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The Lancashire Witches and the Most Penitent Female Gothic Wanderer

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.

Mother Chattox and Nance Redferne.

Mother Chattox and Nance Redferne.

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.

 

Thomas Potts, the witch hunter in The Lancashire Witches. In this scene the female inn owner is giving him a difficult time.

Thomas Potts, the witch hunter in The Lancashire Witches. In this scene the female inn owner is giving him a difficult time.

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.

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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

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Lives of the Necromancers: William Godwin’s Misunderstood Treatise Against Magic and the Supernatural

I really didn’t know what to expect from William Godwin’s The Lives of the Necromancers (1834). This was the last book of the great eighteenth century political writer and author. Considering that Godwin was the father of Mary Shelley, husband of Mary Wollstonecraft, and that his ideas greatly influenced his son-in-law, Percy Shelley, I expected a work far more intellectual and scholarly in tone. Considering that Godwin wrote two extremely fine Gothic novels, Caleb Williams (1794) and St. Leon (1799), the latter full of Rosicrucian elements, I expected something more thorough and colorful in tone.

William Godwin (1756-1836), father to Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein.

William Godwin (1756-1836), father to Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein.

Instead, I feel like this book is a second rate work lacking in any real scholarly value although ironically, perhaps its reception proves the very point Godwin was trying to make. I’ll explain that irony in a moment. First, let me explain that this book is basically a compilation of everyone in history Godwin could find information on that ever claimed in any way to work any form of magic. Even the title is misleading since Godwin uses “necromancer” in the same sense as magician or sorcerer, rather than its more specific meaning of someone who can raise people from the dead. Godwin compiles a great deal of information from history into this one volume, some of it somewhat obscure, but most of it I believe would be knowledge most readers could have easily found elsewhere, and even in his day, I think that would have been the case.

The book begins with very brief descriptions of different forms of magic including magical beings like fairies and sylphs, magical organizations like the Rosicrucians, and general magic terms like the philosopher’s stone and astrology. Godwin then takes us through history from looking at evidence of magic and sorcery in the Bible to the Greek myths, the Roman legends, and tales of the East, including the Arabian Nights. Next, we move to medieval Europe and then the Renaissance. Finally, he discusses magic in the seventeenth century, including King James I of England’s passage of laws against witchcraft and how they were later repealed, and tales of witches in Sweden, England, and finally, the famous Salem Witch Trials of New England. He does not continue into the eighteenth century, but in passing, simply remarks that he has seen plenty of superstitious people in his own day—and that hasn’t changed even in 2015.

Some of the people Godwin treats are brushed over rather quickly, like Nostradamus, who only warrants a little over a page, but Nostradamus’s fame in Godwin’s day was not what it is today. Other people, like Dr. John Dee, have extensive sections. Dee was at the court of Elizabeth I, claimed to have had the philosopher’s stone, and with a business partner, got himself into and then thrown out of several courts in Europe because of his claims of supernatural knowledge and power.

Other famous people treated include Merlin and Pythagoras. Godwin’s treatment of Merlin initially interested me because of my interest in Arthurian legends, but there was nothing said here that hasn’t been said in hundreds of other books. Pythagoras was far more interesting because he is known for his contributions to math, but I had no idea of his claims to supernatural powers, including that he had incarnated in many previous lives—a claim I found fascinating since nowhere else did Godwin discuss reincarnation, and the major villainess of my Children of Arthur series—Gwenhwyvach—also incarnates repeatedly over centuries.

Ultimately, Lives of the Necromancers has little value beyond the biographies save for the fact that how it has been revered ever since is ironic in view of Godwin’s intentions. Godwin wrote it to show how easily man allows his imagination to get the best of him, and yet many readers have held it up as a book of value for studying the occult and going down its path. Godwin begins in his preface by saying that this will be his last published book, and I am not surprised, for he must have felt his faculties failing him. He was seventy-eight at the time of its publication in 1834 and would die two years later. He also states that something of value can be learned from exploring how easily mankind can become incredulous. Anyone who reads the preface will understand that Godwin thinks all forms of witchcraft, sorcery, and even religious belief are false. He was a noted atheist as well as a proponent of reason in the Age of Reason. Godwin states that in nature we observe things we cannot understand and consequently have to invent gods and other supernatural beings to explain them. Following are the key paragraphs of the preface that make this point clear:

“[W]ith a daring spirit inquire into the invisible causes of what we see, and people all nature with Gods ‘of every shape and size’ and angels, with principalities and powers, with beneficent beings who ‘take charge concerning us lest at any time we dash our foot against a stone,’ and with devils who are perpetually on the watch to perplex us and do us injury. And, having familiarised our minds with the conceptions of these beings, we immediately aspire to hold communion with them. We represent to ourselves God, as ‘walking in the garden with us in the cool of the day,’ and teach ourselves ‘not to forget to entertain strangers, lest by so doing we should repel angels unawares.’

“But, what is most deplorable, we are not contented to endeavour to secure the aid of God and good angels, but we also aspire to enter into alliance with devils, and beings destined for their rebellion to suffer eternally the pains of hell. As they are supposed to be of a character perverted and depraved, we of course apply to them principally for purposes of wantonness, or of malice and revenge. And, in the instances which have occurred only a few centuries back, the most common idea has been of a compact entered into by an unprincipled and impious human being with the sworn enemy of God and man, in the result of which the devil engages to serve the capricious will and perform the behests of his blasphemous votary for a certain number of years, while the deluded wretch in return engages to renounce his God and Saviour, and surrender himself body and soul to the pains of hell from the end of that term to all eternity. No sooner do we imagine human beings invested with these wonderful powers, and conceive them as called into action for the most malignant purposes, than we become the passive and terrified slaves of the creatures of our own imaginations, and fear to be assailed at every moment by beings to whose power we can set no limit, and whose modes of hostility no human sagacity can anticipate and provide against. But, what is still more extraordinary, the human creatures that pretend to these powers have often been found as completely the dupes of this supernatural machinery, as the most timid wretch that stands in terror at its expected operation; and no phenomenon has been more common than the confession of these allies of hell, that they have verily and indeed held commerce and formed plots and conspiracies with Satan….

…The human mind is of so ductile a character that, like what is affirmed of charity by the apostle, it ‘believeth all things, and endureth all things.’ We are not at liberty to trifle with the sacredness of truth. While we persuade others, we begin to deceive ourselves. Human life is a drama of that sort, that, while we act our part, and endeavour to do justice to the sentiments which are put down for us, we begin to believe we are the thing we would represent.

“To shew however the modes in which the delusion acts upon the person through whom it operates, is not properly the scope of this book. Here and there I have suggested hints to this purpose, which the curious reader may follow to their furthest extent, and discover how with perfect good faith the artist may bring himself to swallow the grossest impossibilities. But the work I have written is not a treatise of natural magic. It rather proposes to display the immense wealth of the faculty of imagination, and to shew the extravagances of which the man may be guilty who surrenders himself to its guidance.”

An illustration from Godwin's 1799 Rosicrucian novel, St. Leon. In the novel, the main character achieves the philosopher's stone that turns lead into gold, and consequently, destroys his family. Godwin's novel shows the fallacy of the supernatural and the consequences of achieving forbidden knowledge.

An illustration from Godwin’s 1799 Rosicrucian novel, St. Leon. In the novel, the main character achieves the philosopher’s stone that turns lead into gold, and consequently, destroys his family. Godwin’s novel shows the fallacy of the supernatural and the consequences of achieving forbidden knowledge.

From Godwin’s perspective, everything supernatural, including Christianity, is of the imagination and show’s man’s credulity. Sadly, superstition continues today and Godwin’s book has been used for the very opposite purpose for which it was written. If you read the reviews of this book on Amazon, you will find that today, nearly two centuries after Godwin published this book, that credulity still exists. Below are some quotes from readers at Amazon who clearly did not read Godwin’s preface but have decided this book is a guide to them in learning about the occult and following their own dark paths. I have copied these three reviews word for word, including leaving the typos. The first is a believer in reincarnation:

“This book is very powerful for the person on the path as it will show them the various persons on the path, and the way they have chosen to get there. There are many paths to the same plane—but you must choose for yourself, and reading this made it much easier for me…..you will also find a list of those you feel that you want to reach on the astral plane—find someone who is like you or that you feel you could relate to—or perhaps someone you WERE in a past life?”

Godwin would have laughed at the idea of communicating on the astral plane with anyone mentioned in his book. Indeed, he would have said there was no astral plane. The next reviewer thinks Godwin’s book is his occult textbook:

“This book is a must for any serious student of the occult. In Lives of (the) Necromancers you will learn not only the different practicing Necromancers but also the historical ones. By understanding the different persons and WHAT kind of necromancy they practiced you will soon understand the route that YOU want to follow and from there research your own path with your own chosen guru. This is why this book is so useful, and why it was one of the most photocopied books until it was back in print. Not too long ago, it was impossible to get this published.”

I honestly don’t know what the history of the book’s publication and readership over the last 180 years has been, other than that Edgar Allan Poe reviewed it, without either condemning or applauding it. Apparently, it was long out of print (I read it as a Kindle ebook) and passed around and copied among its occult cult readers. The final review says it is for seekers of the black arts:

“Its like someone created not only a “Who’s Who” of Necromancers, but also lost about them, and many of their ideas and methods. Some that I thought were fictional turned out to be real, (truly that was worth the price of the book!). If you are interested in the black arts, if you are a seeker, if you are looking for the path, then seek from those who were on the path before you.”

I sincerely hope this person did not think Godwin was on the path first.

I am not one to enter into arguments online but I did post a short reviewing clarifying what the book’s true purpose is.

Perhaps William Godwin, aware of the disturbed imagination of mankind, would not be surprised that rather than read his words, people have chosen to imagine what his book says and interpret it for themselves.

In any case, it is interesting that this great thinker and one of the biggest influences on the Gothic novel and the Romantic movement, should turn to the occult as the subject of his last book. It is a pity it is not a better work, and that misguided individuals seek to find in it the exact opposite of what Godwin set out to do. Godwin’s own use of Gothic elements was always to expose irrational behaviors, but instead, his readership’s interpretation of him may have become his own Gothic nightmare.

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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 novel series. Visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com

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