A Q&A With A. K. Blakemore on The Manningtree Witches
Our November Fiction Book of the Month, the Desmond Elliot Prize-winning debut novel from poet A.K. Blakemore explores the seventeenth-century English witch hunts in visceral, insidious and gripping prose. In this Q&A, the author discusses the inspiration behind The Manningtree Witches and its characters.
What drew you to the stories of the women you write about in The Manningtree Witches?Oh, a huge number of things. There’s an obvious drama – even melodrama – to witch hunt and witch trial narratives (which is, perhaps, why there are so many of them about now. And that sort of melodrama appealed to my gothic sensibilities. But beyond that, one of things that most struck me in researching the contemporary documents of the Manningtree trials (which the novel is based on), was their sheer richness as descriptive prose of these women’s accounts of themselves, and their neighbours’ accounts of them. They range from the almost vaudevillian (a woman having lice swept off her clothes with a stick), to the hallucinogenic (a man trying to pull the head off a rabbit, who finds the rabbit just splits into two smaller rabbits). Each piece of testimony could almost be an Angela Carter short story in itself. So there was this wealth of material which just delighted and horrified me by turns. That’s the slightly bloodless, author-y answer.
Aside from the language the testimony provides a snapshot of a specific community at a specific moment in time – the web of tensions, attractions and terrors overlaying it. But there’s also a lot left out. Characters and names without context, intimacies given without explication, animosities unexplained. And for a writer of historical fiction, those gaps are really appealing. I suppose I wanted to use them to foreground themes that I felt were lacking in some witch-hunt fiction (and films, and whatever else), which were perhaps a little bit more political. To address issues of class, of early capitalism, ableism, and how those intersected (and still intersect) with misogyny.
And lastly, I just found them to be deeply appealing characters. Formidable, funny and occasionally frustrating. I wanted to bring them to life as best I could.
What most surprised you about the real life character of Matthew Hopkins, the Witchfinder General?Easy – that he was only twenty-seven years old when he died, and he began his career in his early twenties. Hopkins has probably most famously been portrayed by Vincent Price in the ‘60’s Witchfinder General film, who was far too old to play him at the time. I’ve found when I’ve mentioned the fact of his age at book readings, it completely upends people’s conceptions of who he was pretty immediately. We have this image of this lascivious, overbearing old creep with the iron-grey moustache – whereas thinking about him as a young man, who’s probably still trying to figure out his own place in the world, allowed me, I hope, to add some brittleness to the brutality, which I think makes him a more compelling character.
The landscapes of Essex are very important in the book. What do you they mean to you, and to the story?My dad lives in Manningtree so I know the area very well, and it’s stunning (if a little cursed-seeming, as lots of beautiful parts of England are). The light is known for being very clear and vibrant. It’s known as ‘Constable Country’, in all the guidebooks – Flatford Mill, depicted in Constable's The Hay Wain is just up the road from Manningtree. So it’s a landscape with certain evocativeness to it. The Stour estuary, with Manningtree huddled up by its side, is tidal, so it looks different whenever you see it during the day. Sometimes the water is so low it looks like you could walk across to the other side, and sometimes it looks wildly deep. You get the sense of it being this living, breathing thing and of course it’s the whole reason Manningtree sprung up there – as a minor port town, people living with and by the water and the mud and salt. I think it gives Manningtree the sense of being an ‘inbetween’ sort of place – not coastal, but not truly ‘rural’ either.
Community—neighbours, families, friends, church congregations—is a key aspect of The Manningtree Witches. Does this fragile, but vitally important, network you write about so beautifully in the novel speak to our sense of community today?Thank you! Something I was struck by when researching the novel was how many accusations of witchcraft were made against beggars. When I say beggars, I mean some ‘vagrants’ who were more or less strangers to the people they were trying to beg from, but also the poor within a community trying to solicit help from their neighbours. An old woman begging a crust at a door. With the civil war going on, these were times of famine in many parts England, and you get this sense of a rapidly degenerating sense of communal solidarity, that isn’t helped by the sense of paranoia and suspicion that a civil war also foments. So people had less to give and more reasons (some of them valid) for not to wanting to give it, and you wonder how much of the psychological impetus behind a witch hunt either comes from those displaced feelings of guilt at not being able to provide for everyone within a community, or a desire to ‘prune back’ that community of its ‘unproductive’ elements (the sick, the infirm, the very elderly – who were the sort of people who most often found themselves accused). And I think we can see both those impetuses at work, in different forms today, in various strands of post-Thatcherite British society. From the demonisation of benefit claimants in the tabloid media to the idea that acts of charity create ‘a sense of entitlement’. I think one of the most interesting things about historical witch hunts in England is what they tell us about the process of dehumanisation that allows people who like to think of themselves as ‘good’ to indulge in acts of cruelty, or to ignore cruel things happening around them. And witch hunts might not be happening in England any more, but that desire to dehumanise and other people – very often people in extreme need – is just as rife, and just as insidious.
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