Sunday, April 1, 2007

The Last Witchfinder

The Last Witchfinder: A Novel (P.S.)
Written by Jennett Stearne
Harper Perennial; Reprint edition
Reviewed by Jodie

It is rare to find a work of historical fiction where the author exhibits a competant grasp of the academic theories that under pin our understanding of historical events. In The Last Witchfinder, a novel about Jennett Stearne’s attempts to destroy the belief in witchcraft, James Morrow has produced a thoughtful airing of theories about contributing factors to the continuation of the trials.

Throughout the book Morrow refutes the idea that the trials were a ‘phenomenon’ which can be partially justified as an embodiment of mass hysteria. He also makes it clear that religion and logical constructs played a similar role to superstition in creating a belief in witches. Most importantly he highlights the need to encourage education in order to combat the cyclical arguments that can be produced by relying on one source of information. An example of this is if the Bible is perceived to contain the ultimate truth and the Bible says there are witches there must be witches. To dispute that there are witches is therefore to dispute the Bible, which is blasphemous and blasphemy is a trait of witches and so the burnings continue. This illustrates how impenetrable the arguments for witchcraft were. James Morrow manages to demonstrate such difficult arguments, capturing the frustration of living in such a time.

Unfortunately the main body of fiction suffers from an overabundance of colourful characters and extraordinary events. For the first two hundred or so pages the reader encounters characters such as Barnaby Cavendish, the curator of a travelling prodigy museum, Isobel Mowbray, an enlightened women and Robert Hooke, a dwarf-like scientist, envious of Newton. I applauded the determination of the book’s main character Jennet Stearne. I was persuaded to suspend my disbelief when she came to live with Native Americans. I may have winced a little when Jennet began an affair with Benjamin Franklin, as intimately mixing historical characters with fictional characters can be hard to achieve successfully. However I did not look away.

Then it all got a bit much. There comes a point where The Last Witchfinder dissolves into whimsy; beginning when Jennet and Ben are stranded on a desert island. In all fairness there are sound chronological reasons why Jennet must be constantly disempowered by fateful events such as this shipwrecked adventure, but it is one crazy happening too far. The whole episode becomes unbearably twee when a fortuitous coincidence occurs.

Still The Last Witchfinder does have something to offer once the reader proceeds from the despicable beach interlude, although I can not pretend that it is to be found among the rubble of Jennet’s plan to prove the non-existence of witchcraft. More satisfaction can be had from the violence visited on the two main witch hunters Dunstan Stearne, Jennet’s brother and his insane wife Agibal, whos demise will be relished by any fans of The Crucible. There are also still plenty of passages narrated by Issac Newton’s Principae Mathematicka in the later stages of the book. Using a book as an active character engaged in its own battle with the Malleus Maleficarum works well as the Principae is witty, personable and aware. Morrow never endangers the pace by making the book a static entity or by spending too long with a philosophising, first person narrator and so that the reader does not tire of the conceit.

Unfortunately by the end of the book I was tired of Jennett and when preparing to write this review it took me twenty minutes to remember what happened to her. Although Jennett and Ben bargained their way off the blasted island they left my interest there, buried in sand.

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