I don’t know what I was expecting from Mist Over Pendle, but it certainly wasn’t a story that was quite so…safe and happy. Whilst on one level this is a tale of witches running amok in a 17th century community, it is primarily a coming-of-age story for the heroine, Margery Whitaker, from whose perspective it is recounted. We first see Margery as the persecuted youngest child of a family of puritans. Pretty, wilful and flirtatious, Margery seems unable to tow the family line of disciplined self-sacrifice, and when the time comes for her to make her way in the world, she is dispatched to a distant cousin in Lancashire.
She falls on her feet, for Roger Nowell turns out to be the Squire of the Pendle area, a Justice of the peace, a rich and powerful man. But just as importantly, he is similar to Margery in looks and character, and he takes to her at once. The bonds of love and loyalty are quick to grow between them, and will never be troubled in this narrative. Instead, Margery comes into her own, using her quick wits to help Roger in the local strife between different religious factions. On the one side are the puritans, whose ways Margery knows already, on the other, the forbidden papists, and somewhere uncertainly in between, the marginalized lawless who cause trouble and call it witchcraft.
When Margery arrives in the region, several suspicious deaths have already occurred, and more will follow. Two families of witches are rumoured to be the cause with their hexing, but Roger will not convict without proof, nor will he submit to the brutal puritan ways of extracting such proof by torture or dunking. At Roger’s side throughout the investigation, Margery must use her skills of wit and diplomacy, discerning friend from foe, and finding ways to draw the net tighter around the evil in their midst. Nothing really dreadful happens, the main characters are at no point placed at risk; instead the underlying tone of the narrative is expansive, as Margery finds her place in the community, falls in love, develops her talents. Seriously, you could read this one alone on a dark and windy night during a power cut and still sleep easy. It’s good, enjoyable genre reading.
I was intrigued to note that the witchcraft in this novel tends on the whole to shun the paranormal. A useful knowledge of poisonous herbs is more to blame than the summoning of psychic energy, although there are suggestions that making clay dolls and hexing in the form of ‘sitting on a spirit’ are effective ways of doing harm. Furthermore, for the most part, the witches belong to the poorest element of society, pitiful, deformed figures forced into begging and prostitution. I expect there’s historical truth to that, but it does bypass what seems to me the most compelling part of witchcraft, the high ritual magic conducted secretly as an alternative and powerful form of knowledge.
Witchcraft developed in the spaces left behind by rational explanation; it was a way of explaining why unexpected things happened, and a way of transcending normal experience through rituals that were transgressive or shocking, elevating the practitioner to a different level of spiritual awareness. Ordinary religion does much the same thing, only power here is assigned to the divine being. In witchcraft that power to make things happen is possessed by the witch, who has learned the secret ways that mind and matter are linked. Usurping the power of the gods has pretty much always been seen as a reckless and dangerous endeavour. But it also taps into the sort of animistic thinking (or magical thinking) that dominates a child’s mentality and into which we can backslide at any challenging time of life. Children often feel that it is their own power (often negative, as rage or hatred) that causes disaster, whilst as adults we tend to believe that we can influence events through ‘luck’. Far fewer people would gamble on the lottery, for instance, if they were guessing numbers that had already been chosen, rather than predicting numbers yet to be selected. But animistic thinking is more complicated than that and can involve all sorts of half-beliefs or simultaneous beliefs; the knowledge that someone has died does not prevent us from expecting their appearance through the door at any moment.
There’s another dimension to witchcraft that’s intriguing and that is the way it affects language. The casting of the spell brings an extra dimension of power to the speech act, often using arcane or unusual words to arouse awe and terror. Altogether then, witchcraft seeks to challenge accepted conventions and realities, forging new, invisible connections between events, tapping into an extra power in language, bestowing superior abilities of extrasensory perception on those who practised it. Easy to see in centuries past why it was the friend of the conventionally powerless – women and the poor. I suppose I had expected Mist Over Pendle to buy into this sort of magic chicanery, but it held to a far more pragmatic line. That’s okay! I enjoyed it just as it was, and it would probably make a pleasant change for readers well versed in paranormal fiction.
[Not enough magic in this blog to get it to the shortlist stage at BBAW, alas. But many congratulations to all those who go through.]