It’s fair to say the county of Essex receives an unwarranted amount of negative publicity, particularly its female population. In her latest book, Essex Girls, Chelmsford-born multi-award-winning author Sarah Perry passionately defends the area and its residents. Darryl Webber spoke to her about it. The county’s tourist board is also campaigning to challenge the stereotypes (see below).
As our interview nears its end and Sarah Perry tries to explain her continued fascination with her home county, she deploys a phrase often meant to be demeaning or dismissive, though she certainly doesn’t mean it that way.
“You can take the girl out of Essex, but you can’t take the Essex out of the girl,” Sarah says and I can imagine her arching an eyebrow as she says it.
That phrase, amongst a litany of other put-downs and sneering remarks, sums up the common perception of Essex in general and Essex girls in particular. But Sarah’s new book, written in lockdown, is a lively rebuttal and repudiation of all the tired clichés and lazy stereotypes that have become associated with women from Essex.
Essex Girls: For Profane and Opinionated Women Everywhere is a slim but powerful tome that aims to reclaim the term ‘Essex girls’ and re-frame it to refer to radical, non-conforming and disobedient women, not just from Essex but from anywhere.
In a sort of long-form feminist essay, Sarah takes apart the sexist and classist assumptions underlying the Essex girl stigma and draws on examples of historical figures and modern activists to present a very different view of what an Essex girl is in a list that goes beyond geographical boundaries to include women of a certain pioneering, rebellious spirit.
And while it might take the form of an elongated argument, it’s certainly not dry. It’s lively, witty, entertaining and not a little bit mischievous too. Given Sarah has risen to prominence through her novels, most notably The Essex Serpent (Waterstone’s Book of the Year in 2016), why did she delve into non-fiction for her latest book?
“I’ve always written non-fiction and a lot of essays. It allows you to flex different muscles. Writing that isn’t about storytelling brings different rewards. With essays you can be polemical, you can form an argument so when I was asked to write Essex Girls I leapt at the chance to do it. It felt timely and it hadn’t been done before.”
It was actually Sarah’s publisher, Serpent’s Tail, who suggested she write about Essex girls and it was a subject she felt she could hold forth on. Born and bred in Chelmsford, Essex, Sarah has lived in Norfolk for a number of years now but still considers herself to be an Essex girl through and through and didn’t have any problem coming up with ideas for the book.
The book starts with her revisiting Chelmsford, getting a bus up to Wood Street where St John’s Hospital (where she was born) used to stand but is now a housing development. There she ‘encounters’ the three ghosts of Essex girls past who provide the inspiration for her argument – and are a counterpoint to the Essex girl clichés that have come to the fore in the last three decades. It was these women that Sarah took as her starting point.
“It’s so tempting to just go back to the stereotype of the Essex girl – as vulgar, loud, sexually voracious or whatever – but it’s not interesting to do that all again. But what if she is all of those things, but is also this person that does extraordinary things.
“As a feminist and an Essex girl, I wouldn’t have done it [the book] if I felt I couldn’t argue against the stereotype and look at her as a person with power and agency. It’s always been women who society have wanted to shut up because they’re fat or loud or disabled or don’t fit in. I argue instead that we should be proud of these women and have pride in ourselves and what we’ve done. My dream would be to have women saying they’re Essex girls and proud of it.”
Sarah sees signs of change and reappraisal in the way Essex and Essex girls are perceived and says she feels a real companionship, comradeship even, with her fellow Essex natives.
“Things are changing, I’ve been talking to Elsa James and Syd Moore of the Essex Girls Liberation Front and I love what they’re trying to do to reclaim the idea of what an Essex Girl is.
“It’s strange, whenever I’m out and I meet someone from Essex, I feel some sort of emotional bond.”
As well as trawling through historical records to show the achievements of women like Protestant martyr Rose Allin and abolitionist Anne Knight (“I wanted to resurrect these women who did such extraordinary things”), Sarah also includes some honorary ‘Essex girls’ from beyond the county’s borders – perhaps most surprisingly Kim Kardashian.
“Kim Kardashian is almost the prototype of an Essex girl. She’s vulgar, flashy, sexually attractive and desirable, but there’s this side to what she does that’s different to what people expect [which Sarah details in the book]. You can easily fall into the trap of thinking she’s this sort of person, like with Essex girls, but you have to look beyond the leopard print and the pout.”
The book is bound to provoke reaction and debate about Essex Girls. In a wider sense, it may also prompt people to rethink their received ideas about Essex as a whole.
Essex is having a bit of a moment in terms of reappraisal with Gillian Darley’s Excellent Essex book from last year celebrating the county’s diversity, creativity, landscape and history.
For Sarah, her affection for her home county is undiminished despite moving away some time ago. In fact, it might be even greater now that she lives elsewhere.
“I think the place that formed you will always have a place in your heart. When you go to other places, you feel like an outsider, but I feel like Essex belongs to me and when I write about it, I must get it right. When I write about Essex shingle or an Essex river, I feel like I know it, that I can write about it. I feel like the attachment is almost spiritual.
“I’m biased, of course, but I think it’s a fascinating place. You have somewhere like Bradwell where there’s a decommissioned nuclear power station sat almost next to the ancient chapel of St Peter-on-the-Wall that goes back centuries. There’s something very strange and special about that, and that’s what fascinates me.”
Indeed, it fascinates Sarah so much that her next novel will also be located in Essex.
“It’s set in Mersea and Salcott Creek. I’m so glad to have an excuse to come back to Essex. It’s easier to write about it when you’ve been away. Being away and coming back is better, it leads to enchantment.”
This article was originally published by https://www.inyourarea.co.uk/ Reprinted with sincere thanks.