I was drawn to this book because it is authored by Jeanette Winterson, writer of ‘Oranges are not the only fruit.’ The story of the Lancashire witches is famous beyond its county of origin because of the legal precedent set when the witches were convicted based on the testimony of a child, Jennet Device, the daughter of one of the accused. Many conspiracy theories have grown around the story, in part, because among the rural poor charged with the crime of witchcraft, was a woman called Alice Nutter, also named as a witch. Alice Nutter is the central character in Winterson’s story. Historically, Alice Nutter was a member of the local gentrified farming community. In Winterson’s story, she is involved in alchemy and trysts with the ‘dark gentlemen’ as well as having a castrated Jesuit priest as a lover.
And that is only the beginning.
It is a very confused and messy story. It plays fast and loose with history, which always irritates me in a historical novel, and seems unsure of whether it is a young adult book or an adult novel. At times, it does show the casual violence and sexual brutality that poor women faced and that terms such as witchcraft were deployed to remove the dispossessed and unnecessary. However, in Winterson’s story, the women are witches who do rob graves to perform their magic. Alice Nutter is not part of their coven, though drawn to it by a previous love affair with one of the women who sold her soul to the devil. (Though ends up rotting in a hovel in Lancashire farm, not a great deal!)
There is little to say about this story that recommends it as a worthwhile read. There are much better novels about the Lancashire witches, ‘Mist over Pendle’ by Robert Neill being one. Or there are actual factual books that are more entertaining than this story and do not require a guest appearance by William Shakespeare to pad out a fundamentally silly story.
Apologies to the author, I know no one intentionally writes a bad book, but this is one.