I’m not one to judge a book by its cover, but I have been known on occasion to be intrigued by a title. In this case, it wasn’t in fact me, but my daughter, who, a year ago, spotted and sent me The Manningtree Witches by AK Blakemore as a Mother’s Day gift. Before we came here to very rural north-west France, we lived for thirty years in a village in Suffolk, just across the river Stour from Manningtree, so it is a place I know well. In the adjoining village of Mistley, the Thorn restaurant was once the home of Matthew Hopkins, the notorious (and self-appointed) ’Witchfinder General’ in the time of the English Civil War, and Hopkins is a leading character in the novel.
The plot is set early in the Civil War, in a part of the country which was largely supportive of the Parliamentarian cause. Many of the young men have left to join the New Model Army, the women are left behind to cope, and as so often in times of unrest, people are suspicious of each other. Old scores and hatreds are rising to the surface to be acted out. A turbulent period, and as ever, it is the women who suffer most. The story is told largely from the point of view of Rebecca West, the somewhat rebellious daughter of Bedlam West, a woman who lives without a man in the household, so is already on the margins of society.
The author is a poet and her gift with words is evident from the start. The first short chapter establishes Rebecca’s character so well that I felt I knew her, indeed that I had known her for years. She makes the reader feel the wet grass, the cold mist, smell the woodsmoke and less pleasant odours… I found the novel gripping, not least because I was reluctant to leave the world I had been drawn into, despite all its cruelty and pain.
To my shame I am not that familiar with the historical details of period, but I know the area, as I said, and Blakemore transported me immediately to the banks of the Stour, to Lawford Hill, to Mistley Walls, and to Manningtree High Street, where a few seventeenth-century buildings endure even now. Her Matthew Hopkins is not the pantomime villain of the Vincent Price Hammer Horror, but a nuanced, fascinating, troubled character. Idealistic, possibly, deluded, definitely, but undoubtedly flawed.
If you know about the history of the various witch scares in England, you may think you can guess how the story goes, and yes, there are some horrible, gruesome events but there are also a few unexpected twists and turns. I cannot recommend this book highly enough, it is a great read. For a first novel, this is a tour de force, and I await her next foray into the form with great excitement.
‘The Manningtree Witches’ – AK Blakemore -Granta -ISBN 978-1-78378-643-5