The Bewitching – Guardian review – pacey witch trial tale

The Bewitching – Guardian review – pacey witch trial tale

This powerful novel foregrounds the violent misogyny behind 16th-century accusations of witchcraft in Huntingdonshire.

In recent years, female writers have found their imaginations energised by the figure of the witch. Standouts include AK Blakemore’s The Manningtree Witches, which won the 2021 Desmond Elliott prize, and Elle McNicoll’s children’s novel, A Kind of Spark. Evie Wyld’s The Bass Rock features an 18th-century teenager running from accusations of witchcraft, while Jenni Fagan’s Hex, published this year, draws on a 16th-century Scottish witch trial. Jill Dawson’s new novel, The Bewitching, joins a busy and interesting field.

The threads of the true story on which Dawson’s book is based trace a depressingly familiar pattern. The Warboys witch trials in Huntingdonshire took place after allegations were made in 1589 by Jane, the nine-year-old daughter of local squire Robert Throckmorton, who had been having fits and trances. She accused 76-year-old wise woman Alice Samuel of bewitching her, and was supported by her four sisters and servants, who began displaying similar symptoms. Jane’s urine was sent away to a specialist doctor who upped the stakes by raising the prospect of sorcery.

Matters then took a deadly turn: Robert was a friend of Sir Henry Cromwell, whose wife visited Alice and confronted her with the suspicions of her witchcraft. Alice subsequently haunted Lady Cromwell’s nightmares, and eventually Lady Cromwell fell ill and died. Although Alice, under pressure, confessed to bewitching the children, it was Lady Cromwell’s death that led to her being tried and hanged alongside her husband John and daughter Agnes.

What new dimension does Dawson bring to this terrible tale? She focuses less on magic than on the inherent violent misogyny, underscored by an invented backstory in which Alice endures gang-rape by the “high-born men” later behind her doom. The novel evokes the language of the time through occasional period words and phrases without risking obscurity. Its complex plot involves a host of robustly drawn characters, with Alice herself and Robert’s servant Martha mainly providing our perspectives on the events. The viciously sexist environment is foregrounded throughout.

The Bewitching is divided into five parts, like a Shakespearean tragedy, and there are Shakespearean echoes elsewhere. Alice certainly has a tragic weakness in her unbridled tongue, but she achieves genuinely heroic status by the end of the book. During her trial, she gradually realises that her fate has long been sealed, only incidentally because of her forthrightness. She thinks back to her rape – “the men who roughly handled her … who changed her life, who set this in motion” – gathers herself and then mockingly plays up to her accusers’ fears. She feels pride in her daughter Agnes’s defiance, too: these common women die strong, with their own nobility.

Hares are a recurring motif in The Bewitching, natural enough features of the countryside, with supernatural associations for women. Dawson invokes their symbolism but, in keeping with her main theme, we are reminded that even their boxing is a form of sexual harassment. The book’s last section is a mystical epilogue, drawing on the Middle English poem The Names of the Hare for a vision of female solidarity.

The Bewitching is not without flaws – the dialogue can occasionally be clunky – but it handles its material with panache, and has real slow-burning power and pace.