Category Archives: 17th Century Fiction

Review of ‘The Witchfinder’s Sister’ by Beth Underdown

There are few episodes in English history that rival the notoriety of Matthew Hopkins’s reign of terror as Witchfinder General in East Anglia, nurtured by the social turmoil of the Civil War. During the relatively short period of 1644-47, he, and his associates, are estimated to have been responsible for the hanging of around 300 women for witchcraft, approximately 60% of the total executed for this crime between the end of the fifteenth and the early eighteenth centuries when the crime of witchcraft was removed from the statute books. The woodcut image from the frontispiece of his book The Discovery Witches is a familiar and chilling one, showing Hopkins himself observing two witches naming their pictured familiars. Although Hopkins died at the age of 27 in 1647, he has enjoyed a lengthy afterlife in the popular imagination, spawning verse, a number of books, and, perhaps most famously, the film Witchfinder General in which Vincent Price played the eponymous role.  

In her debut novel The Witchfinder’s Sister, Beth Underdown has approached Hopkins and his deeds through the eyes of a fictitious sister, Alice, which allows her to present the reader with the domestic Hopkins, as well as the public figure. She has taken the fragments of what is known about his life, and imaginatively fashioned a plausible Hopkins, who plays upon biblically-rooted popular fears and prejudices about women to unleash a wave of persecution that brings some solace to his damaged self.  

Written as a first-person memoir, the style is detailed and intimate, with a great deal of atmospheric description that is at once one of its strengths, as well as one of its weaknesses, for if I have any criticism of this novel it is with respect to its pace, which is as sluggish as the waters of an East Anglian river. That said, this novel manages to produce an appropriate sense of suffocating entrapment, paranoia, and fatalism, and delivers an ending with a suitably satisfying twist.

Review of The Coffin Path by Katherine Clements

Yorkshire gothic this may be, but a ghost story, it is not.

Katherine Clements has in this book managed to achieve something quite remarkable: she has written a ghost story in which there are no ghosts. It is true that there is mention of malign spirits, hauntings, and the wicked deeds of the forgotten pagan inhabitants of the bog-strewn heathered heights, but beyond that, the reader is left with the dark imaginings of its claustrophobic cast of characters, as lust, family secrets, and deception, tear apart the lives of a household on the Yorkshire moors. There is mention of witchery and suggestions of the supernatural, but there are no actual ghosts.

The strengths of this book lie elsewhere: it is brooding, evocative, and highly knowledgeable about the traditional husbanding of sheep in England’s bleak northern uplands. It contains the best descriptions of the ‘fly-blown’ backside of a sheep that I have read, and I challenge you to find better. Likewise, I have read no more convincing descriptions of the mutilated carcasses of sheep and lambs than are to be encountered here, but each time one of these vaguely queasy images manifested itself, I found myself thinking not about ghosts, but the peculiar phenomenon of cattle mutilation so beloved of a certain sub-sect of UFO enthusiasts. In a similar vein, repeated references to a ‘slaughtered lamb’ conjured up images not of horror, but of the fictitious Yorkshire pub in An American Werewolf in London. And whilst we’re at it, do androids dream of slaughtered lambs? Probably not. Thankfully, I didn’t either.

The novel is born amidst the visceral symbolism of birth begetting death, and decline, madness, and death form the threads that weave through the warp and weft of the novel’s plot, from its misty and bloody beginnings, to its snowy and even more bloody end, and you’d best be warned that it takes a bloody long time to get there. Gloomy atmospherics are its strength, pace is its limping, and often absent, companion.

Its overall tone struck me – if the screaming mob slinging stones and excrement whilst occasionally yelling ‘witch’ is excepted – as being more suitable to the Victorian period than to that of the Restoration, which is a pity. Moreover, its sense of place, or more specifically, its sense of ‘Yorkshireness’, was largely lacking. It was so unlike, in this respect, the highly engaging and regionally-anchored The Hidden People by Alison Littlewood, which deploys the Yorkshire accent and dialect to such powerful effect in her Victorian gothic creation. That said, I sympathise with Katherine Clements in her decision not to employ dialect, as so many readers, particularly ones living in the US, aren’t keen on English regional dialects and accents, to put it mildly, which is a shame.

I do not wish to sound too harsh, as I did enjoy the tale, especially its descriptive passages, but I felt that it wasn’t quite what it was billed. As with The Essex Serpent, it would have benefitted from some judicious editing, slimming the manuscript by a quarter, to a third, leaving an altogether leaner, and meaner, novel. To view The Coffin Path on Amazon, click on the image above, or here. For an alternative excursion into occult mystery on the Yorkshire moors, dare you set foot here?

Review of ‘Corsair’ by Tim Severin

Tim Severin is an explorer, historian, and author of historical fiction: a man of many accomplishments. His knowledge of seafaring is both extensive and first-hand, with him having undertaken a number of remarkable voyages in reconstructions of historical craft. These include replicating the alleged voyage of sixth-century Irish Saint Brendan across the Atlantic in a wood and leather currach; travelling from Oman to India and China in a replica of a ninth-century Arab dhow, and undertaking two voyages in a replica Greek Bronze Age galley in the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. That he should thus turn his attention to matters maritime in his fiction should come as no surprise.  

In Corsair, Severin focuses upon a different period again: the seventeenth century, with his theme being Barbary piracy. As you would expect, this proves to be a thoroughly well researched book, a fact that shines through in its wealth of historical detail and convincing descriptions of life aboard ship. If the reader should be inquisitive to learn about the conditions in the bagnios (the slave pens of contemporary Algiers), different gradations and uses of gunpowder, or the routines aboard one of Louis XIV’s war galleys, then their curiosity should be satisfied. If, on the other hand, the reader hopes to find engaging characters with whom they can in some way identify, or feel any sympathy for, then I am afraid that they are likely to be grievously disappointed, for it is in his characterisation and passages of stilted dialogue that Severin is at his weakest. Moreover, it does not help that his protagonist – Hector Lynch – an Irish teenager with limited life experience who is taken into slavery from an insignificant Irish village, seems to effortlessly insinuate his way into the charmed circle of each influential personage with whom he comes into contact.  

There is a certain lack of emotional charge to the language employed by the characters which renders the dialogue flat. It also results in the characters themselves – with the exception of the tongueless, noseless, and earless Karp – being poorly differentiated. Hector Lynch speaks in a fashion not overly dissimilar to that of the Maybot, just ‘getting on with the job’ of moving the reader from one expository scene to the next, where you can learn how to row, blast rock with different grades of power, or slaughter and disembowel a camel before drying its flesh for consumption on your journey across the desert. What you will not learn about are the inner psychological workings of the individuals named on the page, for there does not appear to be a great deal going on inside their heads. Perhaps I am being a little harsh in saying this, but I get the feeling that this is so because it appears that the book is aimed at a young adult market, and thus does not require a great deal of psychological or emotional sophistication. That it is such a book is purely a guess on my part, but if it’s piratical derring-do on the high seas that the reader is looking for, I’d recommend Sabatini’s Captain Blood over this any day, for it is a work that possesses both wit and verve, both of which Corsair, sadly, lacks.  Although I’ve not read any of Severin’s other works, I suspect that his history books are far more engaging than his works of fiction, because I did find the historical detail in this novel fascinating at times, it was just the story that let it down.

Time Travel in 2017

It had been intended to spend the better part of this year in the 1670s and 1680s, before skipping a couple of centuries to find myself in the 1920s by November, but it didn’t quite work out that way. Whereas the year began amidst the magic, superstition and suspicion of the 1680s, in the company of Devon cunning man Robert Tooley (resulting in the publication of The Cleft Owl), and it did then proceed, as intended, to the Cornwall of the preceding decade, my imagination insisted that I turn my attention elsewhere. What led to this change of plan? The discovery of a sinister, bizarre, and unexplained crime that took place in 1530s Yorkshire, but if you should think that this prompted me to focus upon that decade, then you would be wrong, at least in the first instance, for it hurtled me forward to the 1940s, and then back to the Edwardian period. ‘But, where then is the resultant tale?’ I hear you protest. I have not finished it yet, but I will. Why not? Well, all was progressing well, until something happened. 

This autumn I took a break in an out of the way part of the Lake District, and there experienced something the like of which I have never experienced before, and for which neither I, nor my wife (who shared this experience), can find any satisfactory rational explanation. Thus did The Ghost of Scarside Beck force itself upon me, finding its way to publication before October was out. Although the spirit may have stood without the confines of time, the characters of this tale were firmly located in the 1990s. Time to return to Edwardian Yorkshire, I thought to myself, but no, my imagination had resolved otherwise, having decided that it wished to spend some time amidst the world of ghostly Victorian gothic, sending me hurtling back to 1843, and then forward to 1899. Where? In Wiltshire. Involving whom? A talented, and superstitious, Breton artist, and his subject – the alluring Lady Helena Brocklington. December was thus ushered in with At Fall of Night, which has already garnered enthusiastic reviews in the UK. 

As to where I find myself with my writing at this moment, another supernatural tale set in 1840s England is being penned (yes, that verb is appropriate, as its initial draft is being written in longhand), with the hope being that it will see the light of day before winter is out. What comes next? Well, according to my plans – and you have seen how they have panned out this year – 2018 will see me returning to 1906, before heading back to 1676, and then ending the year in early 1920s Devon. All being well, the coming year will see the publication of my first novel, which by then will have been more than three years in the writing, owing to the odd interruption, or ten.

Review of ‘The Witch’ by Robert Eggers

At last, some two years after it made its debut at the cinema, I have watched Robert Eggers’s The Witch, and was relieved to find that it did not disappoint. From the polarised reviews that it had received, it seemed probable that it would be to my taste, as those which were critical tended to focus upon its slow pace. Such a criticism, presumably, derives from the expectations of a particular type of cinemagoer reared upon formulaic fare consisting of gore and splatter aplenty, and precious little by way of atmosphere, plot, or characterisation. A similar divide appears to exist in the virtual world of Amazon, where books, physical or electronic, are funnelled into rather rigidly defined genres which quite often do not permit the degree of subtle differentiation that the author might prefer.  

Returning to The Witch, it is a handsome film endowed with an authentic period feel, much attention evidently having been lavished upon ensuring that costume, architecture and the accoutrements of everyday life were appropriate to its 1630 New England setting. This matched the careful scripting of the dialogue, which although a little muffled at times (admittedly, one of my ears does need syringing) was convincing. The cinematography was beguiling, with the use of chiaroscuro in certain shots, where the light of the fire in the darkness accentuated the features of the faces and bodies that surrounded it, bringing to mind the paintings of Joseph Wright of Derby. The concluding scene, with its fantastical witches’ sabbat, was particularly striking in this regard, and succeeded in creating a colourful depiction of witches borne aloft, which is more familiar to our imaginations from the monochrome world of sixteenth and seventeenth-century woodcuts. A number of scenes and images seemed to quote the prints of Albrecht Dürer, particularly the recurring presence of the hare, as well as the glimpses of wizened hags that populated some of its nightmarish moments. The forest was appropriately bleak and forbidding, with one scene, where Caleb encounters and falls prey to his own Eve, bringing to mind the dangers that lurk in the tales of Hansel and Gretel and Baba Yaga. His price for this encounter is to cough up a bloodied apple whilst gripped in a fit of religious frenzy. 

The acting too is commendable, with all members of the cast, including the youngest, providing worthy performances. They successfully manage to convey the liminality of a dissenting family cast out from a colony of dissenters who themselves in turn were outcasts from their own homeland; a group of individuals on the edge of a wilderness both physical, and spiritual. What we watch is filtered through the popular beliefs of the time: we witness evil as an all too real and tangible reality, that although external to, and independent of, the fallen sinners that comprise the body of humanity, acts in and through these bodies to bring about its own nefarious ends. Its horror, when compared to many films that are bracketed within that genre today, is comparatively understated, but it is none the less horrific for that: abduction, murder, hysteria, possession and unnatural death, claim all seven members of this family in one way or another. Comfortable viewing, it is not, but cinema would be in a far better state, creatively speaking, if more such films were to be produced. Its relatively modest budget of $4 million, and subsequent box office success, demonstrates that solid pieces of engaging cinematography can be produced without pandering to the lowest common denominator.

Book Review: ‘Music and Silence,’ by Rose Tremain.

Some books are beautifully written, some are skilfully and intriguingly plotted, whilst others still possess a pace that compels the reader to turn the page and devour the book leaving them wanting more; few manage to combine all three elements. Music and Silence is one of those novels that excels in one of these categories – for its prose is undeniably alluring – and yet fails in the other two. It is written prettily enough, but it lacks pace, and the plot meanders hither and thither, the perspectives constantly toing and froing from one character to another, none of whom I found to be particularly sympathetic. 

The lutenist, Peter Claire, his fingers frozen by a Danish winter, pining for a love denied; the Danish Queen Kirsten, despising of her doting husband, scheming and prone to sadomasochistic horseplay with the German Count Otto, or having herself pleasured by black slave boys; the benevolent King Christian IV, touching his elflock for comfort, forever disappointed by all that is ‘shoddy’, including his marriage to his contemptuous and contemptible second wife, his schemes for bringing wealth and happiness to his people seemingly doomed to failure: these are three of the primary protagonists around whom the ‘plot’ revolves. There are many others, but they fail to move me to mention them.  

Before coming to this book, I had read another of Tremain’s novels – Restoration – which I found to be highly engaging and well paced, so when a friend recommended Music and Silence to me as her ‘favourite book’, I had high hopes for it. At the same time, however, I also possessed certain nagging misgivings, for when someone commends a book so highly, the fear creeps in that I will find in it some significant flaw, and so, in this case, it proved to be. Perhaps my failure to find any great satisfaction in the book derives from the fact that it is aimed, predominantly, at a female readership, or then again, perhaps not. It was its lack of pace that made the reading of it so laborious and turgid, for it lay partially read on my bedside table for some five months or so before I compelled myself to complete it, wolfing down the prose with as much pleasure as if it had been unsalted raw cabbage. Thankfully, unlike the cabbage, it did not leave me with wind afterwards, but neither did it leave me with a desire to read anything else by Tremain, which was a pity.  

The 17th century is a fascinating period in which to set a novel, as it was a time of such intellectual, political and social ferment, but, alas, Music and Silence somehow manages to render it less interesting than it was. In contrast, An Instance of the Fingerpost written by Iain Pears, set in Restoration Oxford and employing four separate perspectives in the narration of the same set of events, is utterly compelling and convincing; it is beautifully written, skilfully and intriguingly plotted, and leaves the reader wanting more at its end.