This is a remarkable portrayal of England’s witch hunts and a nuanced representation of womanhood
It is easy to paint the world in black and white. Even the most well-meaning among us do it to conceptualise the world in ways that are easier to understand. It is hard to combine this simplified way of thinking with the increasing importance of intersectional thinking. A.K. Blakemore’s debut novel, The Manningtree Witches, is a great place to start in noticing the complexities of oppression.
Rebecca West lives in Manningtree (Essex) with her widowed mother in 1643, infamously called the Beldam after her husband’s fearsome reputation. The village is mostly run by women as the men fight and die in the English Civil War. The town is run by the support networks that have been built between each character, for example, Rebecca and Beldam West are the only people who come to the aid of Elizabeth Clarke, an old woman who is poor, disabled, and lonely.
When a newcomer arrives in Manningtree, Matthew Hopkins, the town is suddenly being closely observed by a man who is obsessed with ‘maleficium’ (witchcraft) and is cracking down on the village. Matthew Hopkins quickly builds an alliance with John Edes, the local vicar with whom Rebecca is infatuated, to weed out the women who seem the most suspicious.
It isn’t long before Rebecca and others in her community are roped into a torturous interrogation process in which they are damned either way.
Old Language, New Tricks
The language in this book is wonderfully grounded. The simple words and phrases that are initially difficult to wade through eventually give the novel an authentic feel. There a poetic aspect to Rebecca West’s voice that is also baked into a now-antiquated register of English.
A.K. Blakemore did a great job in including challenging vocabulary that is faithful to its historical context and harnessing that unfamiliar language so that the text is still beautiful to read. Rebecca’s narration is grounded but her passing thoughts about the sunrise or her own morality are aesthetically enjoyable.
Language is also woven tightly into the plot itself. Rebecca is almost incriminated as a cautionary tale against “female literacy”. Rebecca’s access to the Bible and to interpret these texts herself means that she is able to doubt the authorities around her (especially those that use their literacy to exploit the illiterate). Language is clearly the key to power in this book, and Rebecca’s access to power as a young woman is cause for concern.
Some Are More Witchy Than Others
The Manningtree Witches is a prime example of how our notions of womanhood must be nuanced in order to gain a full understanding of sexism and misogyny. This novel is a great way to start thinking about all the different components that contribute to a person’s identity and how they are subsequently treated.
It is obvious that the witch-hunts primarily targeted women, even if some men were also tried and punished for witchcraft. However, was it just on account of their womanhood? Why were some women accused of witchcraft, of summoning imps, of cursing people, while others were not? This is where our approach to The Manningtree Witches becomes intersectional.
It is clear that married, healthy, and convenient women did not have to explain themselves. Yeoman Miller and his pregnant wife never fell under Matthew Hopkins’s radar, but Elizabeth Clarke did after she begged them for food during the winter.
For Whom The Rope Swings
Poor, old, disabled, sharp-tongued, and powerful women were in Hopkins’s firing line because they got in the way. Sexual attraction (and the lack thereof) also played a pivotal role in who Hopkins would pursue; Elizabeth Clarke’s ugliness and old age made her an eyesore to be removed whereas his attraction to Rebecca West also contributed to her verdict.
A.K. Blakemore demonstrates the necessity to drop the black-and-white act and acknowledge that some women are more endangered than others. The safety of women depended on how much of a burden they were to their society. Witchcraft seems like the ideal way to dispose of those who need help or to dispose of those who undermine the sovereignty of intellectual men.
Women are not just targeted because they are women; women are targeted when they are particularly vulnerable and less likely to receive support from the people around them.
Back To Now
A.K. Blakemore’s stunningly powerful debut novel doesn’t just whisk us away to a cynical, impactful story, she also gives us the tools to begin thinking about intersectionality. This is an invaluable approach to adopt when we look at feminism and the mistreatment of women.
Without jumping straight into here-and-now issues, The Manningtree Witches encourages us to steer ourselves away from overly simplistic notions of womanhood, sexism, and feminism. A woman is never just a woman by herself, she also has a social class, a certain amount of social capital, varying support networks from her community, and a certain level of power. All of these factors must be taken into consideration when determining the likelihood of misogynistic harm being inflicted on her.
The Manningtree Witches has done a fantastic job of not only providing an exhilarating novel that shows A.K. Blakemore’s brilliant talent for storytelling but also allows us to think about how we should bring more nuanced to discourses surrounding discrimination and oppression.
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