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Hysterical outbursts: Bewitched, by Jill Dawson, reviewed

9 July 2022

9:00 AM

9 July 2022

9:00 AM

The Bewitched Jill Dawson

Sceptre, pp.320, 20

‘Witch-hunt’ has become a handy metaphor for online persecutions, especially of women, though these days it is reputations that go up in flames rather than bodies. The mob mentality behind the phenomenon may not have changed as much as the medium or the mindset. In retelling a celebrated case from Elizabethan England, Jill Dawson enters thoroughly into her characters’ religious world view, while giving a meaningful glance at the issues of today. The fate of the Warboys witches – three members of one family – was recounted in prurient pamphlets of the time, but Dawson colours in the crude woodcut of history with passionate emotions and plausible motivations.

As she sets the scene, we learn that the bells which had recently rung out in the Huntingdon village of Warboys to celebrate the defeat of the Spanish Armada have reverted to regulating daily life in the tight-knit community. Sharp-tongued Alice Samuel is more respected than liked, married to a prominent man and mother of the beautiful Nessie. The five Throckmorton girls, who have now moved into the manor house with their parents, prove the family’s downfall. Alice, at 50, is a crone in their eyes, and soon, whether by malice or contagion, the girls are having fits, sneezing convulsively and throwing around wild accusations gleaned from reading lurid accounts of witchcraft.

The sounds and stinks of the era are pungently evoked, with the action viewed mostly by the Throckmortons’ partially deaf maid, Martha. Entrusted with family secrets, she is also usefully invisible when necessary: ‘I stand up and simply soften myself into the wall, like ivy or a moth, to watch the scene unfolding.’ Martha was a foundling, brought up by a nun, and is still apt to pray to the Virgin Mary or find a forbidden Catholic blessing on her lips. Religious flux swirls behind the action, while the Throckmorton name brings risky memories of the plot to free Mary, Queen of Scots. When accusations hover, there is safety in a pile-on.

Dawson brings out the characters’ genuine terror of the supernatural; even level-headed Martha starts to believe in a witch’s power. Stories of abuse by prominent men like Jeffrey Epstein emerged while Dawson was writing, and fed into the text. What if the girls’ hysteria signals a buried trauma bursting to get out and tragically misses its mark? And what more easy way to stifle an obstreperous woman’s accusations than to accuse her first? Dawson’s vivid retelling doesn’t leave us with any comforting notion that human nature has advanced much.

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