In her debut novel, The Manningtree Witches, author A. K. Blakemore gives voice to the women who were convicted of “Maleficium” and who paid with their lives. She has pored over the archives of the actual witch trials in East Anglia (with excerpts interspersed between chapters) and based her novel on historical figures, including the narrator, Rebecca West, and the witch-hunters Matthew Hopkins and John Stearne.
In Blakemore’s capable hands and vivid imagination, the women, silenced for generations, come alive. Set in rural England during their lengthy civil war, the context may be unfamiliar, but the misogynist impulses behind the deadly witch hunts are easily recognizable to women today. Blakemore expertly wields the colorful language of Oliver Cromwell’s time: her barbs are as sharp and her observations as salty as William Shakespeare’s — but with a feminist twist. The character Rebecca West’s description of the bucolic countryside is filled with “cows, warm golden and with fat udders so full with milk it makes your own tits ache just to look at them.” Rebecca’s mother warns her daughter to forget her crush because “a man like that’d stick his Thing up a haddock if a Bishop told him not to.”
Rebecca, 19, is curious, bright, and anxious to study so she can free herself from her lonely, dead-end life. Becky describes herself as pretty but pox-scarred and so poor that she “can’t spare a shilling for ribbon nor rouge to remedy” her homely presentation. She lusts after her tutor, John Edes, a handsome clerk with damselfly blue eyes, and hopes that he will return her love. She lives with her mother, the widow Anne West, known by the “wide and wicked” name of Beldam West. Without a wage-earning man in their household, they eke out a hardscrabble existence on society’s edge; in their church’s hierarchical seating they are relegated to the last pew but one. Becky doesn’t mind sitting in the rear because from there she can observe the fancier women in the front rows and their “emanations of rosewater perfume, womb-clot, sweat and cinders.”
As Beldam sleeps off another drunken night, Becky contemplates her unfortunate fate of living with her reckless and bawdy mother. Her mother’s snoring is enough to “wake the Devil” — perhaps because a right hook broke her nose in a brawl with Goody Rawbood, a village woman who is dead, like most of the people who have wronged Beldam West. Becky wishes she had something horrible to put in her mother’s mouth, like a wriggling mouse with a pink tail, a “jar of hot horses’ piss, a fistful of rabbit droppings,” or pig’s blood. Becky knows that her mother’s “taste for surviving […] makes her like an animal, wild and unknowable.”
Her mother’s kinder side is revealed by the care she takes of an elderly, even more impoverished neighbor, the Widow Clarke. Beldam often sends her daughter to help the old woman clean her squalid cottage — not an easy task, as the old woman smells “of grease and chicken shit and mildew and embarrassment.”
The uneasy peace in the village is upended by the arrival of Matthew Hopkins, a religious fanatic dubbed the Witchfinder General. He has come to warn the town of the ubiquitous Devil who “is in the moist places of the forest, under fallen logs,” and “between the parted thighs of some country lass,” and to root out the women who consort with the Prince of Hell. Hopkins claims that his ill health has prevented him from serving in the army at a time when so many village men had been conscripted, but Becky thinks there is something “slant and insubstantial” about him.
Rumors are the main source of news in the village. They are spread “door to door by errand-bound boys, and by the red-cheeked housekeepers emptying ash pails onto midden heaps.” People go to church to hear more gossip. Every misfortune in the village — sickly newborns, “pies raw in the middle, cats scream[ing] in the alleys all night long,” and butter that will not turn — is blamed on local witches. The accusations reach fever pitch when Thomas Briggs, a young boy from a well-off family, jumps from his evening bath, convulsing and raving madly about the witch Beldam West who has put a hex on him.
Hopkins enlists villagers to join the witch hunt. The fire-and-brimstone minister warns that “the Devil’s servants abound, like rancorous toads at the bottom of the grain-sack, revelling in their own slime.” John Stearne, the second richest man in Manningtree, has reason enough to accuse Widow Clarke: his magnificent view is ruined by the sight of her hovel, “like a hard nub of gristle, with the jutting gables and baggy thatch, and a meagre garden choked with brambles and vetch.”
Widow Clarke is the first to be accused. The men ransack her cottage, strip her, and maul her “pale, puckered” body looking for the telltale “witch marks.” Every mole, stye, boil, and canker is inspected and “pricked with a needle,” leaving the frail old woman addled and bloody.
Becky knows that the inquisitors believe that she and her pugnacious mother are witches. Becky herself is suspect simply because she has learned to read, owns a pet cat, and provokes lust among the village men. She realizes she has few choices to escape the hangman’s rope. She can pretend to be under a hex herself, as her friend Judith Moone has done, or she can confess and seek leniency. She doesn’t realize there might be another choice until Hopkins calls her to a secret meeting and offers her one. She knows that if she takes his way out, the consequences will be dire. But perhaps she can outsmart him.
A. K. Blakemore has written a spellbinding novel about the unprecedented persecution of women during the “Witch Craze” in 17th-century England. But she has done more than that. Like Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s collection The Classic Slave Narratives (1987) and Judy Batalion’s The Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler’s Ghettos (2021), Blakemore has given voice to women whose stories have only been told by others and thus provides a very different view of history than what is written in the official narrative.
Elaine Elinson is the former editor of the ACLU News and the co-author of Wherever There’s a Fight, winner of a Gold Medal in the 2010 California Book Awards.