William Harrison Ainsworth’s The Lancashire Witches, published as a serial and then in book form in 1849, has the distinction of being one of the most popular Gothic novels ever written and one of the few that has never been out of print—indeed, the only one of Ainsworth’s many novels that can make that claim. Why has it been so popular? I think because its subject matter is so very shocking.
The novel is based on the real events of witch trials that were held in 1612 in Lancashire, England and specifically around Pendle Forest. Numerous books have been written about the witch trials, and I do not intend to go into the historical details of them here, but their popularity since the mid-nineteenth century has largely been due to the success of Ainsworth’s novel.
As an American, I had never heard of the Lancashire witch trials until recently, but I have long been familiar with the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 that took place in Massachusetts. In this day and age, we look back at our ancestors’ belief in witches with shock and amazement, wondering how they ever could have believed in such a thing. Their minds seem to us warped, brainwashed by religious fervor and a belief that life was constantly a battle between good and evil for possession of their souls. Cotton Mather, who witnessed the Salem witch trials, wrote a history of them, Wonders of the Invisible World, by which he tried to justify what happened at the trials, but which today reads like false evidence to condemn women who were likely outcasts or simply old and frightening to the young girls who accused them.
Consequently, I expected The Lancashire Witches to take a skeptical and rational tone, explaining away any sense of the supernatural about the trials and to come out on the side that the witch trials were unjust and an example of superstition taken to extremes.
A lengthy prologue hints at the supernatural, and yet everything that happens in it could be explained away by natural events. The prologue takes place in 1536, when the monasteries are being dissolved by King Henry VIII. Abbot Paslew is fighting to save his abbey from destruction. Demdike, a man who is believed to be a warlock or some sort of supernatural agent, offers to save the abbot and help his cause if he’ll do him a favor. Demdike wants Paslew to baptize his child, but Paslew refuses because Demdike’s wife is a witch. Later, Paslew learns that Demdike is a former monk whom he was once jealous of and, therefore, harmed him. Demdike has now returned for revenge. In the end, Paslew is executed, but not before he curses Demdike’s daughter, saying she will live a long life beyond ordinary women, but a life of woe and ill.
When the first book of the novel opens in 1612, we learn that Mother Demdike, believed to be the most powerful witch in the neighborhood, is the cursed daughter of Demdike. Although she is only seventy-six, that age would be quite old in the seventeenth century, so she seems to have fulfilled Paslew’s prophecy in the eyes of the locals, although to the modern reader, the prophecy might still be seen as stuff and nonsense. Another woman, Mother Chattox, is said to be her rival as a witch, and Chattox’s granddaughter, Nance Redferne, is also believed to be a witch. As the local people become more adamant against witches, Nance is actually thrown into the river to prove she is a witch, with the old belief that if she drowns, she’s innocent, but if she floats, she’s a witch—her life destroyed either way. Nance floats, but she manages to make her escape before she can be destroyed. However, the reader thinks nothing of Nance floating. She still appears to be innocent, at least by modern standards.
In short, the novel seems to this point to be suggesting that witchcraft is not real. In another early scene, Thomas Potts, a lawyer and witch hunter, is talking about witches and Alice Nutter, a widow, seems to think it foolishness. The interest in witchcraft at this time was largely due to King James I, who had published his book Daemonologie (1597) about necromancy, and he was adamant in his desire to stamp out witches, believing them a serious threat to the social order and to all good Christians. Alice Nutter, however, remarks that people are now out finding witches just to gain the king’s favor. As a result, Alice seems like the voice of reason in the novel…or does she protest too much?
Later in the first book, it becomes clear that Ainsworth’s novel is truly set in a supernatural world. Mother Demdike has a daughter, Elizabeth, who in turn has three children: a son, Jem; Alizon, a beautiful young woman; and Jennet, who is a disabled and deformed little girl. No one can believe that beautiful Alizon is really Elizabeth’s daughter, and later it is revealed that she is actually the child of Alice Nutter. The mix-up of children is a long story, but it’s a common Gothic element to have children whose parentages are a mystery. In any case, one would think that Alizon was freed from being associated with witches as a result of finding out her true parentage, but then it is revealed that her mother, Alice Nutter, is herself a witch.
In the most stunning scene in the novel, Alizon has become ill and is lying unconscious. Her friend Dorothy is with her, and they are at the home of Alice Nutter. When Alice does not think anyone is watching, Dorothy spies on her; she sees Alice open a chest and take from it a vial that she drinks; then Alice seems to disappear before Dorothy’s eyes. Unable to restrain her curiosity, Dorothy also tastes the liquid and feels strange energy coursing through her. She then gives a few drops to Alizon to revive her. Soon the liquid causes the two young women to float off the ground and they find themselves outdoors and then floating through the air until they arrive at a gathering of witches. There among the witches is Alice Nutter, and she is fighting with Mother Demdike over whom Alizon truly belongs to.
I will not spoil the scene for readers by describing it further, but it is the most shocking and surprising moment in the novel because when the women begin floating, the reader begins to wonder whether the drink has caused them to hallucinate or the novel truly is depicting a world where the supernatural is real. As the novel continues, it becomes clear that the supernatural events and the witchcraft are all true.
Numerous more scenes follow as Potts and other community leaders try to stop the witches. However, all this focus on witchcraft in the novel is really to highlight the Gothic theme of redemption and salvation. Early on, Alizon tries to love her spiteful little sister Jennet, and even when she learns Alice Nutter is her mother, Alizon wishes to stay with the Demdikes to try to save Jennet’s soul. Unfortunately, Jennet is not worth saving. Ainsworth uses her disability to make her into a grotesque, something far from politically correct today, but it is effective for the sake of the novel. In the end, Jennet betrays her family to save herself.
More importantly, Alice Nutter begins to repent for her own pact with the devil. Several times in the novel, she is confronted by a spirit who does her bidding, but when she tries to end her pact with Satan, the spirit tells her she cannot and it is too late. She has a contract with Satan and must sacrifice someone so she may retain her powers and live longer. Demdike and Chattox have similar contracts. Consequently, they wish to sacrifice Alizon, and Nutter will not allow it. The witches are constantly vying against one another and at one point Chattox tries to help Alice Nutter to get revenge on Mother Demdike.
As the witch hunters become more powerful and determined, they manage to capture and destroy Mother Chattox and Mother Demdike, but Alice Nutter, though captured, escapes and goes into hiding. While a fugitive from the law, she devotes herself to praying and repenting to save her soul, while constantly visited by the spirit who tries to make her change her mind, warning her it is too late for her ever to save herself. Alice even ends up with a red brand on her brow, a sign that she belongs to the devil—a sign linked to the Mark of Cain that many Gothic Wanderer figures, including the Wandering Jew, typically have; later Mina Harker will have such a brand in Dracula (1897).
At this point, the likelihood of Alice’s salvation could go either way. In earlier Gothic novels from the 1790s up until the 1840s, the Gothic wanderer figure who has committed a transgression usually ends up condemned and unredeemable, but in the 1840s, what may be termed the second golden age of the Gothic took place with the introduction of penny dreadfuls and novels by Rymer, Reynolds, and Ainsworth. In such works, Gothic transgressors began to work out a way to salvation, one such notable work of the time that allows redemption being Varney the Vampyre (1847). Ainsworth was likely beginning to pen his novel as Varney the Vampyre was being serialised and the Gothic, in general, was undergoing a revolution in terms of being more sympathetic to transgressors. Another Gothic wanderer figure is the Rosicrucian, who is also typically condemned in earlier novels, but in Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Zanoni (1842), the title Rosicrucian character is actually more of a superhero than a transgressor for seeking forbidden knowledge. Consequently, Alice Nutter has a better chance at redemption than she would have in a Gothic novel of a half-century earlier.
In the final dramatic scene, Alizon prays with her mother as the demon tries to take Alice. At that point, a mysterious man, dressed as a Cistercian monk, intervenes and scares off the fiend. He then tells Alice her soul has now been saved, but she will still need to face earthly punishment, which Alice understands and accepts. When the monk is asked who he is, he replies that he is one who sinned deeply but is now pardoned—in his attempt to help others redeem themselves, he has himself been redeemed.
Alice now places herself in the hands of the law, but before it can condemn her to death, a curse that the Demdikes placed on Alizon and her lover Richard is fulfilled. Both die before Alice, but as a result, before her death, Alice has a dream of Richard and Alizon in a garden, and she knows she will soon join them there.
Ainsworth has created a truly extraordinary novel. The Lancashire Witches is also one of the most historical Gothic novels ever written. He researched it extensively and visited all the sites depicted in the novel. That he chose to make the witches real and focus on the supernatural is shocking and yet understandable given the time and the trend for Gothic fiction. The Victorians probably were not prepared for more scientific explanations of witches or how hysteria and misunderstanding people could overcome a community. They had no modern psychology to try to rationalize such things, although they were advanced beyond their ancestors, who actually condemned the witches. More importantly, Ainsworth wanted to write a story that would sell. I admire how he used historical details and even had King James make an appearance at the end of the novel to set all things right in terms of condemning the witches. (That said, the last part of the novel in which King James is featured drags and feels anticlimactic, filled with hunting scenes that could have easily been trimmed down.)
The Lancashire Witches is a truly powerful and surprising Gothic novel, and Alice Nutter is probably the most memorable female character who seeks redemption in any Gothic novel I have read. It is honestly surprising to me that while the novel has never been out of print, it has not become a household word, taking its place perhaps just a rung below Dracula and Frankenstein among the truly great Gothic novels.
Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, and the Children of Arthur series. You can visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com