“Staying there made me feel like a writer,” laughs novelist Sarah Perry
as she recalls her time as Gladstone’s Library’s Writer in Residence a few
“It was in 2013, about 18 months before my first novel was published.
“I returned a year later and I sat at the same desk at the balcony and wrote big chunks of The Essex Serpent there so I have a very loving connection with Hawarden.”
Four years on from her first visit there is no doubting that Perry is a writer after her first novel, After Me Comes the Flood, was longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and the Folio Prize, as well as winning the East Anglian Book of the Year Award in 2014.
Her second, The Essex Serpent has fared even better, winning the Waterstones Book of the Year Award for 2016 and taking residence in the bestseller’s list for months on end.
“It’s quite extraordinary and I’ve got nothing but gratitude,” says Perry about the success of the book. “I’ve been very lucky to be so kindly treated by critics, fellow writers and readers.”
Born in Essex in 1979, Perry will return to Gladstone’s Library in November to deliver the annual lecture with the man who first established the library in 1889 as its subject.
“I’ll be talking about the friendship between William Gladstone and the poet Arthur Henry Hallam,” she explains.
“He is best known as the subject of a major work, In Memoriam A.H.H., by his close friend and fellow poet, Alfred Tennyson and in later life Gladstone and Tennyson also became friends.
“The three’s friendship spans schooldays, their time as students and then as old men, so I’ll be using their relationship to talk about the general idea of friendship and its importance to literature and society.”
The Essex Serpent, Perry’s Gothic tale of a 19th century village being terrorised by a mythical beast, has racked up an impressive array of accolades and been hailed as a major ‘word of mouth’ success.
When it won the British Book Awards’ Book of the Year Award, judges said it “emerged from the dark to become one of the smash hits of 2016”, adding it combined an “intriguing title, compelling storytelling, covetable packaging and an inspired slow-burn publicity campaign”. To date it’s sold more than 200,000 copies and a TV dramatisation is on the way.
“Essex retains these strange marshes, mists that descend very early and the murmurations of starlings that look like great plumes of smoke, ” she says.
“All of that is in me like DNA and it came to a head about four years ago when my husband was driving me through the Essex countryside.
“We passed a sign to Henham, and my husband told me about the legend of the serpent which was supposed to lurk in the marsh there.
“I remember thinking what would happen if the serpent came back in the Victorian era when people would be interested in documenting it.
“Within an hour I had more or less the whole plot and you would think I would immediately start writing it but I’m excessively lazy and I kept it in my head for about two years.”
Perry ended up writing much of the best-selling novel in Hawarden at the library of the former British Prime Minister and she is full of praise for the environment fostered at Gladstone’s Library.
“There’s something about it which combines peace with a remoteness away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life,” she says.
“It makes you work hard and I’ve often thought that maybe the ghost of Gladstone is present, looking over you shoulder and making you work harder and urging you to crack on.
“I won’t do anything for months and then suddenly I’ll write ferociously and fence off time when I’m entirely devoted towards working to a deadline.”
Despite her success the last two years have been difficult for Perry, 39, after a long period of deteriorating health saw her diagnosed with Graves’ disease, which causes an overactive thyroid and affected her heart, caused joint pain and problems with her eyes.
Thankfully, she is now writing again and her third novel Melmoth, set in Prague, will be published next year.
“I’m on the mend now but it’s been very harrowing,” she adds before laughing that it’s a shame the disease has not left her needing a Victorian walking cane. “At least it will give me some good material!”
l The Idea of Friendship – Gladstone, Tennyson and Hallam with Sarah Perry takes place at the Temple of Peace (Gladstone’s study) at Hawarden Castle on November 1. Tickets for this event are £15. They are extremely limited. To book, please call 01244 532350.