The Gothic Reading Group meets for its last session of 2013 this week: capping off a semester that's seen us travel from 21st century horror cinema to transatlantic 19th century fictionalisations of madness and now back (via a bit of cosmic horror) to Jeanette Winterson's 2012 novel based on the infamous Lancashire Witch trials. As you might expect from a twenty-first century re-telling of a piece of seventeenth century 'history' (and all its intervening mythologisations) there's a lot of interesting context and background available to inform our discussion of this text. In the following post Richard Gough Thomas explores some of these and others some resources for those interested in the story (or stories) of Pendle.
The Pendle Trials - A Literary History
Richard Gough Thomas
|Pendle Hill, looming above the mist.|
There are quite a few angles I could pursue in setting you up for a discussion of Jeanette
Winterson’s The Daylight Gate. How does the novel sit within Winterson’s body of work? Does the text’s rendering of historic Lancashire as uncanny chime with the autobiographical themes in the author’s fiction? Does its publication under the ‘Hammer’ imprint (and allegedly written to order for the 400th anniversary of the witch trials) lead us to certain expectations of the text? Wearing my historicist and cultural materialist heart on my sleeve, however, I’ve decided to write about the place the Lancashire witch trials hold in English literature. Anniversary piece or not, The Daylight Gate is only the most recent work inspired by (or drawing directly from) Pendle in 1612.
|The Hammer logo is clearly visible in contrasting red on Winterson's cover - does the publisher shape this story and our reading of it?|
Winterson’s decision to drag Shakespeare into the story invites us to think about the early modern ‘witchcraft play’. Macbeth was clearly written in part to capitalise on the king’s interest in the occult, but it’s far from the only play of the period to base its drama on witchcraft. Thomas Middleton’s The Witch (1609?) is best known for the elements of it that Heminges and Condell printed as part of Macbeth in the First Folio (probably a result of stage practice). Set in Italy, The Witch makes an implicit link between witchcraft and Catholicism – as Winterson’s characters also do. Probably the most interesting play for our purposes though is Middleton’s (this time with Rowley, Dekker and Ford) The Witch of Edmonton (1621). Edmonton may be the first ‘domestic’ witch drama, using contemporary accounts of English witchcraft – albeit not the Pendle trials – as its basis. What I find most compelling about the play is that it believably depicts the social hierarchy of Jacobean England and gives an arguably sympathetic portrait of the witch herself. Mother Sawyer is at the bottom of English society – she turns to witchcraft for vengeance on those who have abused her. Lancashire witchcraft would finally come to the stage in 1634 in Heywood and Brome’s The Late Lancashire Witches, a play drawing on the ‘sequel’ to the Pendle trials which saw 20 people (including one ‘Jennet Device’) on trial at Lancaster Assizes. Notably, the 1634 play is less concerned with witchcraft per se and more with its disruptions to societal and gender relations. It is sometimes argued that in the Caroline era, theatre was a more ‘elite’ pastime than in the Elizabethan or Jacobean periods. If that’s true, then the horror of The Late Lancashire Witches is not black magic, but wives ruling husbands and servants ruling masters. Thomas Shadwell would later use Heywood’s play (and information on both the 1612 and 1633-4 trials) for his own The Lancashire Witches and Tegue O Divelly, the Irish Priest (1681). More on these two latter plays can be found here.
|The first author to novelise the Pendle trials was W. H. Ainsworth - an author of several Gothically inflected historical novels and early mentor and friend of Charles Dickens|
The Pendle witches first appear in the novel in 1848-9, the subject of William Harrison Ainsworth’s The Lancashire Witches. Ainsworth makes explicit the link between Lancashire as a holdout of Catholicism and the pursuit of witchcraft therein, centring his first volume on the Pilgrimage of Grace (the Northern uprising against Henry VIII’s imposition of the Church of England). The text can be found here. Robert Neill’s Mist Over Pendle (1951) brings Alice Nutter and Roger Nowell to the fore as characters. Children’s author Livi Michael focuses her novel, Malkin Child (2012), on Jennet. Blake Morrison has written two collections of poetry on the subject - Pendle Witches (1996) and A Discoverie of Witches in 2012. Theatre has never lost interest in the subject, from Rony Robinson’s Duke’s Brew (1976), to Bryony Lavery’s Witchcraze (1985) and Yvonne Pinnington’s Cold Light Singing (2005) (you can find the Facebook page – with pictures – of the recent touring production here).
I think all this serves to situate Winterson’s novel. We can see that some elements of the (historical) story recur across adaptations and I think it’s worth commenting on the fact that in the great majority of these texts, witchcraft provides a springboard to show how society fractures across gender (and to a lesser extent, class) lines. I doubt anyone is surprised to read such an assertion in modern fictions but Middleton, Heywood and Ainsworth’s texts demonstrate that writers have always been conscious of it – even if we’re not comfortable with the conclusions they draw from it.
As a footnote, I feel obliged to mention that Simon Armitage’s documentary, The Pendle Witch Child (2011) is available on YouTube:
Richard Gough Thomas is a PhD researcher at Manchester Metropolitan University and a visiting member of the Gothic Reading Group at the University of Sheffield. His thesis considers the later work of William Godwin and you can check out his personal blog here. We've yet to ask if his name is actually pronounced "Goth."