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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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Auriol, or the Elixir of Life: Ainsworth’s Rosicrucian and Faustian Novel

Originally published in 1844 in serial form as Revelations of London, William Harrison Ainsworth’s short novel Auriol, or the Elixir of Life is an interesting piece of Gothic literary history both for what it was influenced by and for the influence it had.

William Harrison Ainsworth, painted by Daniel Maclise

William Harrison Ainsworth, painted by Daniel Maclise

That influence was primarily upon George W.M. Reynolds’s novel The Necromancer (1852), which I previously discussed on this blog (The Necromancer), and the introduction to the Valancourt edition of that book by Dick Collins made me decide to read this one.

The theme of the elixir of life in Gothic literature goes back to early uses of Rosicrucian characters in Gothic novels. The Rosicrucians was a secret society supposedly founded by Christian Rosenkreutz. They claimed to know the secret of immortality and also the philosopher’s stone that would turn lead into gold. The first major novel that depicted the Rosicrucian theme was William Godwin’s St. Leon (1799) and similar themes appeared in numerous novels that followed, including Percy Shelley’s St. Irvyne (1811) and Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Zanoni (1842). (A chapter on the Rosicrucian influence on Gothic literature can be found in my book The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption.)

What makes Auriol stand out from its Rosicrucian predecessors is how it mixes its Rosicrucian theme with that of Faust. Of course, the Faust story had been around for centuries, treated in Elizabethan times by playwright Christopher Marlowe and more recently by Goethe. It was the Faustian pact with the devil in the novel that would go on to influence Reynolds’s The Necromancer.

The plot begins with a prologue set in the year 1599. Dr. Lamb is brewing a concoction that hopefully will be the elixir of life. As he is finishing it, in the street, Auriol Darcy is wounded in a scuffle after trying to remove heads on pikes from London bridge, which belonged to his father and grandfather. He escapes and is given refuge by Dr. Lamb, who reveals that he is Auriol’s great-grandfather. Dr. Lamb is ill and desperate to finish his potion, but not before he tells Auriol about it. When the potion is completed, Dr. Lamb is so weak he cannot lift it to his lips, and he begs Auriol to help him, but Auriol drinks the elixir for himself and lets Dr. Lamb die before rushing out in the street. What Auriol doesn’t know is that Dr. Lamb’s servant, a dwarf named Flapdragon, finds a few drops of the elixir left and drinks it so that like Auriol, he has become immortal. Flapdragon will figure in the plot going forward.

Interestingly, Dr. Lamb got the recipe for the potion from a rabbi (unfortunately, Jews are believed to be sorcerers in many Gothic novels), and he knows there is a heavy price to pay if he drinks the potion. It turns out that for the potion’s power to remain effective, Auriol must capture young women and surrender them to a mysterious man named Cyprian de Rougemont, who himself is in league with the devil (a plot very similar to Reynolds in The Necromancer in which the main character must find six women to marry him so he can give their souls to Satan in exchange for his long life.)

I will not get into the entire details of the plot, but the story jumps ahead to the first book, set in 1830, when Auriol is busy trying to find his latest victim for Rougemont, although he also falls in love with her and tries, unsuccessfully, to save her at the last moment.

A section called “Intermean” is between the novel’s two books. This section is set in 1800 and concerns Cyprian de Rougemont. Here we learn that he made his own pact with Satan when he visited the tomb of his ancestor of the same name who was a Rosicrucian. His ancestor left behind a great treasure, but he cannot enter the room where the treasure lies and obtain it unless he agrees to surrender his soul to the devil. Instead, he decides he will get Auriol’s soul for the devil.

The Tomb of the Rosicrucian - an illustration for Auriol, by Phiz

The Tomb of the Rosicrucian – an illustration for Auriol, by Phiz, who also illustrated Dickens’s novels

The novel continues into the second book where relatives of Auriol and Rougemont’s victims try to rescue the latest girl before it is too late. They find themselves basically in a haunted house although the strange things they encounter are not engineered by ghosts but enchantments or mechanics.

However, no real conclusion to the tale is reached. Instead, Auriol awakes to find he is back in Dr. Lamb’s room and has been dreaming. This ending is severely disappointing both for not resolving the plot and for destroying the possibility that anything supernatural in the book actually happened. That said, the novel ends with Auriol saying, “I am satisfied. I have lived centuries in a few nights.” This line makes me wonder whether the book was a bit influenced by Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which was published the previous year—Scrooge is to be visited by ghosts over the course of three nights, during which time he reviews his whole past. The plot is similar except that in a few nights, Auriol experiences a future life for himself.

Ainsworth wrote several Gothic and fantastic stories, but Auriol is said to be the only one where he used this dream motif. It is an intriguing story until it gives up on itself—I suspect Ainsworth got bored with it or did not know how to resolve the plot. Fortunately, Reynolds saw the possibilities in it and was able to adapt it to create one of the great Gothic novels of the Victorian period in The Necromancer. Often, Ainsworth has been considered a superior writer to Reynolds, who has been seen more as his disciple, but at least in the case of Auriol and The Necromancer, the disciple surpassed the master.

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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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The Necromancer: George W.M. Reynolds’ Final Supernatural Novel

Last year, I read and wrote a blog about George W.M. Reynolds’ fabulous Gothic novel, Wagner the Wehr-Wolf. I enjoyed the novel so much that I was not at all surprised that Reynolds was the bestselling author of his time, outselling even Dickens.

The Valancourt Books edition of The Necromancer.

The Valancourt Books edition of The Necromancer.

Consequently, this year for Halloween I decided to read The Necromancer (1851-2), the third and last supernatural novel Reynolds wrote. (The other being Faust (1847), which was actually a prequel to Wagner the Wehr-Wolf (1846-7). While I did not find The Necromancer quite as full of twists and turns and fascinating characters as Wagner, it was nevertheless a compelling story, and the recent edition by Valancourt books was also highly valuable for its lengthy introduction that provided biographical detail about Reynolds, who remains little known today, as well as an afterword by Dick Collins that traces the influences of other writers upon The Necromancer. Certainly, Reynolds should hold a place of esteem among Gothic writers if not a place in English literature.

The necromancer of the title is Lord Danvers, a man who has made a pact with Satan to obtain several incredible powers, including perpetual youth and the ability to change his appearance. In exchange, he must, over the course of 150 years, convince six women to elope and marry him, thus allowing Satan to take their souls. Danvers began his pact in 1390 and the novel opens in 1510 when he has acquired the soul of Clara Manners, his fifth victim. It then jumps ahead six years. We are not fully let into Danvers’ secret until toward the end of the novel, but it is clear from the beginning he has supernatural powers and is up to no good.

Each of Danvers’ victims has family members who have sworn to gain their revenge on him for what he did to the woman he abducted from their family. What these people do not know is that Danvers is one person and not several generations of men, due to his ability to change his age and appearance, and that he takes on numerous different first names.

The major plot concerns Musidora, a young woman with a secret she will not reveal that has made her more quiet and hard than in her youth. At this time, King Henry VIII is unhappy with his wife, Katherine of Aragon, and it is believed he will divorce her and find a new wife. Musidora’s relatives convince her father to have her visit them since they live near the palace of Greenwich. They are in disgrace with the king but believe that Musidora is so beautiful that King Henry will fall in love with her and then they will be restored to their former positions at court. Things go precisely as planned, and soon Musidora has agreed to marry Henry. A secret wedding is held in which he produces a document from the Pope testifying to the annulment of his previous marriage and his ability to marry again. A violent storm erupts as soon as the marriage is over, and before long, all is revealed, including that Danvers has been impersonating Henry.

As these events develop, the novel intersperses the tales of Danvers’ other five victims, as told by their relatives or descendants. I found these stories rather tedious since it’s clear Danvers will convince the maiden to elope with him each time, and they rather slowed down the action. But they do explain the reasons behind the revenge each family seeks.

In the end, Musidora escapes from Danvers’ clutches and marries her cousin and many more years go by. St. Louis, a relative of one of the other victims, and in the king’s favor, meanwhile, is visited by his ancestress in a dream and told to go to the Holy Land. There he meets the father of another victim who warns him that Danvers’ time to finish his contract with Satan is running out and he must stop him from capturing his last victim. The old man gives St. Louis a crucifix to aid him in his efforts.

St. Louis returns to England, and with Musidora’s help, goes to Danvers’ castle on the Isle of Wight where Danvers is about to abduct his last victim. Musidora prevents him by using the crucifix to open the castle doors so she can make her way to Danvers and Marian, the victim, who turns out to be Musidora and Danvers’ daughter (the long held secret of Musidora’s youth). Danvers is horrified that he has nearly destroyed his own child and repents. Musidora then prays for him as Satan comes to take him, but her prayers are fruitless. The other souls of the victimized women are released and sent to heaven, but Danvers goes to Hell with Satan.

I found the story rather long, but not without a great deal of excitement and wonderful Gothic trappings. The Afterword in the Valancourt edition by Dick Collins was full of interesting information about Reynolds and his literary predecessors, citing some works I could clearly see as sources for the novel, such as Eugene Sue’s The Wandering Jew (1846) and Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820). Sue’s use of a family line of descendants is apparent as an influence in the generations bent on revenge in the novel, and Melmoth the Wanderer’s efforts to seduce young maidens is clearly an influence as well. Other typical Gothic trappings include the incest plot, where a father nearly abducts his daughter—a plot that hearkens back at least as far as Ann Radcliffe’s The Romance of the Forest (1791), and the ghost that haunts the family—in this case, St. Louis’ ancestor appearing to him in a dream—a plot that goes back to at least Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1795) but also has origins in much earlier legends like that of the serpent-fairy Melusine, who cries whenever one of her descendants dies at the castle of Lusignan. However, Collins cites several other sources for the novel, most notably William Harrison Ainsworth’s Auriol, or The Elixir of Life, a work I will have to add to my reading list.

Perhaps most interesting of all to me was the role of the crucifix in the novel. I may be wrong, but I think this is the earliest use of a crucifix in Gothic fiction to fight evil, although rather than warding off evil, it contains powers to open doors. One has to wonder whether Bram Stoker read The Necromancer and was influenced to adapt the use of the crucifix in Dracula. Another possible influence on Dracula is how Danvers drives his coach allowing him to cover incredible distances in impossibly quick times—there is one particularly dramatic scene where he promises to take Clara Manners’ father to her at his castle and they arrive in just hours for a journey that should have taken much longer. It reminded me of Jonathan Harker’s coach ride to Dracula’s castle, although that journey does not defy the barriers of time, but still is full of mystical atmosphere.

Certainly, The Necromancer is a much overlooked Gothic novel that deserves a key place in the history of Gothic literature, both for its use of previous Gothic literature and its likely influence on Stoker and other Gothic successors. I would especially advocate that readers interested in the novel read the Valancourt edition because Dick Collins’ afterword alone is worth the price of the book for all its information about what has for the last century been a very obscure Gothic text from the early Victorian period but that was widely read and influential in its day.

Now that I have read two of Reynolds’ novels, I plan to go on and read his first supernatural one, Faust, as well as his most popular work, The Mysteries of London, so stay tuned for future blogs.

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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 historical fantasy series, The Children of Arthur. Visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com

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