Category Archives: Early Modern England

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 ‘The House of Doctor Dee’ by Peter Ackroyd

All fades into obscurity. 

It has been many years since I first read this novel, and upon rereading it recently what struck me the most was not the book’s supernatural element, but the coldness of the contemporary protagonist – Matthew Palmer – for whom I was unable to conjure up the least smidgen of sympathy. In fact, there is a chilliness that pervades the whole of the book that left me, for all of its merits, to a degree cold. ‘Behold the world without love,’ enjoins the shade of Dee’s late wife at a critical juncture of the story, and the same may be said to the reader of the tale as a whole, but this feeling of emotional sterility was doubtless intentional on Ackroyd’s part, for he is too good a writer for it not to have been. The protagonist, his mother, and father are each deeply estranged from each other, with their set of alienated relationships being echoed in the dysfunctional relationships between Dee, his wife, and his dying father, but beyond this it is the physical fabric of the house – or what remains of Dee’s dwelling – that unites them all. 

In terms of its structure, this tale, like a number of others penned by Ackroyd, involves the interweaving and interpenetration of two distinct periods, in this instance the Tudor London of Elizabethan magus Dr Dee, and the capital that you may have known some quarter of a century or so ago. Neither London, of course, is with us today, for it has in many respects been rendered as unrecognisable as its sixteenth-century incarnation. It is, however, in his conveying of the ambience of the latter that Ackroyd excels, along with his measured updating of Elizabethan speech for a modern readership; in this respect, he is a conjuror of spirits, and raises Dr Dee, or a version thereof, from his slumber of centuries. His ghost is made to speak. 

Alas, however, as a story it has its flaws. Whereas I rather enjoyed that part of it that was set during the sixteenth century, I did not care for the chapters set some four hundred years later, which it would have been better to have dispensed with. As for the book’s concluding chapter, it was a confused and muddled mess that seemed jumbled up with the author’s reflections on the writing of history and fiction. This second reading will therefore, I think, be my last.  

H.E. Bulstrode’s latest novel – Upon Barden Moor – an occult mystery centring upon a single summer’s day in Edwardian England, is now available on Kindle and in paperback.    

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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.

Book Review: ‘Heresy’ by S.J. Parris.

Parris’s novels – Tudor murder mysteries – have often been bracketed with those of C.J. Sansom, but although the work of both authors may be united by genre and setting, there the similarities – at least for me – end. I find Parris to be the more engaging writer by far, for her prose is brisker than Sansom’s, and her protagonist more sympathetic.    

Set during the reign of Elizabeth I, this novel introduces us to Parris’s fictionalised Giordano Bruno, a figure who deserves greater remembrance as an early freethinker who fell foul of the Inquisition, being burned at the stake in 1600. A champion of the Copernican system, he was also one of the first individuals to speculate as to the existence of other inhabited worlds orbiting distant stars, and was a proponent of the idea that the Universe was infinite and possessed no centre. Although born in Nola in the Kingdom of Naples in 1548, he resided in England from 1583 to 1585, and it is during this period that he lectured at Oxford, although he was unsuccessful at securing a teaching position there. It is this period of his stay at Oxford in 1583 that Parris chooses to set her mystery. 

The novel is a tale of academic rivalry, murder, paranoia, and religious fanaticism. A series of gruesome murders unfolds at the college playing host to Bruno, who happens to have been entrusted with a mission by Sir Francis Walsingham to seek out papist sympathisers and plotters amidst the world of Oxford fellows and dons. They are executed in a strangely theatrical fashion, taking inspiration, it would seem, from John Foxe’s ‘Actes and Monuments’, more popularly known as ‘Foxe’s Book of Martyrs’. Bruno, meanwhile, possesses a motivation of his own for his visit: to seek out a missing volume of the occult work of Hermes Trismegistus. 

Parris’s Oxford appears to be in perpetual half-light, its streets soaked with rain, its academics content with regurgitating intellectually obsolete orthodoxies approved by Elizabeth’s regime, whilst proving unreceptive to Bruno’s challenging new ideas. Fear of papist sympathies and Jesuitical plots stalk the imagination, and Bruno, being an Italian and former Dominican friar, does not escape suspicion.  

The book succeeds in producing a vivid feel for the period, whilst not seeking to mimic the speech of the time, although the occasional anachronistic turn of phrase creeps in. Such jarring moments, however, prove to be few. Although this book, for me, doesn’t reach the heady heights of Iain Pears’s ‘An Instance of the Finger Post’, I found it to be an enjoyable read, and will, most likely, read further instalments in this series.

Book Review: ‘Religion and the Decline of Magic,’ Keith Thomas, 1971.

Keith Thomas’s magisterial volume detailing the transformation in educated and popular beliefs relating to matters natural and supernatural in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England, is a work that anyone interested in this period should read. No other single book issued since this was published in 1971 can be said to have dealt with this theme more comprehensively, and although the fruit of extensive scholarly labours, copiously referenced and footnoted, it makes for an engaging read. Although my first reading of this was as an undergraduate many years ago, I have lately re-read it for the first time since, and enjoyed it even more than the first time around.  

One of the pleasures of this book is that it provides a window into the everyday beliefs and practices of ordinary people, rather than those on the upper rungs of the social order, although they are not completely neglected. Furthermore, the many anecdotes and incidents that it relates provide rich pickings for the author, and it is one of these bizarre incidents, reported by Thomas, that furnished me with the idea for my occult tale The Cleft Owl. 

Whereas beliefs relating to these matters during the period in question – a period of great social, political and intellectual upheaval – were far from uniform, towards its end in particular, the beliefs of the educated elite had diverged greatly from those still adhered to by the uneducated mass of the people. By 1700, Aristotelian scholasticism, Neoplatonism, Hermeticism and the attendant paraphernalia of beliefs in astrology, occult forces and mystical correspondences had largely been consigned to the intellectual fringes, where they have since remained, supplanted by the rationalistic natural philosophy. Advances in science, technology and – perhaps surprisingly, insurance – served as the solvents in the dissolution of the old beliefs, which still lingered on in the remoter rural communities into the nineteenth century. 

Magic, prophecy, witchcraft and astrology – the outmoded, discredited, untenable intellectual debris of a former era; so one would think, but during the past half century in particular, there has been a recrudescence of interest in each of these, and as for religion, it hardly needs me to draw the reader’s attention to the revival of its poisonous fanaticism across the globe.  

To end on a lighter note, reading this book has, seemingly, and very surprisingly, led me to find an effective remedy for hiccups. As befitting a superstitious folk practice, it sounds ridiculous, and what makes it seem even more so is the fact that it stipulates that the remedy only works for men. This latter assertion with respect to its efficacy I have yet to put to the test, as my other half hasn’t had hiccups since I discovered the remedy, but what I can say is what has happened on the three occasions that I have tried it: my hiccups stopped instantly. Was I surprised? I most certainly was. What is the cure? Well chaps, the next time that you are beset with hiccups, grasp your left thumb in your right hand, and wait. If any ladies amongst you would care to test this remedy, I should be most interested to hear of your results.

Book Review: ‘The Heart of Mendip’, F.A. Knight, 1915.

the-heart-of-mendip-f-a-knight-1915

I was delighted to rediscover this book at a second-hand bookstall in a Somerset market earlier this year, having not peered between its covers in well over thirty years, a copy of it having belonged to an elderly member of my family, now sadly no longer with us. 

This is a gem of a book, and in its tone and execution very much an artefact of the time in which it was written; the product of a late-Victorian scholar with wide-ranging intellectual interests, possessed of a deep attachment to his local patch of native soil, paralleled by an equally extensive knowledge of its people and their stories. Within these pages, the reader will encounter a mixture of history, antiquarianism, natural history, geography and the occasional ghost story. It is the sort of work that one is unlikely to encounter today, insofar as its compass is intensely local – covering only eleven Somerset parishes – yet the author sees it fit to devote 520 pages of text to the stories of these villages and hamlets (and, technically speaking, a town in the case of Axbridge). This allows the author both the opportunity to deal with a diverse subject matter, and yet afford an in-depth treatment for each of his chosen elements.  

F.A. Knight was born in 1852, and died in the year of the publication of this book – 1915 (readers will note from the cover picture that the version I refer to is a reprint published in 1971). It thus marked the culmination of a life’s interests and research into the local history of this area of Somerset, with the opening chapter being devoted to the parish of Winscombe, which is both where Knight was schooled – at Sidcote – and where he later served as a schoolmaster. Those unfamiliar with the area are likely to know the name of only one of the villages dealt with – Cheddar – which is covered in the penultimate chapter of the book, where a good overview of the development of the world-renowned cheese and its production is provided. Knight trawls through the local parish records to tease out the shadows of events and people long since lost to memory, including a local cunning man and wizard whose spirit reputedly returned in the form of a poltergeist (although the term is not employed), and those who met an unnatural fate thanks to participation in the Sedgemoor Rebellion of 1685, or owing to acts of murderous criminality. The gibbet features on more than one occasion. 

This book will be of particular interest to people with an affection for the villages and landscapes that form the focus of this study, although it will possess a wider general appeal for those interested in some of the minutiae of times gone by. We thus encounter, for example, accounts relating to how much churchwardens used to pay for the eradication of ‘pests’ as foxes, ‘grays’ (badgers), polecats, sparrows, moles, magpies and hedgehogs. Knight – unconsciously – tells us a great deal about how attitudes to the natural world have changed since his own day, given that his writing is filled with frequent references to rare birds of one kind or another having been ‘shot’ or stuffed, or having had their eggs taken, without reference to the wisdom, or otherwise, of killing representatives of rare species. He does at least acknowledge the barbarity of bull and badger baiting, and notes with approval that these ‘sports’ were last witnessed in Axbridge during the first quarter of the nineteenth century.  

We also catch a glimpse of more turbulent national events that reverberated down to the parish level, such as the Wars of the Roses, the Civil War, the scourge of ‘the Turk’ in the form of Algerine piracy and slavery (a peculiar lacuna in the national memory, doubtless today deemed too politically sensitive owing to the thin-skinned sensibilities of their co-religionists who have taken up residence amongst us), and the large numbers of roving Irish displaced by events in their home country during the seventeenth century. There is much in this volume, in the form of anecdotes and the detail of daily life glossed over by grander political histories, that will stimulate the imagination of the author. Some of the names recorded in the local parish registers – such as Blandina, Sexa and Choroty – are a little unorthodox, although a number of them prove to be indicative of imperfect spelling, rather than peculiar local naming conventions. Much charm is to be found in the phonetic rendering of the names as they were once spoken, in a dialect that even Knight acknowledged had been diluted since the coming of the railway to the district in 1869.  

Keen speleologists will also find something of worth here, as Knight himself was an eager participant in some of the early caving on Mendip, and he records a number of the archaeological finds made in the caverns, as well as stories of their discovery and on at least one occasion, of the unfortunate demise of one of the local explorers.  

A general reader, if he or she were to find this to their taste, might award this book four stars, but as I hold a special regard for this part of the country, I hereby declare my partiality and award it a five. I look forward to tracking down Knight’s ‘The Sea-Board of Mendip’, originally published in 1902.