I told you it wouldn’t be long till I returned with another book review!
When I started my new job back in August, I had to commute to London and back. For me, it was an hour journey on the tube to get there and to get back, not counting the drive to and from the train station. Luckily, an hours train journey each way gave me ample time to read. I finished this book within 3 days because of it!
The escape I chose for some of those train journeys was The Manningtree Witches. For me, there has always been this wondering about the witch trials.
“All a supposed witch does, it seems to me, is everyone the courtesy of saying those prayers out loud, and in company.”
The ones in Salem in 1692-1693 were and are still very famous with the deaths of 25 innocent women, men and children. Despite the atrocities, it wasn’t something I was ever taught at school. I have always loved history and so it was something I had stumbled upon in reading. In fact, witch trials around the world occurred during the 1580s-1640s and 3/4 of those trials were in Europe – taking place in Western Germany, France, Northern Italy and Switzerland. Furthermore, an estimated 500 people – men, women and children were put on trial for witchcraft, of those 112 are confirmed to have been executed. From as early as the 1400s under the reign of Henry VIII, trials were carried out and continued until the last documented execution in 1682. There is a recording of a women, Jane Wenham, who was sentenced to hang in 1712 for witchcraft but was pardoned by Queen Anne and trials continued in England until 1717. Despite this being the last reported execution and attempted execution, it is clear that there was still a fear of witches and part of me wonders how many trials and executions we don’t know about. How many people were executed or punished, their names lost to history? What I find most shocking, is the fact that persecuting someone, punishing someone, on the suspicion of being a witch only became illegal in 2008.
So there’s our little history lesson for the day! Now onto the book review. And why are the witch trials relevant to this review? The Manningtree Witches drops you, the reader, right into the middle of the action. Right into the panic and fear of the English Witch Trials.
“I wish freely to embrace the deliciousness of sin. To sin with abandon is, after all, the only prerogative of the damned.”
1643, the English Civil War has run into its second year. Parliament is battling the King. It is the time of the Purtians. The nation fears their damnation and terror and must bow to their rules of cleanliness, obedience and modesty. The population of men has been depleted. Women have been left to their own devices.
“How simple, the life of beasts, who were not made in the image of God. What they see and want, they move to take, happy as can be.”
On the outskirts of the village live those who the rest of the population would choose to forget about – the old, the poor, the single, the sharp-tongued and Rebecca West is one of the latter. Husbandless, she is infatuated by John Edes, a clerk from the village. But then Matthew Hopkins arrives; mysterious figure dressed in black asking questions about the women who live in those outskirts. Matthew Hopkins is a witchfinder.
“More than anything in the world I would have him see me, and know me. But if he saw me and knew me truly, he would despise me, despise what it is I hold inside me. I wonder if this is what all women eventually come to know – a choice each comes to make between obscuring her true self in exchange for the false regard of a good man, or allowing herself the freedom to be as she truly is and settling for a brute who couldn’t care less if she is as broken, as coarse, as hopeless as he.”
Pause review for another history lesson – for those history nerds like me out there then the name Matthew Hopkins may ring familiar. He was a real man who was ‘Witchfinder General’ during the Civil War. He revised the idea of witchcraft trials and is responsible, in the 2-3 years that he held the position, for as many executions from witchcraft as there were in the previous 150 years in England! It is strongly suspected that he partly responsible for inspiring the Salem trials.
Anyway, I digress…
“Man and woman, we have each only one body. Very often we wish to forget where it has been, and what it has done, and who it loved. I do.”
When a child falls ill and starts raving about covens, about pacts; the questions change tact. The community turns on those living in the outskirts, their dislike of those who didn’t conform to societal normality turned sour as they accused them of witchcraft.
“When the sermon is done we step out from the dim church into the September sunshine all blinking and fluffing, like newly hatched chicks.”
Much like the witch trials in real life, the accused in this book were undefended, their integrity destroyed and all because the power of those making decisions went unchecked, fueled by the mistrust and betrayal felt in the community.
“A life slowly narrowing around you like the trick walls of a tomb. You have things and then the things fall to pieces, and then it begins to empty your body out as well, and your mind. No dreams, just hunger. A hole whose edges begin to fray, become undone.”
The book is written superbly. Arguments, allegations, hysteria, arrests, confessions, trials and executions – you become fully invested in all of them and the language used makes it feel real. Not to mention the fact that although this book is historical fiction, a lot of the details within the book are based on accurate research and accurate historical events. Blended with imagination, the book conveys jealousies, passion, tension and biases and flourishes with this and captures the characters voices and hearts. As the author states in the Afterword:
“Fears, hopes, desires and insecurities of the women who scratched out their existence on the very edges of society, and who have otherwise gone voiceless, or else been muted by victimhood.”
Until next time (which will be soon)!