The Manningtree Witches by AK Blakemore – Jo’s Book Blog

Fear and destruction take root in a community of women when the Witchfinder General comes to town, in this dark and exciting debut.

England, 1643. Parliament faces the king; the war between the Roundheads and the Cavaliers rages. Puritan fervor has gripped the nation, and the fiery terror of damnation burns black in every shadow.

In Manningtree, without men since the wars began, the women are left alone. On the fringes of this diminished community are those barely tolerated by the wealthy villagers: the old, the poor, the unmarried, the sharp-tongued. Rebecca West, daughter of the formidable Beldam West, fatherless and her husband, chafes at the monotony of her days, buoyed only by her infatuation with clerk John Edes. But then newcomer Matthew Hopkins takes over the Thorn Inn and starts asking questions about the women on the fringes. When a child falls ill with a fever and begins to rave about covens and pacts, the questions take on a sharp edge.

The Manningtree Witches It immerses its readers in the fever and menace of the English witch trials, where suspicion, mistrust and betrayal spiraled out of control as the power of men was left unchecked and the integrity of women left defenseless. It is a visceral and exciting book that heralds a bold new talent.

The Manningtree Witches is a fictional account of the events that took place in Manningtree, Essex in mid 17the century. Blakemore, a hub of activity for self-proclaimed Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins, traces his arrival in this small community and the almost immediate impact this has on the residents there.

The novel begins in 1643 and is told from the perspective of Rebecca West, a young woman in her twenties who lives with her mother, Anne (better known as Beldam) West. Rebecca’s father had died some years earlier, leaving the two women alone to fend for themselves as best they could, taking care of the laundry, clothing repair work, sewing, etc. to make ends meet. Rebecca is presented as a completely normal young woman. She has a crush on one of the townsmen, John Edes, who has been teaching her to read and write. Having read the novel, I can’t help but wonder what her life would have been like if Matthew Hopkins hadn’t come to Manningtree.

And Hopkins’ arrival causes something of a stir, the novelty of a stranger’s presence drawing attention and causing tongues to wag, particularly as he seems rich to many there. It doesn’t take long for Hopkins to insinuate himself into the small community, and he soon begins asking scathing questions, narrowly arousing suspicion of him. He comes across particularly badly in this novel, as I think he should be: a sad, lonely individual with failing health whose activities reek of an attempt to gain some degree of power and esteem where he would otherwise have none.

You will not allow a witch to live.

When a child falls ill, cursed or possessed by all accounts, it doesn’t take long for the men of the village to round up the women on the fringes of this small community. Not surprisingly, women accused of witchcraft and cavorting with the devil and his imps fit a certain profile: they have no men in their lives and therefore have a degree of independence. Some have some skill with herbs and cause other villagers to seek their help from time to time. Some are known or considered sharp-tongued, resourceful, and cunning. They are formidable when they are together. These women, including young Rebecca, whose only crime appears to be being the daughter of one of Hopkins’ targets, are rounded up and imprisoned awaiting trial in appalling conditions.

Blakemore perfectly captures the mood of the times. The English Civil War continues with many young people missing from their homes and families as a result. Superstition and alarmism abound. It takes very little to turn neighbor against neighbor, particularly as supporters and detractors alike are likely to be accused of collusion. And it seems that no one can stand up to the Witchfinder’s extreme piety, although the reader can see that his motives may not be as pure as he wants those around him to believe. While he angers the townspeople into acting on their suspicions, some begin to find the activity off-putting as they begin to understand the consequences of their actions. It is too little, too late, but I hope that those who participate in these activities will repent.

It would be wrong of me to reveal the ending of the novel here, but Rebecca West’s ultimate fate is unknown. Blakemore takes the opportunity for her to create a possible and plausible life for herself after these events, which I really enjoyed – it’s a subtle but powerful suggestion of what he could have done after her. We also see the fate of Hopkins, again fictionalized in a satisfying way.

Blakemore has published two collections of poetry prior to this debut novel, and I think it shows in the writing. It is a beautifully written novel, and there were many lines that I dawdled at. The Manningtree Witches is a powerful novel that brilliantly highlights a time of persecution and repression of women. Highly recommended.

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