*Spoilers for The Manningtree Witches by A.K. Blakemore are in this interview*
There is no shortage of witch trial books, films, and plays in this day and age. However, A.K. Blakemore’s debut novel, The Manningtree Witches, for which she has recently won the Desmond Elliott Prize. I had the opportunity to chat with her about what inspired her to write The Manningtree Witches, womanhood, and her approach to writing historical fiction.
The Manningtree Witches is a fictional account of the Essex Witch Trials, based on the historical documents following the trials. The novel follows Rebecca West, a teenage girl from the village of Manningtree during the English Civil War. Rebecca is the daughter of the Beldam West, who is an anti-celebrity for her drunken rowdiness and being a harsh “critic of her neighbours’ offerings”. Rebecca West has also had her head turned by local church clerk, John Edes. When Matthew Hopkins, a witch-hunter, comes to Manningtree, his pursuits prove to be deadly for several women in the town.
Angels in Anguish
When reading the novel, none of the characters are particularly exceptional or heroic. The village knows and fears the Beldam West for her tendency to gracelessly ruffle feathers. Chatting with A.K. Blakemore, this was an active decision that she made when constructing her female characters:
“I was very keen not to prettify things. The novel was partially a response to what I sometimes find disappointing about female-led historical fiction. It seems to overplay the heroism of its female characters, […] if we’re writing about women from the past, it doesn’t just need to be about heroic women.”
We found that it’s not only that our female characters aren’t heroic. The high-stakes situations that they are pushed into forces them to be pretty unheroic. Rebecca West even sacrifices her mother to save herself from the gallows. The female characters are exceptional and have the capacity for active malice.
Blakemore expressed a “frustration” in witch trial novels: the predictability of the ending is often compensated for by constructing heroines and female martyrs. Historical women do not necessarily have to be characterised in this way to make them worth writing about. There is a need to confront the predictable ending in a more subversive way:
“For me, that’s a more satisfying denouement than tying a rope with bedsheets and climbing out of Colchester Castle while nine months pregnant and also looking incredible. […] The textures of their lives and the way they thought is hopefully interesting enough on its own.”
Trauma and Torture Porn
The construction of female characters in a subgenre that relies on violence towards them seemed to be a complicated process. Violence, even in a genre that is saturated with it, should have a rationale of some kind. A worry of Blakemore’s was slipping into a book that pandered to our morbid curiosity to read about senseless violence:
“I think there can be a tendency for witch trial narratives to slide towards torture porn, almost. A catalogue of horrible things being done to the purely reactive bodies of women without any prevailing politics [..] I think the best way of making sure I didn’t do that was to build female characters who felt believable and full.“
A refreshing aspect of the novel’s central tension is the relationship between Rebecca and the Beldam. It would appear that the foundation of this mother-daughter relationship is a mixture of resentment and unspoken tension. However, the acts of solidarity and sacrifice between each other override their everyday nitpicks. Blakemore makes clear that their relationship in the wider historical context is central to the book, rather than a fixation on the context itself.
Sins Among Men
This is not to say that the male characters are not absolutely fascinating in their own right. John Edes and Matthew Hopkins both pursue Rebecca but with different intents. Blakemore reveals that the historical documentation of John Edes is pretty vague:
“In the trial records, we don’t really know much about him other than him being a clerk and that he testifies against Rebecca West. The trial documents don’t explain what his relationship to Rebecca West was. He just says ‘Rebecca West told me that she had had congress with the Devil’. You’d think that’s a fairly intimate thing to tell another person.”
“[..] So that gap in the record is where the idea came from, that I wanted to establish a relationship between these characters. […] It also led to my thinking that to be a woman in the south of Puritan England during the English Civil War would’ve been absolutely horrible but it wouldn’t have been easy to be a young man either. You would be dealing with identity and desire and how you squared that with your religion”.
Sexuality and religion are also prominent among the male characters, albeit with a higher degree of economic, religious, and social capital than their female counterparts. They are known in Manningtree for their piety and their intellectual status. Still, they must grapple with sin and religion from a higher degree of power. There is a sensual presence in both Edes and Hopkins that was surprising to read. The perspective of Matthew Hopkins as he pursues the alleged witches has traces of eroticism weaved into it:
“His attitude to witches [in his own writings] is almost equivalent to the lads who get drunk on a Friday Night and want to get off with everyone. The hunger there is almost equivalent. […] I guess I wanted to show the sexual prurience of Puritanism in some way. I think that came from ramping up anxiety around sexuality to a degree through religion. All that serves to do is increase its prominence. By condemning something, you make it the most important thing that there is, in many ways.”
More In Store?
A.K. Blakemore expressed her disappointment in the limitations of the novel’s subject matter. Gender and social class played a fundamental role in The Manningtree Witches, as they did historically. Blakemore, however, is eager to explore other intersections of oppression such as race and colonialism. She is currently writing more personal poetry, which she has always considered her “natural medium”. With her second novel in the works, it is definitely worth waiting for what she comes out with next.
A.K. Blakemore’s The Manningtree Witches is available here.
Words by Elizabeth Sorrell
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