I thought long and hard about whether to write this review. On the one hand I have written far too many negative reviews this year, and would much rather write about things I had enjoyed reading. On the other hand, this is supposed to be a record of what I have read, and there’s really no wriggling out of that. Anyway, it is written now so you can judge whether I should have bothered. I feel equally conflicted about the novel itself – while I read it in little more than a sitting, there are aspects of the book that are pretty repellent.
First, some background. Published in 2012, this novel (sometimes described as a novella, although at over 200 pages that isn’t really right) is an imaginative recreation of the events of the Pendle Witch Trials of 1612. The more astute reader will have spotted the coincidence of dates. The Witch trials are probably the best known, mainly due to the record of the trial kept by one of the lawyers, of all the historic persecution of wise women, healers and the like which disfigures this period of history. Winterson mixes in the pursuit of catholics and Jesuits in 17th Century England a few years after the accession of James 1st and Gunpowder Plot. If this wasn’t enough, we also get some references to the alchemists of the period, and almost inevitably Shakespeare has a walk on part.
Broadsheet reviewers really liked this book. The Telegraph reviewer called it a “poetically stylised and visceral read”. The Independent thought it “beautifully written” (which it may well be, but….) and the Guardian reviewer liked it even more, describing it as having “the grisly freshness of a newly exhumed graveyard corpse.” But they avoid some of the more obvious problems with the book. Where to begin? This is very familiar territory – the Pendle Witch trial has been documented in fiction and elsewhere many times. The novel is published by Hammer, the publishing arm of the film company which is known to people of my generation for its Horror B Movies. Hammer has no pretension to being anything other than sleazy, exploitative, salacious, horror. All the tired clichés of the genre are present, down to the Satanic rituals graced by the presence of a priapic “Dark Gentleman” . It almost writes itself, and any suspicion of originality or creativity are missing.
The problems pile up. The abuse of women accused of witchcraft deserves and has received serious feminist analysis. It disrespects the women involved to exploit their stories for titillation. The treatment of sex here is horrifying and hard to stomach, particularly the paedophilia, although the detailed portrayal of 17th century torture techniques is almost as bad. The unlikeliness of this is being written by the author of the wonderful “Oranges are not the only fruit” really confounds me – its like J K Rowling writing for Mills and Boon.
Winterson can’t make up her mind – is this a portrayal of innocent women being tortured and killed as a form of social control, keeping people (obviously, particularly women) in their place? That would be the obvious narrative direction, but throughout the novel witchcraft and sorcery is portrayed as “real” and its invocation forms a central part of the narrative. This is not just a case of deluded old women believing their own confessions, but the reader being invited to accept the reality of magic in many different guises. The Telegraph reviewer mentioned earlier struggles with this, saying: “There is a slightly hallucinatory quality to their efforts to make an exhumed severed head talk that evokes both the macabre and a curious sense of horrified pity. Can their doll-stabbing curses really work? There is a suggestion that they can. But because these women are actually just a means for the authorities to try to get to grander targets – Catholic recusants – their filthy graveyard rites have the pathos of ultimate impotence”. Not really – there is much more than a suggestion that their magic works, and the pain of the Magistrate being targeted by the witches only ends when the figurine they are using is taken from them. They are far from impotent in this novel, even though in reality they would of course have been powerless. (interestingly one of the accused Pendle witches was actually acquitted).
That’s more than enough of the negative. Can I find anything positive to say? Some of the characters are briefly believable, and the quality of the writing is what you would expect of an author of Winterson’s calibre. One simple example – hares stand in fields like question marks – which is exactly right. At points the novel looks as if it is going to break out of the constraints of the known story and have something interesting to say about the persecution of the central character, Alice Nutter, but in the end all the bizarre accusations about here prove to be accurate. I can’t avoid the conclusion that there is a genuinely interesting story here which would respect the memory of those who died. But this isn’t it.