Kit’s Crit: The Other Boleyn Girl (Philippa Gregory)

Gregory

On my first reading of The Other Boleyn Girl in 2001, I was impressed by Philippa Gregory’s bravery in writing against the popular romantic image of the Tudor queen as a much-maligned victim.  I re-read the book again this past week as part of my research into medieval witchcraft, and still maintain this is one of the finest examples of historical fiction in the genre.

Gregory plays the devil’s advocate by posing the question: What if Anne Boleyn really was guilty of the charges brought against her?  She then weaves a plausible explanation of the young woman’s dangerous rise to power, a gamble that ultimately cost her life.  The story is told through the eyes of the other Boleyn girl at court, her sister Mary.  And although British historian David Starkey claims there are only “four known facts” about Mary Boleyn, and that this therefore amounts to “one fact per seventy-five pages,” Gregory does a splendid job of recreating an authentic version of the Tudor court from numerous other sources.  There are, fortunately, many more extant facts regarding Anne and Henry!

Gregory’s Queen Anne is not an endearing character, but then everything said about her comes from the rival sister’s lips – one of the women she ousted from the king’s bed.  Anne is portrayed as ambitious, vain, single-minded, selfish, ruthless, callous, manipulative, and amoral.  Yet she is also intelligent, artistic, fashionable, and fun.  She is not a practicing witch – though she does enchant Henry and all those around her – but when placed in a desperate situation she turns to a local wise woman for help.  As the king is aging and impotent, when Anne needs a son to secure the throne her brother George steps in as a replacement.  And she may or may not have poisoned some of her enemies.

The Other Boleyn Girl strips away the traditional glamor of court, presenting a much more realistic insight into the fragile and perilous lives of the youngsters groomed as bargaining chips by their ambitious families.  It also highlights the differences between those born high and low, and how real happiness lies in the simple pleasures of life.  The characters are engaging and interesting – even as they descend into strange, dark places.  And the psychological explanations offered for Anne Boleyn’s criminal behavior are fascinating, thought-provoking, and plausible –  even if factually untrue.

A five-star read!

Kit’s Crit: The Daylight Gate (Jeanette Winterson)

Winterson

Starting from the assumption that Jacobean Lancashire was a rebel Catholic stronghold in a Protestant country, Jeanette Winterson’s version of the most famous English witch trials is quite unlike any other.  The Daylight Gate is a novella – not the hefty Victorian saga first told by Harrison Ainsworth – and it often strays away from the recorded historical facts.  Indeed, this book examines witchcraft and Catholicism as “matters treasonable and diabolical” in an impressionistic, modernist manner, which culminates in a broody tale where events appear blurred by the mists of time.

 Winterson takes a lot of poetic license with the facts as they are recorded in the trial documents, inventing new players, and placing famous people of that era in implausible situations.  Her Alice Nutter – the central character she admits is not true to the actual historical figure – is lured into witchcraft, knows William Shakespeare and the magician John Dee, appears younger than the matron who was actually executed, and is bisexual. Yet at the same time Justice Roger Nowell, who led the puritanical crusade against the local cunning folk, gets painted in an unexpectedly sympathetic light.

However, Winterson’s rough characters and brutal situations are credible for that time, area, and circumstance.  And she deftly strips away the romanticism found in some of the earlier novels based on these same events.  I particularly admire her intelligent justification for the motives and causes behind the three remaining puzzles: Why was a gentlewoman of Mistress Nutter’s rank convicted alongside the common poor?  Why did nine-year-old Jennet Device betray her entire family?  And why did some of the accused willingly confess to diabolical crimes?  Winterson has obviously considered these questions and reached her own conclusions about the excitement, hysteria, and sexual opportunities that open up during a witch hunt.  And while she does not dwell on the misogynist drive that fuelled men like Nowell, she does address the other power imbalances associated with gender, wealth, and rank.

I appreciate Winterson’s sparse, poetic technique that functions like a series of flashbacks to a dangerous, incomprehensible era that was ripe with suspicion and superstition – a place where poor women did what was necessary to survive.  Because they had no control over the real world they “must get what power they can in theirs,” though this is not a feel-good fairy tale where everyone lives happily ever after.

If you like intensity, and are open to magical realism, The Daylight Gate is an interesting introduction to the Pendle Witches.  But it is ultimately more of a literary horror story than a traditional historical fiction.

Kit’s Crit: Magic In Western Culture (Brian P. Copenhaver)

Copenhaver

Magic In Western Culture: From Antiquity to the Enlightenment (New York: Cambridge UP, 2015)

Brian Copenhaver’s Magic In Western Culture traces occult beliefs From Antiquity to the Enlightenment.  His study starts in Ancient Iran, Greece, and Rome, and moves through the early Christian Church to the influential thinkers of the Renaissance.  Magic is treated as a tradition that derives from classical philosophy, as Copenhaver examines why European intellectuals “repudiate magic in the Enlightenment, after having previously accepted it for more than two millennia” (xiii).

Copenhaver suggests that before the Enlightenment most educated Western people believed in magic – a tradition handed down from Herodotus.  But the early Catholic Church claimed any supernatural activity in The Bible was the result of divine miracles (not earthly magic), which created little problem until Thomas Aquinas insisted that if there were heavenly angels there must also be hell’s counterparts – demons.  Thereafter, devils were seen as tempting the faithful with magic powers and turning them into witches.   This belief persisted into the Middle Ages and beyond.

As further medical advances were made, traditional magic was superseded by new therapies – regimen, pharmacy, and surgery.  Doctors of Physic practiced a natural philosophy whereby physical treatment (not ritual or religious) aimed to produce the correct mix of humors in the body.

During the Renaissance, natural philosophy gradually gave way to mechanical science, particularly after the invention of the telescope and microscope.  Men like Descartes favored reason, method, and metaphysics over occultism, but this was not a clear-cut process.  Isaac Newton, for example, spent much of his scientific career as an alchemist searching for the Philosopher’s Stone, and was later called “the last of the magicians” (288).  But over the centuries, magic gradually succumbed to the dual pressures of religion and science until it fell out of fashion with the European intellectuals.

Magic In Western Culture is a dense, scholarly book, lightened in part by the rich illustrations.  Copenhaver has sifted through the murky realms of early belief to piece together a well-researched, cohesive analysis of the occult tradition.  His section on Newton is particularly fascinating.  I also enjoyed the references to Shakespeare’s plays that highlight the intersection between intellectual development and common folklore.

If you have an academic or historic interest in the rise and decline of magic you will find this book an impressive read.  Highly recommended!

Kit’s Crit: Lord of the Flies (William Golding)

Golding

Lord of the Flies

William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954) tops my list of all-time favorite books!

In the wake of a nuclear war, a group of school boys are being evacuated from England when their aircraft is shot down.  The survivors land on an isolated tropical island with no adult presence.  Here,they have to fend for themselves. The children ultimately form two rival gangs and soon cross the line from civilization into savagery.

There are three main reasons why Lord of the Flies is the perfect novel.  Firstly. it is an allegory that makes readers question their moral, spiritual, anthropological, and psychological beliefs about childhood innocence.  Secondly, Golding produces a beautiful cocktail of modern and poetic language where every sentence advances the action, or reveals something important about one of the central characters. And thirdly, he incorporates mythology, magical realism, anthropological research, religion, and psychology to build up the tension with carefully crafted foreshadowing and symbolism.  This is a very tight, taut, controlled horror story full of unpredictable events, where the only relief comes right at the end.

Lord of the Flies exposes the darkness of the human condition.  It is a pessimistic examination of everything we hold sacred.  And that is why it so wonderfully terrifying.

Kit’s Crit: The Familiars (Stacey Halls)

The Familiars is in many ways a modern gothic romance set against the backdrop of the Lancashire witch trials. It tells of seventeen-year-old Fleetwood Shuttleworth’s plight to provide an heir for Gawthorpe Hall after three unsuccessful pregnancies. She enlists the help of a mysterious local wise woman – Alice Grey – who later becomes one of the accused victims. After a string of dangerous adventures, however, things reach a satisfactory conclusion.

Unlike other recent books on the Pendle Witches, Stacey Halls chooses a minor, overlooked historical character as her focal point. Alice Grey is a midwife who may or may not be associated with a familiar in the guise of a red fox, though any magic we see her perform is practical herbalism rather than supernatural spell-casting. Yet we experience Alice through the eyes of Fleetwood Shuttleworth, a privileged narrator far removed from the violence and poverty of the accused witches, who only rushes to help the midwife for personal gain. Halls’ description of the Well Tower in Lancaster Castle is the closet we get to understanding the harrowing ordeal that these real prisoners went through. But having read some of the early reviews, such sanitizing of historical unpleasantness may be necessary for the modern squeamish reader.

The Familiars is an enjoyable story based on the few facts known about the events of 1612. I particularly liked the thoughtful observation that bearbaiting in London was popular because the bloodthirsty townsfolk did not get a chance to hunt!

Halls’ historical research is sound, the setting well-crafted, and the characters consistent with the gothic romance genre. This novel will appeal to readers who want to taste what living through a witch hunt may have been like, but without any graphic information.

Kit’s Crit: The Hangman’s Daughter (Potzsch)

The Hangman’s Daughter is the first of a seven-book series set in medieval Germany. It tells the tale of Martha Stechlin, a local midwife and herbalist accused of witchcraft. Several children die in a small Bavarian town and each has a strange witch-mark tattooed on their shoulder. The local hangman, Jakob Kuisl, is sent to torture a confession from the accused, even though he does not believe in her guilt.

Jakob’s daughter – Magdalena – is an intelligent young woman in love with the local physician’s son. They both know Martha Stechlin is not a witch, and together they set on a mission to uncover the truth behind the false accusations.

The Hangman’s Daughter is an interesting read, steeped in the local superstitions and folklore of the period. Oliver Potzsch paints a vivid portrayal of an oppressive, patriarchal society where everyone’s lives are pre-ordained at birth. But against this stifling backdrop, he makes the hangman a compassionate, human, multi-faceted character, who remains loyal to friends and family even in personal adversity.

There is little difference between Martha Strechlin’s craft, the hangman’s renowned herbal cures, and the local doctor’s medicine – except the female practitioner is the only one selected as the scapegoat. This irony is not lost on the reader. And many parallels of misinformation, personal bias, malicious gossip, and fear skillfully demonstrate how “witch hunts” still gain traction in our sophisticated, high-tech society today.

There are, however, several unfortunate modern colloquialisms in the text that jar the reader out of the Seventeenth-Century setting, but I trust this is a by-product of translation and not an inherent flaw in Potzsch’s writing.

Kit’s Crit: Wicked Enchantments (Froome)

What if the Lancashire Witches were actually guilty of practicing magic?  Joyce Froome’s book, Wicked Enchantments: a history of the Pendle Witches & their magic (Lancaster: Carnegie,2010) explores this possibility from the prespective of the two teenagers involved, James and Alizon Device.

Froome

Froome’s website describes her methodology.  She uses “quotations from a wealth of original sources, such as trial records and books of magic,” alongside “photographs of magical artifacts.”

This unique compilation – based on the sound scholarly research of an assistant curator at the Museum of Witchcraft in Cornwall –  focuses on the seventeenth-century rituals and spells that the poor cunning folk of Pendle may have used to eek out a living: love potions, healing tonics, protection charms, curses, good-luck talismans, fertility magic, and fortune-telling paraphernalia.  In addition to multiple illustrations, there are also photographs of a modern family recreating many of the ancient rituals.

The only negative comment I have is that the binding of my book fell apart from frequent reading!  But aside from this, Wicked Enchantments  is a fascinating, well-documented, alternative portrayal of the Device family.  Their spells are clearly explained.  And I fully concur with Froome’s conclusion that centuries later “there were still cunning folk around Pendle Hill . . . . Magic had survived both demonisation and ridicule” (310).     

Wicked Enchantments could have become a dry, intellectual, historical examination, were it not for the clever organization, and Froome’s subtle humor shining through the pages.

I love her opening warning: “You are strongly advised NOT to attempt any of the spells described in this book – particularly the one that involves removing a tooth from a live wolf” (iv).  Reader beware!

More information is available at Joyce Froome’s website: http://www.joycefroome.com/wicked_enchantments.htm