Category Archives: History

Spotlight Part 4: The Pendle Witch Girl

In today’s spotlight is my fourth book, and the last instalment in the Witches of Pendle trilogy, The Pendle Witch Girl. This book is also my only novella to date, and was published in 2018.

The Pendle Witch Girl cover

In the spotlight post I did for A Woman Named Sellers, I mentioned that originally I wanted that book to cover Jennet Device/Sellers’ whole life, but found early on that to do so would have made the book far too cumbersome. So, after publishing that book I decided that I would write one final story, covering Jennet’s childhood and her pivotal (and tragic) role in the 1612 trials. Of all my Witches of Pendle books, this one draws closest to events leading up to and during the trials in Lancaster in 1612. Whereas The Gisburn Witch operates on the periphery of the Lancashire aspect of the story, The Pendle Witch Girl concerns the character who was at the centre of it.

Release day promotional poster

It was quite a challenge to tackle such an infamous story, particularly in trying to understand some of the accusations of witchcraft which arose and their context, and to represent those convincingly in fiction. I also had to bear in mind that the key primary source for the trial, The Wonderful Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster written by court clerk Thomas Potts, contains its own biases, as it approaches events from the authorities’ point of view. Therefore, a good deal of reading between the lines was required.

When writing, I worked hard to avoid falling into the trap of ‘explaining away’ the superstitions and alleged magical events, or of putting too much of a modern slant upon them. Instead, I tried to get into the minds of my characters, to see the world through their eyes and to do justice to their stories. It’s important to remember, I think, that the accused and their accusers believed in witchcraft just as fervently as the authorities, and therefore saw events and the actions of neighbours, friends and even family through this lens. I also had to remember that I was writing from the point of view of a child, whose view of the world was not only steeped in superstition but also her immaturity and her own family dynamic. That dynamic, I felt, was key to understanding why she did what she did, and why events unfolded so dreadfully in the summer of 1612.

More information about The Pendle Witch Girl can be found here.

Spotlight Part 2: A Woman Named Sellers

Last week I started a series of ‘spotlight’ posts, focusing on each of my novels in the order I wrote them, and talking a little about their subjects and themes, what inspired me to write them, and so on. In today’s spotlight it’s my second novel, and the second book in the Witches of Pendle trilogy, A Woman Named Sellers.

Published in 2016, A Woman Named Sellers picks up the Pendle witches’ story twenty years after the first trials. It follows the story of former trial child witness Jennet Device, now living as Jennet Sellers. Following the death of her father, Jennet moves to a new village to live with relatives she hardly knows. She tries hard to carve out a new life for herself, and finds solace in new friendships, particularly with her fellow newcomer William Braithwaite, a stonemason from Cumberland. However, Jennet’s past continues to haunt her, and with witch hunters once again prowling the Pendle countryside, she’s not sure if she can ever be safe.

After writing The Gisburn Witch, I really wanted to focus on the story of the other, arguably more famous Jennet in the Pendle witch tale. Originally I planned to cover her whole life story but realised that her childhood and adult tales were too lengthy and complex to put into one novel. So, I decided to focus instead on her adulthood and possible involvement in the 1634 trials. Due to some of the gaps and contradictions in the evidence, we can’t know for certain that the Jennet Device named in the 1634 trial records was the same as the Jennet Device of 1612, although, on balance, it seems likely. I was really captured by the notion that her tragic life probably did come full circle – from witness to accused.

When I was writing this book, I was also really interested in reflecting some of the changes going on in wider society in the 1630s. These were the years leading up to the civil wars, and society was changing – we can see that in the shifting attitudes to witch-hunting, but also in the religious landscape, with many new Christian groups emerging. One of the major characters in the book, William Braithwaite, is a Grindletonian, a sect which sprang up in the northern village of Grindleton during these years. Groups like the Grindletonians were really very radical, placing emphasis on the individual’s relationship with God, rejecting the need to be ordained to preach, and believing that accepting God’s spirit was all that was required to attain salvation. William is one of the few fictional characters in the story, and to this day he remains one of my favourites. Some readers have also commented on how much they liked him, and a few have even asked if I’d consider writing a spin-off about him!

The 1634 trials are less well known that those in 1612, which is a shame as they are fascinating in their own right. Indeed, the echoes of 1612 are all there – child witnesses, tensions between neighbours, outlandish accusations, and the persistence of witch-hunting zeal in the north of the country. The results, however, were somewhat different from 1612. You can read more about the 1634 trials and Jennet’s possible involvement here.

More information about A Woman Named Sellers, including where to buy, is available here.

Spotlight: The Gisburn Witch

As the year tumbles towards its conclusion, I’ve found myself in a reflective mood. Let’s be honest, there’s a lot to reflect on this year, and not a whole lot of it has been good! However, in recent weeks I have been staying positive (mostly) and busy, working on the first draft of my next novel, and really enjoying the experience of delving into a different world which writing it affords. After all, 2020 could not be a better excuse for a little escapism, could it?

I’ve also found myself looking back on the books I’ve written and the things I’ve achieved so far. It is good to take stock once in a while, to look at your work and to think ‘wow, I did that’. I began writing my first novel in 2014, published it in 2015 and I haven’t really stopped since. As it is almost the end of another year, I thought it would be fun to shine a spotlight on my books in the order I wrote them, and say a little bit about them – what they’re about, what inspired me to write them, and so on.

So, in today’s spotlight is my debut novel, The Gisburn Witch.

Published in 2015, The Gisburn Witch is a historical fiction novel which tells the story of Jennet Preston, one of the so-called Pendle witches, who found herself caught up in the trials in Lancashire in 1612. I’d always had an interest in the Pendle witch trials, and wrote my university dissertation on the subject. Jennet had particularly drawn my interest as she was geographically separate from the other accused, living in Gisburn in the Yorkshire/Lancashire borderlands. She was tried separately, too, in York rather than Lancaster. I really wanted to dig deep into Jennet’s story, to understand how she ended up being accused of witchcraft. The Gisburn Witch is my imagining of that story.

In 2016, I wrote an article for Edinburgh University’s Dangerous Women Project, all about Jennet and the other ‘witches’ and some of the aspects of their lives and stories which made them vulnerable to witchcraft accusations. You can find it here.

You can find out more about The Gisburn Witch and where you can get a copy here.

Next time in the spotlight will be my second novel, and the second book in the Witches of Pendle series, A Woman Named Sellers.

In Remembrance

As a novelist, I love stories. I love reading them, creating them, writing them, and discovering them. As a historical novelist, I am drawn to the tales of the past, to imagining (and re-imagining) past peoples, places, and events. Perhaps most of all, I enjoy blending research and creativity to bring the past to life through storytelling. I love digging around in the records, discovering those delightful snippets of information bequeathed to us by time and wondering, what then? Why? How? I suppose that same curiosity is what drew me to another interest of mine: genealogy. Over a number of years, I have been researching my own family tree and unearthing the stories of my ancestors. Today, on Remembrance Sunday, I thought I would share with you one of those stories.

The photo above was taken by Darge Photographic Company at Seymour Army Camp in Victoria, Australia, around 21st November 1915. The young man pictured is my ancestor, Thomas Brocklebank, who in July 1915 enlisted with the Australian Imperial Force to fight in the First World War. Five days after this photograph was taken, Private Brocklebank embarked with the 24th Battalion from Melbourne, aboard the HMAT Commonwealth. The records indicate that he first travelled to the AIF Training Camps in North Africa, including Zeitoun Camp, near Cairo. From there he travelled onwards to France and the western front. On 3rd July 1916 he went missing in action. He was never found and following a Court of Enquiry in 1917, was declared to have been killed in action. He was nineteen years old. As he has no known grave, he is commemorated on the Australian National War Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux near Amiens, northern France.

As is so often the case with history, the answer to one question provokes many others. While researching Thomas’s tragic story, I found myself repeatedly wondering how a young man from my family ended up enlisting with the Australian Imperial Force. As far as I knew, I had no connection to Australia, nor did the Brocklebank branch of my family tree, a branch firmly rooted in Cumbria, northern England. It was quite the mystery – a mystery I felt compelled to solve. So I dug further into the records, tracing Thomas’s life through both the military records and census data, taking the clues it offered and building it into the story of his life.

This, I believe, is his story.

Thomas Brocklebank was born in the village of Baycliff, near Dalton-in-Furness in 1897, the youngest son of Thomas Brocklebank snr and his wife, Mary. Mary Brocklebank appears to have died during Thomas’s early infancy, and sometime afterwards his father seems to have left for South Africa, where he fought in the Boer War and subsequently remained for the rest of his life, working as a miner. By 1901, Thomas was living in the Dalton area with his aunt and uncle, Margaret and William Raven, and their family.

Thomas then disappears from the British census records, and I believe therefore that sometime before 1911 he emigrated to Australia with another of his aunts, a lady called Clara Smith and her husband, Richard. They lived in Swan Hill, Victoria, where Thomas worked as a farm labourer until his enlistment in 1915. Thomas’s military record contains some deeply sad correspondence between his aunt Clara and the authorities concerning his whereabouts during the time he was missing, asking for information about what had happened to him. His story is sadly an all too common one, with so many of his generation losing their lives on the battlefields of Europe. Seeing those records, and knowing the profound sense of loss which sits between the lines of Clara’s letters, was very moving.

Unlike many British war records which fell victim to the Blitz, the Australian records remain intact and have been digitised. Whilst census data, by its very nature, can only provide a snapshot of a person at a moment in time, the Australian war records present a timeline of a young man’s army life from enlistment, through training, in combat and ultimately, to his death. The records make for heart-wrenching reading, demonstrating the impact of the war on one young man and his family. They also give some very specific details. I know, for example, that Thomas was five feet two inches tall, with brown hair and green eyes. But a lot of other information has, of course, been lost to time – most importantly, Thomas’s voice. He left no record of himself, no words of his own to stand as testament to what he saw, thought and felt during those short but tumultuous years. And that, for a curious historian and a descendant, is one of the saddest details of all.

Today is Remembrance Sunday, when we commemorate the sacrifice made by millions of men like Thomas. They were the lost generation of the early twentieth century. Lest we forget.

The Immersion Method

Recently I was reading an interview with Hilary Mantel in BBC History Magazine. Mantel, who is currently one of the most famous and celebrated historical fiction writers, was talking about her approach to her research, and referred to the need to ‘absorb’ the period you’re writing about. I found myself nodding along with this, as it’s so true: when you want to write a story set in the past, it is important to not only understand it, but to visualize it as clearly as you see your own world around you. It’s not enough to know its facts on an academic level, although of course, these are important for accuracy. You have to be able to see it, smell it, taste it, hear it. To do that, I think that you have to breathe it in. You have to let it get right under your skin.

From pexels.com.

Depending on the specific period or context you’re writing about, this can be hard to do. When I wrote about the Pendle witches, I was always conscious that the sort of evidence which aids vivid recreations of settings and characters was scant. I had the awe-inspiring presence of Pendle Hill and Lancaster Castle to work with, but key places like Westby Hall and Malkin Tower are long gone. Furthermore, the women accused left no written record of their own – the sole primary sources available were the court records, steeped as they are in bureaucratic officialdom (and no small amount of propaganda). Interestingly, though, it was this sense of the victims’ lack of voice which made me all the more keen to re-imagine their stories, and to tell them from their point of view.

Illustration from William Harrison Ainsworth’s ‘The Lancashire Witches’. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

This summer, I’m researching for my sixth novel, set in late Georgian Edinburgh. Just as I did when preparing to write about the Pendle witches, I am reading widely and exploring the period. In short, I am immersing myself in it. And wow, what a lot there is to be immersed in! Late eighteenth/early nineteenth century Edinburgh, standing at the crossroads where Enlightenment and Romanticism meet, is a richly recorded and well-preserved place. The source materials, the books to read and the places to visit, are quite simply vast.

The ongoing pandemic means that getting out and about to visit key parts of the city hasn’t been possible yet, although I’m fortunate to know Edinburgh pretty well and have visited many of its museums and historic sites in the past. Until I can refresh my memory, however, there is plenty to be looking at in terms of online resources and books. I have made some truly fabulous discoveries, from the late eighteenth century town plans available through the National Library of Scotland, to the autobiography of a lady called Elizabeth Fletcher, a writer who lived in Edinburgh’s New Town at the turn of the nineteenth century.

Edinburgh. Image from pexels.com.

And to keep my mind firmly on the period, I’m busy re-reading some of my favourite Jane Austen novels and listening to Beethoven!

Some of the information I’m gathering will come in useful directly for the novel. A lot of it, though, is important simply because it enriches my understanding of the period, its people, what their lives were like, and how they felt about the world they inhabited. If I’m going to successfully evoke the setting and create some authentic characters, then this knowledge will be really, really important.

Crazy Times and Costume Dramas

‘Mummy,’ my daughter said to me this morning, ‘can you tell me about Henry VIII’s wives?’ She was just up, and had had her nose buried in one of Lucy Worsley’s historical novels for younger readers (which are brilliant, by the way).

‘Sure,’ I replied. ‘Any wife in particular?’

She thought about it for a moment. ‘No,’ she said. ‘Really just all of them.’

Left to right: Henry’s first three wives, Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, and Jane Seymour. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

This thirst for historical knowledge has been a lockdown development, and one which makes me so happy. I can’t describe my joy at having another history enthusiast under our roof! Before I go any further, a wee disclaimer: this blog post is a positive one, but that is not to say that this whole experience has been great for us as a family. I want to stress that it hasn’t; sure, we’ve had nice moments, but all of us in our own way are sore at the loss of many aspects of our lives. I want to say that because it’s true and I think it’s important to be truthful during this. It is too easy to gloss over our lives on the internet, to show only the shiny bits. But I know that doing so can make others feel worse about their own experiences which might not be so shiny, and I wouldn’t want to do that. So, if you’re reading this and not feeling great right now, know that you’re not on your own. I think this is a crazy, worrying, up-and-down time for many.

Hopefully today’s blog post will be a cheerful read. Over these past few weeks, since our evenings have no longer been crammed with activities, my daughter and I have been on a historical or ‘costume’ drama adventure together. Historical dramas have always been an enthusiasm of mine, and I was more than happy to revisit them with her. If you’ve never watched any, I highly recommend that you do, especially at the moment. They are wonderful pieces of escapism and there is virtually always a happy ending. In fact, the other day a friend drew my attention to an article in The Guardian which showed I wasn’t alone in rekindling my enthusiasm. Right now many of us, it seems, are seeking solace in romances set in centuries past.

Close-up photo of Jane Austen books, by Leah Kelley. Source: Pexels.com.

Together my daughter and I have worked our way through the Jane Austen catalogue: Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, Pride & Prejudice, and Emma, with Sense & Sensibility and Persuasion still patiently awaiting us. We’ve also ventured a little further into the nineteenth century with Elizabeth Gaskell’s North & South, and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Of them all, so far Pride & Prejudice has been a firm favourite – I suspect, in part, because of the minimal amounts of kissing. Ten year olds hate kissing, apparently. She also felt that Jane Eyre had the happiest ending simply because of the all the hardships she had overcome. A refreshing take on things, indeed!

These dramas have prompted some great discussions along the way. North & South, for example, led to a conversation about conditions in the mills and the tensions between the workers and their employers. After watching Jane Eyre, we talked about the bildungsroman genre and the Byronic hero. And after so much Jane Austen, my girl is becoming an expert on Regency society and behaviours!

An 1833 engraving of a scene from Chapter 59 of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

It hasn’t been an easy time, but these evenings spent indulging in historical dramas have given us something to smile about. And, I think, they’ve taught my daughter a great deal. If, in years to come, she becomes either a historian or literature scholar, I think in a strange way we will have the lockdown period to thank for it. Crazy times, indeed.

Book Review: Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell

“The rich know nothing of the trials of the poor; I say, if they don’t know, they ought to know. We’re their slaves as long as we can work; we pile up their fortunes with the sweat of our brows, and yet we are to live as separate as if we were in two worlds”

Mary Barton, the heroine of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel, is beautiful but has been born poor. Her father fights for the rights of his fellow workers, but Mary wants to make a better life for them both. She rashly decides to reject her lover Jem, a struggling engineer, in the hope of marrying the rich mill-owner’s son Henry Carson and securing a safe future. But when Henry is shot down in the street and Jem becomes the main suspect, Mary finds herself hopelessly torn between them. She also discovers an unpleasant truth – one that could bring tragedy upon everyone, and threatens to destroy her.

Elizabeth Gaskell’s debut novel is my first classic novel of the year, having set myself a goal of reading more classic literature, particularly focusing on nineteenth century novelists. I must say that prior to reading this I was already a fan of Gaskell’s work, having greatly enjoyed reading North and South, and watching the TV adaptations of both this and Cranford.

Mary Barton is set in early Victorian Manchester, a grimy, industrial place, where life is hard and poverty is rife. Those familiar with North and South will recognise the early emergence of similar themes: the plight of the poor, the apparent indifference of the wealthy, and the class tensions bred in large part by the socio-economic precarity faced by all. As in her subsequent novel, Mrs Gaskell addresses these overarching themes with sympathy and understanding, giving them context through her setting and relevance to her characters, thus demonstrating both their complexity and dire consequences.

The novel is written with a third-person omniscient narrative voice, a highly fashionable choice of narrative in Mrs Gaskell’s era. As a result, the narrator knows all of the characters’ thoughts, feelings and motivations, as well as their pasts, presents and futures. For modern readers, used to the more limited omniscience and the subtleties of ‘showing’ rather than ‘telling’ which are common traits in modern literature, this can take a bit of getting used to. However, the narrative style doesn’t detract from the dramatic elements of the story, as the novel is well structured to ensure that the reader doesn’t learn everything all at once.

The title character, Mary, is a well-drawn and sympathetic heroine, who develops through the novel from a naive girl who makes some youthful mistakes into a brave young woman who, despite facing impossible choices, determines to chart the correct course. Like most of Gaskell’s characters Mary isn’t perfect, which serves to make her more endearing. The supporting cast around her is also wonderful, and I particularly warmed to Mary’s friend, Margaret, and her grandfather, Job Legh. At times I found Mary’s two love interests, Henry and Jem, a little two-dimensional; Henry’s sudden death means that his feelings towards Mary are never fully explored, whilst Jem is absent for great swathes of the novel, only really coming into his own towards the end. I would have liked to have known them both better, but overall this didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the novel.

Finally, the dialogue is rich and authentic, filled with wonderful dialect words and expressions from the period. As a Lancastrian it was a joy to read; I could hear those Mancunian accents clearly in my head. For those less familiar with northern English dialects, the public domain edition I purchased included a glossary of terms embedded in the text, which at times proved useful.

A compelling read which clearly evokes nineteenth century northern life. Five stars.

An Accidental Week

Happy Saturday! For me at least, it’s been something of a long week, but by no means an uneventful one. It’s also been a bit unlucky. Over the last seven days I’ve managed to hit myself in the face with an I pad resulting in a bit of a colourful right cheekbone (thank goodness for make up), and I’ve got yet another cold which has caused laryngitis. Yesterday evening I lost my voice completely; thankfully my voice seems to be coming back now but squeaking at my family is far from ideal!

Fortunately, my bad luck hasn’t affected my writing, which has been progressing well. This week I hit 65,000 words in my first draft of The House at Kirtlebeck End. I shared this teaser extract on social media:

I hope this has you intrigued! I’m really excited about this book and the more I write, the more I can’t wait to share it with you. I aim to have the first draft finished in the next couple of months.

I also took some time to catch up on how my other books are doing, and noticed that The Gisburn Witch has a new review on Amazon UK. It was lovely to see that a reader has given it five stars and left some really positive comments about the book. It’s no exaggeration to say that good reviews really do make my day.

The Pendle Witch Trials have been getting quite a lot of attention again, generated by big new releases in the literary world such as Stacey Halls’ The Familiars, and television shows such as Channel 5 (UK)’s Digging Up Britain’s Past. I have finally found some time to catch up with this series and watch the episode about the Pendle witches. The episode focused on an archaeological dig to try to locate the remains of the lost Malkin Tower, home of the Device family. I won’t spoil it by telling you if they were successful or not, but it is good to see that after hundreds of years this tragic tale is still attracting interest and attention. If you want to find out more about the TV show, check out the review on the Radio Times website.

I hope you all have a lovely weekend – I’m off to try and get The House at Kirtlebeck End up to 70,000 words before Sunday night! It’s all about setting goals…!

 

Noughts and Crosses

This year marks the centenary of women’s suffrage in the UK. Throughout 2018 there have been events, marches, exhibitions, plays and books to mark this significant anniversary when some, but not all women, finally got the vote. As the year draws to a close, no doubt many of us will pause to reflect on the celebrations, but also the discussions about equality, opportunity, and the ongoing challenges faced by  today’s women, which this anniversary has provoked.

As a historian and a writer, I have always been drawn to consider the position of women throughout the centuries, to examine their lot in life as mothers, daughters, lovers, witches and warriors. As the centenary dawned almost twelve months ago, I found myself drawn once again to the suffragettes. I decided to write a short story which reflects upon their struggle and their legacy, upon the power of the pen and the significance of the simple but hard-won act of making your mark at the ballot box. The piece, entitled Noughts and Crosses, is written as diary extracts from two women living in Edinburgh but almost a hundred years apart; an early twentieth century suffragist, and an early twenty-first century student faced with voting for the first time. I chose this format because as well as commenting on the political, I wanted to convey the empowerment which comes from personal writing and reflection. Noughts and Crosses is a celebration of women’s achievements, but it also reflects that in a time plagued increasingly by cynicism, turmoil and fatigue as established political systems creak and groan against the strain of twenty-first century challenges, the act of voting in itself nonetheless endures as a form of protest.

Noughts and Crosses was my entry for this year’s Costa short story award. A few days ago I found out that it had, unfortunately, been unsuccessful in making the shortlist. (The shortlisted entries can be found here. Please do consider reading them and voting for your favourite in the public poll – you’ll potentially make a writer somewhere very happy!) I felt it was a shame, given the story’s topical nature, for it to gather dust in a drawer forever more, so to speak, so instead, I have decided to publish it here. I really hope that you all enjoy it and I would ask, if you do, please share it on social media and maybe tag a friend who you think would like it too.

Noughts and Crosses

Diary of Mrs. Emma Milton, Edinburgh, 16th February 1909:

Yesterday evening was so exhilarating that I can barely keep the smile from creeping on to my lips. I know I must suppress it; H is at home today, locked in the drawing room with his papers and his cigars but nonetheless capable of spotting my unexplained glee from a mile away. He thinks we were at the theatre, Bess and I. No doubt he imagines that I enjoyed an evening of frivolity, a casual spectator at a performance of the latest production to travel north from London. If indeed, he imagines anything at all.

You see, last night confirmed something to me, something that I have long suspected, and now I feel certain is true. Men like H don’t see us, not really. They admire us, they choose us, they marry us. But they don’t see us – not like they see each other. We are the fair sex, the delicate sex. But we are not the serious sex. We are not the sex that is capable of making important decisions, even about matters which affect us first and foremost.

Last night I heard these arguments rebutted, one by one. I admit that I was captivated by the strength with which the case for our suffrage was made. The room was filled to the brim with such inspiring women, all arguing with the force of sheer logic why women such as I should be allowed the vote. Many of the speakers grew very animated, advocating strong action to achieve our aims – chaining ourselves to railings, breaking windows and so forth. I must admit that the mere thought of such disobedience makes my blood run cold. Can you imagine what H would say? 

Nonetheless, I’m already planning my ruse to attend next month’s meeting. I’ll tell H that we’re going to the theatre again. He will think me an enthusiast; he will laugh and tap me under the chin affectionately, just like he always does when he is amused. I don’t like having to lie; sometimes I envy Bess her freedom to do as she pleases, although of course I would not wish to be a widow. But I must lie; better that I am regarded as a supporter of the arts than a supporter of votes for women. Better I keep my face composed and my thoughts to myself. At least I can write it down and this diary, this paper and this ink can testify to what I dare not utter aloud: I believe that a woman should be allowed the vote in all elections, if she is of equivocal status to a man who is already allowed the vote according to the law of this land. I don’t think that is particularly radical. And yet, I know in my heart that H would disagree.

 

Diary of Clara Donoghue, Edinburgh, 24th April 2010:

Don’t even know how I’ve got the energy to write anything in here right now. So exhausted. Last night was braw though. Sinead and Mhairi had it all planned out by the time I got to Mhairi’s – into town, drinks then a club then more drinks! All good fun and no boys to complicate things, either. Managed not to run into Callum which was a bonus. Been doing my head in since we split.

Turning 18 is the best! Although today I’m feeling it. Head is pounding. Back to bed for me soon, I think, before I go out for a family dinner. Bit quieter than last night but it’ll be good – Mum says Gran is coming too, which is nice. Gran always has a good story or two about when she was my age. Mum says I should make the most of her, that she’s getting on a bit now and her memory isn’t what it was. Glad I’m only 18, not 80. Better keep those sorts of comments to myself though, or Mum will be once again reminding me that I’m an adult now. Seriously, I’ve been 18 for less than 48 hours and I’ve already lost count of how many times she has said that to me. The best one was yesterday afternoon, when she decided to dump a load of election leaflets in my room. Came through the door, apparently. You can vote now, she tells me, as if I didn’t already know. Next election is in May – well, okay, I’ll admit that I didn’t know that. Why would I? Not like any of it means anything to me. I dunno. Maybe I’ll have a read later. After I’ve slept some more. So tired.

 

Diary of Mrs. Emma Milton, Edinburgh,10th October 1909:

The day of the march started well, but ended terribly badly. I am so shaken that I can hardly manage to hold my pen to write this. Nor can I stop the tears tumbling down my cheeks, spilling on to the page and making the ink run, forming messy black pools as deep as my despair. I keep telling myself that I shouldn’t be surprised; I must have known that this day would come. Indeed, it is a miracle that I managed to keep this secret for so long. Yesterday, however, I took one step too far from the shadows, exposing my involvement for all to see. And H has his spies everywhere, of course, just as any successful man with a care for his reputation should. How foolish of me to think that I would not be seen! How dreadfully foolish.

The day which greeted us was still, sunny and bright; unusual for this time of year but wholly welcome. Bess and I joined the march at Princes Street, slipping through the crowds which had gathered and taking our places behind an enormous, beautifully embroidered banner declaring ‘Votes for Women’. As I walked I felt such pride at being part of something so important, to be making my stand for the right of women to vote on the same basis as men. I still believe that this cannot be too much to ask, that it cannot be so scandalous a notion! And yet it must, for when I returned home later a voice greeted me, one so grave that I thought for a moment that there must have been a death in the family. That evening there was a death, of sorts; the death of my spirit as it was crushed by the authority bestowed upon my husband’s sex. I was reminded at once of what it means to have no rights, no rights at all.

Today I am confined to my room like a reprimanded child. Bess is prohibited from visiting, H having satisfied himself that I have been led astray by a wicked widow whose lack of a husband has caused her descent into wild fanaticism. So I sit here, pressing my pen down hard as I write these words, my tears evaporating into anger at being robbed of those things that I hold dear: my cause, and my friend. The worst of it all is that I am punished so harshly for doing so little. I was a coward who went to a few meetings and walked in a procession. I broke no laws, smashed no property, set no fires. Now I sit and I wish that I had done, that I had given my all. Instead, yesterday was my final, feeble act; I dare not do anything else for our good cause ever again.

 

Diary of Clara Donoghue, Edinburgh, 1st May 2010:

Not managed to scribble down a single thought this week. College work is just immense; two assessments and an essay to complete and no end in sight. At least it’s Saturday.

Mum is doing my head in about this voting thing! Keeps asking if I’ve read the leaflets yet, have I got any questions, do I want to chat about it…total nightmare! She even got Gran joining in at my birthday dinner last week. I think when she was younger my gran must have been a feminist – she came out with all this stuff about the fight for equality and women’s rights. Reckon that’s where Mum gets a lot of her ideas from, too. Honestly, I had both of them on my case. Women fought and died for your right to vote, Gran says to me, like I didn’t know, like I never went to school and learnt these things. So I told her, nicely of course because she’s my gran, that surely if they died for my right to vote, they died for my right not to vote, as well? Surely it’s the choice that matters? That shut them both up. Honestly, absolute nightmare.

Anyway, I did have a look at those leaflets. Can’t say that any of them were very inspiring. Even if I did want to vote, I’ve no idea who I would vote for. Still think my first instinct was correct – waste of time, so don’t bother.

 

Diary of Mrs. Emma Milton, Edinburgh, 12th August 1914

It has been some time since I have written down my thoughts. In truth I have become very good at avoiding the practice of thinking as much as possible, letting life glide past me while I watch, a passive observer at the back of the crowd. It seemed easier that way; easier for H, easier for me.

Last week, however, everything changed. Britain is going to war, and it looks like H is going, too. He has to do his bit, so he tells me. He says that with so many men going away, it is likely that women will also have to help, that I must be prepared for some of the servants choosing to leave and taking whatever wartime work presents itself. Life will change, he keeps telling me, but it will only be for a little while. Everyone expects that the war will be over by Christmas.

I hope it is over quickly. I can’t bear the thought of being left alone in this house, especially with a baby on the way. I haven’t told H yet. I don’t know why; perhaps it’s because I know he’ll be so happy with me, and I can’t bear his delight when I feel so unhappy with myself. I will tell him before he leaves.

The news of war has affected the cause, too. There will be no more marches, no more action; it has all ground to a halt. Part of me is relieved, I think. The reports over the last few months have been so upsetting, with more and more women finding themselves arrested and charged with increasingly dangerous acts. This summer one woman even tried to interrupt the King and Queen’s visit to Perth by running towards the royal car! They say that once in prison those women who refuse to eat are force-fed, and that Perth prison is one of the worst places for this practice. The very thought makes my stomach churn. At least this war has put an end to that, but on the other hand, where does this leave the cause? I hope it is not forgotten forever.  

 

Diary of Clara Donoghue, Edinburgh, 6th May 2010:

Well, I went and I did it. Still can’t believe it. Until yesterday I was sure I wasn’t going to bother to vote. Must have read those leaflets hundreds of times – even went on the internet to try to decide who to vote for, and came away even more confused. Why can’t politics just be straightforward? Seems like riddles to me. Riddles and promises which aren’t kept.

Something about what my gran said kept bothering me, though. Kept hearing her voice going round and round in my head, talking about the suffragettes and everything. That made me think that not going at all seemed like a bit of a waste. So, I voted – well, sort of. I made my mark at least. Several marks, actually. I still didn’t know who to vote for, so I went to the polling station and I put a zero in each of the boxes – a series of noughts all in a column down the page. Then I put my paper in the ballot box and left. I know it doesn’t count as a vote, but I’ve been and I’ve had my say anyway. That’s what women fought for, after all – the right to a voice, not to say any particular thing with it.

Mum’s just glad I went and voted. I haven’t told her the full story, of course. Keep thinking about the power of the pen now. Started off thinking that my noughts were just symbols of my cluelessness but now they feel like a protest – my protest against how rubbish I think it all is, carved out in ink. Weird thought. Still not telling Mum though.

 

Diary of Mrs. Emma Milton, Edinburgh, 14th December 1918

Tonight my heart is so full of joy that I think it might burst. Even the sorrows and horrors of the last four years cannot dampen my happiness. All that hard work and strife, all that bravery and determination; it was all worth it.

I voted today. Such wonderful words! I voted. I went with Bess; we’re both on our own now, reunited since she returned from her Land Army work. She has changed a great deal; she is so worldly-wise, and so strong! But she is still such a dear friend. Little Edith came too, wrapped up warm as she skipped along to the polling place. I showed her what to do, how to put a cross against your chosen candidate and how to put your paper in the ballot box. She didn’t really understand, despite my efforts to explain how important it was. But she will understand one day. She will understand what I, what all of us did for our daughters, how significant that little mark made in ink actually is.

On my way home I thought about H, just as I do every day. It’s hard, knowing that he will never come home, that he will never see Edith grow up. I know that he was never in favour of votes for women, but I like to think that he was watching as I voted, that he was proud of me. I thought too about all the women who weren’t able to vote today. There is still more to do in that regard, especially since all men now have the vote. All men – I wonder what H would say about that! It’s strange how this war threw everything up into the air and we are still grappling around, trying to gather the pieces. H was right; life did change, and I feel certain that it will keep changing. Perhaps by the time Edith votes, all women will be voting alongside her! I can’t think of anything more wonderful.  

The Other Pendle Witch Trial

August 18th 2018 marked the 406th anniversary of the Pendle witch trials at Lancaster Castle in 1612. It is an anniversary which always causes me to pause, and one which I never forget. Growing up in Lancashire, I was captivated from a young age by tales of the Pendle witches. For a child there is, after all, something irresistibly and gruesomely fascinating about the likes of Old Demdike and Chattox doing their worst with magical misdeeds before meeting their own horrible fate. As I got older my interest developed into something altogether more academic, with a dissertation on the subject for my undergraduate degree at Lancaster University and, of course, several works of historical fiction since then! Over the years, the Pendle witches have been a big part of my intellectual and creative life.

Although perhaps not as widely known internationally as other later trials, notably those which occurred in Salem in 1692/3, there is no doubt in my mind that across the breadth of English history the 1612 trials have grown in stature and notoriety over the years. I don’t think it is an overstatement to say that 1612 has become the stuff of legend, or that it contributes enormously to the cultural and artistic life of the north of England, and of course to tourism and the economy. This activity and interest in the trials reached fever pitch in 2012 for the fourth centenary, with commemorative activities, events, sculptures and new works of literature and scholarship on the subject, and such activities have continued ever since; for example, this year there was a family weekend of events at Lancaster Castle.

What is less well-known, however, is that a second round of witch trials occurred in Pendle in 1634. In late 1633, a boy named Edmund Robinson gained local fame and notoriety as a witch-finder. It seems that upon returning home later than expected one day in early November, he told his father a tale;  a story of his abduction by witches, of women turning into animals and of a great, unholy Sabbath. The story quickly spread around the local area and the boy became something of a celebrity. Edmund’s father, perhaps sensing there was fame and fortune to be found in such a reputation, began charging people to see his son’s ‘performances’ and taking him on a tour of the local churches.

It was only a matter of time, of course, before a story of this magnitude reached the local Justices of the Peace and in February 1634, young Edmund finally told the story to the authorities. As part of his deposition, Edmund gave a considerable list of local people who he claimed had been involved in his fantastical tale.

One of the names which appeared on Edmund’s list was that of Jennet Device.

We don’t know for certain, of course, if this Jennet Device was the same Jennet who had been the star witness of the 1612 trials; however, to imagine that it might have been is truly the stuff of stories. My second Witches of Pendle novel, A Woman Named Sellers, is a story woven on the supposition that it was the same Jennet, that in 1634 events in Pendle came full circle, that the witness became the accused.

As in 1612 the accused, including Jennet, were found guilty at the Lancaster Assizes. However, in a move which signaled how times were beginning to change, the judges deferred sentencing to seek further advice from the authorities in London. The Privy Council duly dispatched the Bishop of Chester to undertake a further investigation into the case. They also requested a number of the accused be sent to London for further examination. Four women were sent on the long journey south, where they were subjected to a physical examination by the king’s physician, further questioning, and an interview with King Charles I himself. We can only imagine how utterly terrifying and bewildering that experience must have been.

The Privy Council’s intervention led to the 1634 case falling apart, with the authorities ultimately finding that the story was a fabrication exploited for financial gain and ordering the arrest and imprisonment of Edmund Robinson’s father as a result. The accused were all acquitted, allegedly pardoned by their monarch, and their four representatives were sent home to Lancashire. However, the ending of the story is not a happy one: despite the acquittal many remained in prison, probably as a result of being unable to pay the debts they had accrued after so many months of being unjustly detained at His Majesty’s pleasure.

The tragedy of the 1634 case is that whilst the changing attitudes of the London authorities were able to prevent this tale ending at the gallows, the accused were nonetheless undone by poverty and powerlessness, by being at the bottom of the social heap and by being without the means to free themselves from a justice system which was always stacked against them. It may be less well-known that its 1612 counterpart, but in many ways the story of the 1634 trials is no less poignant. I hope that when the fourth centenary comes around in sixteen years’ time, the other Pendle witch trials will be given the recognition they deserve.

More information about my second Witches of Pendle novel, A Woman Named Sellers, which focuses on the 1634 trials, can be found here