Deputy Vice Chancellor, it is my pleasure to read the citation for Sarah Perry for the award of Honorary Doctor of Letters.
Sarah Perry is an award-winning novelist and celebrated ARU alumna.
Growing up in Chelmsford, Sarah knew from an early age that she wanted to write – but she hasn’t always been a writer. After graduating from ARU (then Anglia Polytechnic University) with a degree in English Literature, Sarah joined the Civil Service – not necessarily the ideal environment for someone with such a wonderfully creative imagination.
When the job eventually became intolerable for her, Sarah applied for an MA in Creative Writing, later studying for her PhD under Sir Andrew Motion at Royal Holloway, University of London.
Still the breakthrough did not come, and Sarah soon added ‘over-qualified legal administrator’ to a CV that already included ‘shop worker’, ‘nanny’ and ‘office temp’. Yet by this time, Sarah had tentatively begun to craft a novel. And during office hours she would, in her own words, “spend the day writing copy for lawyers’ websites, pausing sometimes to look out of the window and think about the legend of an ancient serpent menacing Essex.”
In 2014, Sarah won a month-long tenure as Writer-in Residence at Gladstone’s Library in Hawarden, North Wales. And she seized the opportunity with both hands, using her free time to complete her first book, After Me Comes the Flood – an eerie and timeless story of a man who enters a strange world while searching for his brother.
The book was published later that year to international critical acclaim, instantly marking out Sarah as a rising star. The novel went on to win the Anglian Book of the Year Award, and this recognition was decisive in providing Sarah with the impetus to push on and commit to her new career.
In May 2016, The Essex Serpent was published. A Victorian-set gothic that explores the boundaries of faith, reason, religion, and superstition, Sarah’s second novel both delighted her growing fan base and exposed her work to a wider audience – it soon topped the hardback bestseller list.
The book also attracted the attention of the judging panels for many of literature’s most prestigious awards – The Essex Serpent was shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award, and was named Waterstones Book of the Year. In 2017 the tale was broadcast on Radio 4 as a Book at Bedtime.
Sarah’s third novel, Melmoth, was published in 2018. Shortlisted for the 2019 Dylan Thomas Prize, the novel has been described by critics as a haunting tale that speaks to humankind’s worst atrocities. It is a hugely ambitious work that asks fundamental questions about guilt, forgiveness and moral reckoning, and it confirms Sarah’s reputation as one of the finest novelists of our time – a fact recognised by her peers when she was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2018.
Sarah is a remarkable talent, and her novels and writing are inextricably bound up with the geography and mythology of her native Essex. Truly one of our own, Sarah is maturing into one of the most talented writers of her generation.
Sarah will be an inspirational role model for all our students, especially for those on our English Literature and Creative Writing courses.
We are delighted to welcome back Sarah to our ARU community.
Deputy Vice Chancellor, it is my pleasure to present Sarah Perry for the award of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.