About the Book
England, 1643. Parliament is battling the King; the war between the Roundheads and the Cavaliers rages. Puritanical fervour has gripped the nation, and the hot terror of damnation burns black in every shadow.
In Manningtree, depleted of men since the wars began, the women are left to their own devices. At the margins of this diminished community are those who are barely tolerated by the affluent villagers – the old, the poor, the unmarried, the sharp-tongued. Rebecca West, daughter of the formidable Beldam West, fatherless and husbandless, chafes against the drudgery of her days, livened only by her infatuation with the clerk John Edes. But then newcomer Matthew Hopkins, a mysterious, pious figure dressed from head to toe in black, takes over The Thorn Inn and begins to ask questions about the women of the margins. When a child falls ill with a fever and starts to rave about covens and pacts, the questions take on a bladed edge.
The Manningtree Witches plunges its readers into the fever and menace of the English witch trials, where suspicion, mistrust and betrayal ran amok as the power of men went unchecked and the integrity of women went undefended. It is a visceral, thrilling book that announces a bold new talent.
Format: Paperback (295 pages) Publisher: Granta
Publication date: 28th October 2021 Genre: Historical Fiction
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Based on real events, The Manningtree Witches is a vivid account of the persecution of a group of women by the so-called Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins. Told partly from the point of view of one of the young women of the village, Rebecca West, the narrative is interspersed with transcripts of witness testimony and descriptions of Hopkins’ brutal interrogation of the women accused of witchcraft.
Driven by a combination of perverted religious zeal, misogyny and perhaps his own repressed sexual desire, Hopkins plays on the prejudices of the inhabitants of Manningtree, whipping them up into a frenzy of denunciation based on barely credible evidence. It’s notable that the women targeted are largely widows or single women, women regarded as ‘different’ or not conforming to societal norms. At one point, Hopkins observes, ‘When women think alone, they think evil, it is said.’ In a period in which the nation is riven by civil war – ‘the world turned upside down’ – food is scarce and fields lie untilled, it’s perhaps not surprising that people look for someone to blame for otherwise random events. ‘All can agree – things haven’t been right for a while. Our conjoint misfortune has been too rigorous, runs the tattle.’
The excerpt above gives a clue to one of the striking features of the book, the author’s imaginative and distinctive prose which certainly introduced me to words that had me reaching for the dictionary, such as ‘tumesce’ and ‘ceremental’. The author’s love of language can be seen in phrases such as ‘the sanguine wash of the sky’ or ‘the lacteal scum of her eyes’.
The women’s cruel treatment during their interrogation and in the months leading up to the trial is disturbing to read. One can’t help feeling there is a sexual element to the intrusive nature of the examinations they are forced to undergo. ‘Hopkins is excited. Excited in the way men get when they read about wars or Turkish dancing girls.’
The fate of the women accused along with Rebecca is a matter of historical record but the author takes advantage of the fact that nothing is known about Rebecca after the trial in 1645 to imagine what might have become of her.
The story of 17th century witch trials is one I’m familiar with from reading similar books but The Manningtree Witches manages to add a degree of originality to its depiction of events.
In three words: Authentic, dramatic, vibrant
Try something similar: Widdershins by Helen Steadman
About the Author
A. K. Blakemore is the author of two full-length collections of poetry: Humbert Summer (Eyewear, 2015) and Fondue (Offord Road Books, 2018), which was awarded the 2019 Ledbury Forte Prize for Best Second Collection. She has also translated the work of Sichuanese poet Yu Yoyo (My Tenantless Body, Poetry Translation Centre, 2019). Her poetry and prose writing has been widely published and anthologised, appearing in the The London Review of Books, Poetry, Poetry Review and The White Review, among others.