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. Continue reading