Historical fiction tells modern stories and in The Manningtree Witches A.K. Blakemore takes the reader to a 1643 that looks particularly familiar from 2021.
England is in the middle of a civil war, the poor are going hungry and someone needs to be blamed for this: “misery without seeming pattern nor remedy… the cruel subjections visited by the Devil on the innocent all over England.” To the Puritans, there seems an obvious cause, witches: “readily we believe the Devil might walk abroad, sowing a corruption in our hearts that compounds our earthly miseries.”
The young Matthew Hopkins happens to be in Manningtree, and his career as Witchfinder, “God’s righteous General,” begins there. Hopkins believes that “when women think alone, they think evil, it is said” and when a drunk passing by Rebecca West’s cottage mistakes her for a “phantom”, the story spreads: “Soon the one white thing he sees has become four black… It is a much better story that way.” Rebecca, her mother and a group of neighbours are rounded up and tried as witches. That is the story but buried within it are centuries of misogyny and independence that A.K. Blakemore makes the most of.
The Manningtree Witches is set in the overlap between Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and The Handmaid’s Tale. Puritan worlds where women’s guilt is certain from the start: “I can say again and again, a thousand times, sir, that I am not a witch… and it will account for nothing. But if I say once that I am, then it will account for everything.” Though, Rebecca’s intelligence and debating skills damns her, Hopkins “has never heard a woman reason a thing out before.”
A.K. Blakemore is a poet, the power and variety of the language in this novel is its greatest strength. From the physicality of the descriptions of everyday life, the tastes and smells of the seventeenth-century poverty, “the air is sour with the smack of horse-dung and sweet with the smells of cooking lard and onions.” Its topicality and the subtle humour derived from that, is brilliantly maintained. The puritanical insistence on women’s self-effacement is mocked (much as you find in the TV series of The Handmaid’s Tale) and subverted by Rebecca’s wit:
“I enter the parlour with my eyes lowered in a deferential manner, and because that is how I spend most of my public life I can identify everyone in the room by what they are wearing from the waist down.”
The latter half of the novel is essentially a debate between Rebecca and Matthew Hopkins, and there can be only one winner as Rebecca fully understands her (and our) society: “I would rather be a woman. We understand our abjection before God, because we understand our abjection before man.”
The Manningtree Witches ends with Rebecca on a boat full of Puritans, heading towards the New World and the knowing irony that Rebecca is heading towards the Puritanical world of The Scarlet Letter. We are left with the final sentence, again playing on the overlap of the worlds of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Margaret Atwood, “her white cap balled in her fist, hair blown like a rose in the wind of many seas.”
Any Cop?: The Manningtree Witches gives voice to the independence of women, depicting the distorted religion and misogyny that claims power over their lives and a remarkable heroine who embodies the strength needed to maintain faith in the future: “I think how there is so little keeping anything alive, keeping the warmth inside and the force out.”