards had been concealed by wooden crates and fishing nets hung on the garden walls to dry. Everywhere there was an atmosphere of hard work, as crew members adjusted baskets for eels, or children strolled around in shawls and clogs, but there was also the eerie atmosphere peculiar to this part of the Essex coast. It was Aldwinter literally, and surprisingly strange: it was as if the acts of writing and reading had been bypassed entirely, and everything had leapt out of my skull.

When I arrived, filming had begun on a scene in which the vicar of Aldwinter Will Ransome (played – perfectly, in my disinterested opinion – by Tom Hiddleston) is briefly seen protesting with his moralizing orchard outside the school of the town. Director Clio Barnard and screenwriter Anna Symon greeted me with characteristic kindness and was given headphones, and shown the action on an iPad. Again and again, without once seeming tired or impatient, the actors worked diligently on the brief scene until it was just right, and the sight of it moved me almost to tears. That the story I had written in a cold little room on a terrace in Norwich would ever receive such extraordinary care from so many people was remarkable, and I went to sit on the quay with a cigarette solitary, watching the Thames barges moored nearby, trying to accommodate everything.

I suppose it would be usual for a writer to dream about such things, but I never did: I only allowed myself the hope of good reviews and the means to pay council tax. on time. The year of publication had therefore constituted a series of wonderful shocks, including that of finding myself in the offices of See-Saw Films, the production company which had opted for the novel. I remember most of it a huge, bearded lurcher taking possession of a sofa in the corner, and feeling – quite rare for me – profound shyness. I was treated by potential producers with great care. Was there anything in particular that I felt I had to do with the novel? There was, I said, screwing up my courage to the end: keep it gothic and keep the women real. To the enduring confusion of a number of readers, the novel depicts women as they were in the 1890s – not passing out in violet-scented faints and never being allowed out of the withdrawal room without chaperone, but vital, intelligent, vivacious and well-educated people involved in politics, social justice and science, and I thought that if this were lost, the betrayal would be much worse than an injustice against fiction. They gave me their word, and I left the meeting assured that the book was in good hands, and quickly forgot about it all.

I forgot partly as an act of will. I had been warned to expect agonizing delays: there were castings to review, of course, and all sorts of financing and distribution machinations. From time to time, I was told good news, and sometimes bad; but already I was coming to the end of my third novel, and I was aware of the dangers of dwelling on a moment of professional success, and never going beyond it. I had done my job, and I had handed it in: I didn’t feel like it was my business. Besides, I had seen Clio’s vision, and read Anna’s scripts, and it seemed to me then – and it certainly seems to me now – that in fact they would amplify the novel by modifying it, so that the television series and the book would be happy companions, neither canceling out the other. Still: It was extremely difficult to maintain such a harsh grip on myself when Claire Danes and Tom Hiddleston were cast, and I’m afraid on one occasion I forgot myself so much that I lay face down earth in a state of elated shock.

People often ask me if the main actors look like the characters as I imagined them. The truth is that I think less about the appearance of my characters than about their inner life: in writing, I don’t look at them, I inhabit them. Claire Danes, who stars as Cora Seaborne and is an extraordinarily tall, slim woman, doesn’t exactly look like Cora, who is described as tall, wide-hipped, and messy. No matter: as she passed through Aldwinter on a sunny March morning, I saw only my Cora – a warm, vital, intellectual woman, barely able to contain her thirst for the world, and nothing wiser than she thinks ‘she is.

From time to time, the experience turned out to be melancholy. The novel was published six years ago, and sometimes I said melodramatically that the woman who wrote it is dead. I was 35 when I wrote the last pages: a lot has changed and lost since then. The series, like the novel, is upbeat and even radical in its treatment of intimacy, affection, and wonder, and I suspect I’ve grown a little tougher and more cynical in the years since. . Returning to the novel – on one occasion in corsets and a teal Victorian dress as an extra at the Museum of Natural History – was like passing my past down the stairs, always with a pang of affection and loss.

But earlier this spring, when I was shown the series at a small cinema in Soho, there was nothing but delight and delight. All I could do was thank the director, the writer, and everyone within earshot — because it’s not pride I feel, it’s gratitude. There had been a point during the pandemic when I had come to think that pursuing literature was more or less pointless and that I should have devoted myself to medicine, perhaps, or to law. Witnessing the years of diligence and skill that went into the production gave me back the courage I had lost: suddenly the act of storytelling was restored to something noble, and one that deserved all attention of my life. “What will survive of us,” said Philip Larkin, albeit reluctantly, “is love.” Well: The Essex Serpent is a book about love, which was written with love, and has now been processed with love. I could afford to hope that this is what survives of me.

Sarah Perry will discuss the Essex snake and answer your questions during a Guardian Live online event on Wednesday, June 8. Book tickets here. The program is available on Apple TV+.

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