Review of The Manningtree Witches by A.K. Blakemore
Blakemore's book--which is based upon witch hunts during the seventeenth-century English Civil War--is smart, shadowy and gothic, often infuriating, and consistently fascinating.
Mother takes one look at the swirling cloud from the kitchen stoop and declares that she will not leave the house for all the silver in Seville, but I--being hard compelled by curiosity, which is, of course, the first sin of woman--decide to go in spite of it.
In a small town in seventeenth century England, Puritanical fanaticism is opening the door for witch-hunting paranoia.
Rebecca West is fatherless, without marriage prospects, and generally defiant--all of which render her vulnerable to suspicion and subject to the various, often harmful whims of men.
You would not think it to look at us, so alike in outward semblance, but there are many different sorts of girl, many different thoughts beneath our little starched caps of perfect white.
Odd or unwelcome events are ascribed to dark forces, and dangerous rumors begin to swirl around women on the outskirts of society regarding covens, spells, and carnal desire. Meanwhile, pious, black-cloaked Matthew Hopkins, the Witchfinder General, comes to town. Blakemore alternates points of view between Hopkins and Rebecca West, crafting plausible interactions and basing many details upon accounts of the two real-life figures.
Witch is just their nasty word for anyone who makes things happen, who moves the story along.
Many of the town's men seem largely (and horrifyingly) titillated by the dark activities recounted and wild accusations raised, and the men drum up hysteria, fear, and finger-pointing throughout the community. The most socially powerless women--widows, unmarried women, and fatherless girls--are most exposed to mistrust and devastating punishments, all of which are carried out in the name of a twisted theological logic. Many of these women are appealingly headstrong and willful despite their treacherous situations.
The women in question are desperate to save their society from the arrogant men and their unchecked power, but only turning the tide of society against the hunting of witches will stop the outrageous persecution and cruelties. It's satisfying to watch as members of the community begin to recognize the witch hunters as more devilish creatures than anyone they might be seeking to punish, and at the same time it's horrifying to consider the realities of the Witch Craze of the English Civil War, when 100 to 300 women and men were put to death as witches due to a "vacuum of authority...virulent anti-Catholicism...and growing Puritan radicalism," as Blakemore writes in an author's note.
...this cannot be what God intended when he decreed it all--that men would take the most memorable parts, the juiciest bits, and use them as a playbook.... But of course, he is God--he must have known exactly what men would do, and not cared, or else figured it into his arrangements.
The Manningtree Witches is smart and thoughtful, and the tone of Blakemore's novel is shadowy and gothic. Rebecca despairs at her situation, yet she is a wonderfully defiant and strong character--her mother is, dangerously, even more so. Powerlessness, despair, fear, and fury fuel Rebecca, but she must keep secret her intelligence and her desire for autonomy. The Manningtree Witches is infuriating in its recounting of the horrific cruelties and tortures enacted against so many women at the time. The women are all trapped in a system that's crushing for females. But I appreciated the dark humor and strength Blakemore allows the formidable female characters in the book.
I received a prepublication electronic copy of this book courtesy of Catapult and NetGalley.
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Blakemore is also the author of Fondue.