Published in 2012 to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the Pendle Witch Trials, one of the most well documented examples of witch hunts in English history, this novella combines established facts and records with a rich imagined backstory to help brings events to life.
The book focuses on Alice Nutter, one of the eleven people accused of witchcraft and tried in the August Assizes in 1612. Alice was unique in the fact that she was a gentlewoman and relatively wealthy compared to the rest of the accused.
Jeanette Winterson creates an atmosphere that evokes the culture of 17th century England – one of fear and fanaticism, complete with a paranoid King intent on destroying both witches and Catholics. It’s gritty and grim and bleak and it doesn’t romanticise poverty. There’s no scrimping on the details when it comes to hygiene, health or squalid living conditions. Grave robbing, torture and corpse mutilation all feature in their turn and at times it’s quite hard to read.
She uses the known facts and the details of the trial to give her characters motivations, backstories and personalities. The Idea of witchcraft is portrayed in numerous very different ways. For the most part, ‘witchery’ is something that people were accused of out of fear or anger. It’s also something of a religion to some of the poorer people, who out of desperation may believe in anything to help them survive. To the village healers, it’s a profession. To Alice Nutter and her companions, in this story at least, it’s something more real, dangerous but full of potential.
But as well as being a story that’s well worth reading in its own right, it also acts as something as a social commentary on life at the time. The book draws attention to the contentious use of a child witness to condemn the accused, demonstrating how ‘evidence’ could be manipulated to help acheive a guilty verdict. In Winterson’s imaging, Jennet Device, aged just nine years old, has spent her life subject to a litany of abuse from her family and those around her. This is the driving force behind her testimony. It’s quite clear that the prosecutors will leave no stone unturned to find ‘evidence’ of witchcraft – whether that’s encouraging children like Jennet to give evidence or resorting to torture. Sexual abuse is rife and all the women in the story are portrayed as very much at the mercy of the whims of men, who hold all of the power.
Winterson also alludes to the desperate plight of the very poor, marginalised groups of 17th century England. Turning to witchcraft as the answer to their problems may likely have been a coping mechanism used by people who have been left with no hope. That at least some of the women tried in Pendle believed themselves to be witches is true – and proved by their own testimonies, where they claim to have used magical powers to afflict the people that had done them wrong. However, as it’s suggested here, it’s likely that these beliefs probably stemmed from desperation and a need to assert some control over their lives in whatever way possible, even if this was entirely fictional.
It’s a great read for anyone interested in the history of the time, but I found the style of writing quite hard to get along with. It reads like an embellished historical account, and the characters don’t seem to really develop in any way throughout the book. Some of the more horrific details are skipped over quite lightly in a matter of fact style, so they didn’t have as much emotional impact as they perhaps could have done. That said, I appreciate this is a novella, not a novel, so space for development and character progression is naturally going to be limited.