This will be a short review, because I am still reeling from the joint impact of these two books, they both made me cry. I try to remind myself that it all happened a very long time ago, but then I look at the news and think maybe we still have a long way to go.
I have now read three books in a row where women are abominably mistreated by men, two of them set in the most shameful abuse of power that was the witchcraft trials. Of course no story based on either the Scottish or English trials ends well. These two have a bit extra in common, in that in both cases the central character is a very young woman, and both are real historical characters. I think it is so important to remember that the background to this fiction is not fictional.
Hex, by Jenni Fagan
It’s the 4th of December 1591
On this, the last night of her life, in a prison cell several floors below Edinburgh’s High Street, convicted witch Geillis Duncan receives a mysterious visitor, Iris, who says she comes from a future where women are still persecuted for who they are and what they believe.
Short, beautifully written and horrific.
It’s not hard to remember that Jenni Fagan is a poet, the language in this short but brutal tale of Geillis and Iris is what makes it so absorbing. It’s a story of manipulation and cruelty, pervaded with the sadness of foreknowledge. The brevity reflects Geillis’ short life and just makes it all feel so much more poignant, as we accompany her through her last hours. The North Berwick witchcraft trials are truly a blot on Scottish history.
England, 1643. Puritanical fever has gripped the nation. In Manningtree, depleted of men since the Civil War began, the women are left to their own devices and Rebecca West chafes against the drudgery of her days. But when Matthew Hopkins arrives, asking bladed questions and casting damning accusations, mistrust and unease seep into the lives of the women. Caught between betrayal and persecution, what must Rebecca West do to survive?
The Manningtree Witches, by A. K. Blakemore
Longer, beautifully written, still horrific.
I didn’t know about the Manningtree trials in particular, but this novel too is based on fact. Manningtree is where the self-titled Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins started his campaign against the poor and ostracised women left with no recourse after the Civil War created poverty and widowhood in small villages and communities all over England. Rebecca West’s mother Anne is loud, outspoken and not afraid to wield a curse, their neighbour Elizabeth Clarke is elderly, forgetful and inclined to live in the past when her husband and children were alive. The goodwives of the village distrust these outsiders, and when things go wrong, they need someone to blame.
Both books are going onto my keeper shelf, I will probably reread them sometime, but not together.