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Sarah Perry champions the Essex Book Festival as she launches novel inspired by Chelmsford

Sarah Perry at Waterstones

Multi-award-winning Essex writer, Sarah Perry, marked the release of her latest book, 'Enlightenment', at Waterstones in Chelmsford last week. Perry joined BBC Radio 4 presenter and author, Robin Ince to discuss the new novel, which explores love, religion, and science through the tale of two friends who become obsessed with the ghost of a vanished nineteenth-century astronomer. 

Sarah Perry and Robin Ince at Waterstones
Sarah Perry and Robin Ince in conversation at Waterstones, Chelmsford.

Bestselling author defends against Essex stereotypes 

Sarah Perry is most known for her bestselling book 'The Essex Serpent' (Waterstones Book of the Year 2016), which in 2022 was adapted into a hit-TV series starring Claire Danes and Tom Hiddleston. The author has published two other novels – her debut book 'After Me Comes The Flood', and 'Melmouth'. 

Waterstones Sarah Perry Displays (1)

As Chancellor of the University of Essex and Patron of the Essex Book Festival, Perry is a keen advocate of Essex. Her novels often highlight the beauty of parts of the county and the mythical histories connected to it. For example, 'The Essex Serpent' – set in the fictional Essex village of Aldwinter – spotlights the stark but beautiful Blackwater marshes, and the legends of mythical water beasts and serpents historically attached to the county which boasts the longest coastline in England. 

The author also passionately defends against the stereotypes frequently attached to Essex. Her 2022 non-fiction book, 'Essex Girls', expressed her great pride in being an Essex girl and disputed the maligned reputations often placed upon Essex-born women. 

Bringing to life a fictional Essex town inspired by Chelmsford 

Waterstones Sarah Perry Displays (2)

Perry continues to weave the history and culture of Essex into her writing with her latest book, 'Enlightenment', which is keenly inspired by Chelmsford where the author was born and raised.  

Opening in 1997, the novel follows Thomas Hart, a 50-year-old Essex Chronicle newspaper columnist and 17-year-old Grace McCauley. Both are part of a Strict Baptist community in the fictional town of Aldleigh in Essex and strike up an unlikely friendship. Perry herself grew up within the Strict Baptist Church in Essex and draws on her childhood years spent as part of this religious community. In fact, the Baptist Bethesda Chapel in 'Enlightenment' is based upon the Ebenezer Strict Baptist Chapel in Chelmsford, where the author spent much of her childhood. 

Perry has also pointed out other locations in the book that have been inspired by the landscapes of her hometown, from the city centre’s famous railway arches to nearby pubs. And then there’s ‘Lowlands House’, said to be haunted by the ghost of a 19th-century astronomer that Thomas becomes obsessed with over the course of the tale. The country house sits in ruins, much like Hylands House in Chelmsford, prior to its restoration by Chelmsford City Council.  

Promoting Essex’s rich culture with the Essex Book Festival 

Sarah Perry continues to champion Essex’s rich and often overlooked cultural heritage as Patron of the Essex Book Festival. The festival is one of the highlights of Essex’s cultural calendar, celebrating books and authors through varied events that reach people across the entire county. 

Perry is proud to be patron of a festival that showcases Essex’s rich and often overlooked cultural identity: 

"Essex, historically, has been treated as such an underdog. Not a contender in the arts and culture. Some people don't even realise there's an Essex Book Festival. Other writers in particular. And so being able to say that I am a patron of the Essex Book Festival, and that we're doing this and that, and that this writer and that writer is coming, then watching them realise in that moment how much they have underestimated Essex as a cultural engine, is quite exciting for me.”  

Sarah Perry, Essex Book Festival Patron

This year the festival celebrates its 25th anniversary under the theme ‘This Land’, with more than 100 events from 250 writers and artists showcasing Essex’s fascinating history and natural heritage.  

Sarah Perry will officially launch the book festival on Saturday 1 June with an event at the University of Essex in Colchester. Perry will speak to Essex Book Festival chair, Peter Donaldson, about 'Enlightenment', before taking part in an audience Q&A and a book signing. You can still get your hands on tickets for the launch event via the Essex Book Festival website.

Essex Book Festival Director Ros Green says: 

"June 2024 is a big one for us: our 25th anniversary no less! And so it's extremely exciting to have multi-award-winning Essex Book Festival Patron, Chelmsford-born Sarah Perry launching this year's festival at the University of Essex on 1 June. It's hard to imagine anyone more passionately committed to telling the 'Essex story' than Sarah. With the Essex Chronicle and thereby Sarah's home city at the heart of her latest novel 'Enlightenment', which is currently taking the book-world by storm, Chelmsford is about to be launched into the literary stratosphere."

Ros Green, Essex Book Festival Director

Popular author lineup coming to Chelmsford this June 

Chelmsford City Council is a partner of Essex Book Festival as part of its commitment to culture in Chelmsford. This June, the city will be hosting some of the Essex Book Festival’s top author events. Literary highlights coming to the district include John Crace’s 'Depraved New World', Mark Cocker’s 'One Midsummer’s Day', and Alan Johnson’s 'Death on the Thames'. 

There’s also stand-up comedian and Absolutely Fabulous star Helen Lederer, who comes to Anglia Ruskin University on Thursday 6 June to discuss her hilarious memoir 'Not That I’m Bitter'. As one of Britain’s first female stand-up comedians of the 80s, 'Not That I’m Bitter' is an unashamedly revealing account of her life as a comedy pioneer. 

Not That I'm Bitter Helen Lederer Cover Final
Front cover of Not That I'm Bitter by Helen Lederer.

Rebecca Smith comes to Chelmsford Cathedral on Thursday 13 June to talk about her latest book, 'Rural'. Having grown up in Cumbria where her father worked as a forester, Smith returns to the countryside in 'Rural', to explore the stories of millworkers, miners, farmers, and pub owners today; the challenges they face and the beauty of their rural lives. At this in-conversation event with Festival Director Ros Green, she’ll discuss the relations between nature and human nature, the land, education, class, and welfare. 

On Tuesday 25 June, Marion Gibson, author of 'Witchcraft: A History in 13 Trials', joins Syd Moore, author of 'The Essex Witch Museum Mysteries' at the Essex Record Office to explore the history of witchcraft and witch hunts through the stories of the victims. 

You can book tickets for these and other Essex Book Festival events on their website. Many events also include an audience Q&A session and a book signing. 

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Cherelle Nightingill
Cherelle Nightingill

Cherelle writes about Chelmsford Theatre, Hylands Estate, Chelmsford Museum, the Mayor of Chelmsford and culture and events in the city.