Wednesday 23 November 2022

Review: The Lancashire Witches by William Harrison Ainsworth

 I’m a big William Harrison Ainsworth fan (even if I do find it difficult to get his surnames in the right order) and I was always going to read The Lancashire Witches at some point. Not just because it’s the only book of his still in print (a massive injustice) but also because a friend at university claimed he was a descendent of the lead witch herself, Old Mother Demdyke. I wonder what he’d say to her representation in the book and the ‘history’ of his family.

There’s often a tension in Ainsworth’s books. He’s clearly enamoured with the criminal, the marginalised and the different yet he’s working in a literary climate that demands those people have their ‘comeuppance’. This was a particular problem for him after a man committed a big, notorious murder and claimed it was partly due to the influence of books like Ainsworth’s. Written some time after, this book is constantly being pulled by the obvious appeal of the witches, their gleeful destruction of anything ‘civilised’ and the need to make a commercial piece of fiction. As such, the witches in this are real witches; cauldrons, broomsticks, cackling and all, with definitive links to the devil and malicious intent - they are the baddies of the book. However, the lawyers, god-fearing men and representatives of modernity are all fools and malicious themselves. In many ways it’s a novel where no-one can come out on top, as most of the main parties represent some form of intolerance and malevolence.

The book is split into four sections, each one lasting 48 hours. The first takes place before the witches, during the reign of Henry VIII. It’s the most overtly gothic of the sections, involving naughty monks and their secrets. The loved Abbot Paslew of Whalley Abbey is at the forefront of ‘The Pilgrimage of Grace’, an armed attempt to fight the formation of the Church of England. He has some skeletons in his closet, more accurately in the The Monk-esque dungeon in the Abbey - except he doesn’t, the monk he’s cheated has made a pact with the devil, escaped and is now after revenge. He’s willing to make peace with the Abbot and secure his escape, if only the Abbot baptises his young daughter. Instead of baptising her, he curses her and the Demdyke clan of witches begins. It’s full of that great Ainsworth stuff, striking images and exciting action, lots of escapes, near misses, magic and heartbreak. There’s even a man who accidentally impales his friend on his halberd.

The second section is set about 100 years later, in the reign of King James I and takes place around the May Day celebrations. We meet the three Asshetons, Ralph, Richard and Nicholas. Richard is our perfect hero and the designated young lover of the piece but Ainsworth is clearly more taken by Nicholas, who is a typical country squire; rambunctious, overly fond of hunting and drinking but loyal and with a good heart. Richard falls in love with the May Queen, the beautiful and innocent Alizon Device. How she is both morally good and beautiful is anybody’s guess, she’s sister to the nasty Jennet, daughter of the dodgy Elizabeth and grand daughter of the evil witch, Mother Demdyke. Of course her parentage is far more complicated and she’s actually the daughter of Alice Nutter, who may be more beautiful but is as implicated in witchy goings on as the others. This is slower than part one, with the definite feeling that things are being set-up and implied - that is until the last chapters at a witches sabbath.

The third part is a journey into the heart of darkness. A lawyer called Potts has been called for to settle a boundary dispute between Alice Nutter and Roger Nowell but as they get closer to the area, it’s clear that things are not right. More and more stories of witchcraft and terror are unfolded and Potts decides to hunt the witches, spurred on by the kudos he hopes to get from King James. As they grow nearer Pendle Hill and Mother Demdyke’s stronghold in Malkin Tower, things get madder and madder. This is the point where Ainsworth lets rip with full Ainsworthyness, storms and witches and abductions and the Devil in disguise and doubles, potions, broomsticks, elaborate torture chambers, a snarling statue and rocks and rivers that change positions - the works. The witches all have to bring a convert to the Devil every year or their powers wane, there’s a power struggle and all the key players have little time to pay their dues. The way the familiars of the witches turn on them when their time’s up is genuinely ferocious and hurtful, especially considering how condescending they are when the witch is in good stead with her master. It ends in fire, blood and madness. This is the best section.

The fourth section is probably the weakest. Our chief supernatural villains are gone, there are a few remnants who cause mischief but the chief danger is now from the lawyer, especially because King James I is visiting. He may style himself ‘The British Solomon’ but he’s seems very fallible. Most of this section is taken up with descriptions of the King’s travelling court, his entertainments and descriptions of hunting all sorts of animals including otters and deer. Our tragic lovers end out their tragic love and everything is tied up. The most interesting element in this last part is Alice Nutter, who was a key witch but has since sought to redeem her soul. There’s tension whether this is even possible and her end has a lot of heart.

While I didn’t love this book as much as Rookwood, Jack Shepherd or even Auriol, it was still a corker. There were big chunks where Ainsworth got to do what he was best at, striking visuals and breakneck action but the second and third parts did slow down a little too much at times. Ainsworth writes as if the novel is a visual medium, he’d have done so well at film and when he’s doing those visual things, he’s great. Unfortunately, novels also need dialogue. At best, his dialogue is stiff, at worst he’s trying to write in a Lancashire accent. If the title was written in his phonetic dialogue, this book would be called T’ Lonkyshaire Watches. There were times when he’d just put in weird vowels. It wasn’t even consistent, sometimes ‘come’ would be ‘cym’ and sometimes ‘cum’. Luckily, not all the characters talk like this but enough do and there’s far too much of; “T’missmannert, car’ll boide naw questionnin, odd rottle him,” for my taste. However, there is a bit that describes King James as ejaculating and everyone ejaculating with him… that’s funny.

The other thing he does well is research, and its use. I was amazed that even character of Old Mother Mouldyfoot have origins in history, as does the progenitor of the curse, Abbot Paslew. He also knows when to change from his research, making Alizon Device a tug-of-war character between the good and bad sides, inventing a feud between Mothers Chattox and Demdyke. Some of these inventions have passed into (lazy) history, along with his claims about Dick Turpin and Black Bess in Rookwood. Another element that has been taken for historical truth is the story of King James knighting a piece of beef as Sir-Loin, a ‘fact’ my Dad once told me as true. (But then, he told me that monkeys rode the greyhounds at a dog race). The King James stuff isn’t as well digested on the whole and that section as a number of dull lists, featuring many famous names who don’t impact the story.

Another piece of research was the diary of Nicholas Assheton, a real person. I said at the beginning that there’s a real tension between making the witches evil and hating the real villains of history, the people that hanged them, resulting in very few of the characters being ones to root for.  Nick Assheton is though. He has his faults, he has a fear and hatred for the Devil and his witches but he also doesn’t trust the lawyers. He straddles the line between realistic faults (and indeed unrealistic, he dances with the ghost of a naughty nun) but with a just hatred for persecution. 

I don’t think any modern take on the Pendle Witches could ever represent the witches as actual evil beings with magic powers any more. We’re just too aware of how any witch trial was a terrible exercise of power against the powerless but in giving his witches actual powers, William Harrison Ainsworth does even things up a little, even if it’s just fictionally.  

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