The Last Witchfinder
by James Morrow
Review by John Berlyne
Weidenfeld & Nicolson Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 0297852582
Date: 06 April, 2006 List Price £12.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
James Morrow's brand new novel is a real treat for readers. Seldom does one come across a story that works on so many levels. Not only does it satisfy by being a highly entertaining yarn detailing the picaresque, pillar-to-post adventures of its admirable and highly likable protagonist, Jennet Stearne, it stands too as a sharply observed post-modernist satire that focuses upon the age-old tensions that both bind and divide us - religion and science.
Set in the late 1600s and with its time frame running well into the next century, The Last Witchfinder tells Jennet's story from her earliest years. The daughter of one William Stearne, the Witchfinder-General for Mercia and East Anglia, the feisty young Jennet is a forward thinking girl. Unlike her younger brother Dunstan, who travels with and assists their father in cleansing the locale of Satan’s disciples, Jennet resides much of the time with her Aunt Isobel (her mother having died bearing Dunstan some years before) – it is her sex then as much as anything that protects her from the brutality of her father's profession – the facts of which Morrow imparts to us in rich and cruel detail. Isobel, the Aunt, acts as governess to Jennet and is a fully fledged, if eccentric natural philosopher. She follows the writings of Newton and his fellow members of The Royal Society, often recreating their experiments for Jennet and her other charges to participate in. But Isobel also devises her own experiments – in one such series she offers her brother-in-law the Witchfinder one guinea for each witch's familiar he can bring her (and his job not being a great earner, he's only too happy to oblige). It is her intention to study the various animals to see if science can reveal their evil. The results are alarming in that they don't reveal much evil at all – they do however prompt the father of another of her charges, alarmed at the sight of so many dissected corpses, to call Isobel out as a witch.
This sharp turn of events, the first of many in this detailed and fascinating novel brings about a fantastic conflict of interests – William Stearne must now prosecute his own sister-in-law for consorting with the Devil. Perhaps most shocking in this is the zeal with which Stearne sets about this task. Family ties will not restrict him when performing what he see as his sacred duties and the appeals from his own daughter in Isobel's defense fall on deaf ears. Inevitably, Isobel is disposed of in a truly diabolical execution and her fate and the attitudes of those who bring it about are traumatic – not only for Jennet, but for us also. These events also serve as the prime mover for much of what follows. Through the rising, choking flames of her pyre, Aunt Isobel sets Jennet a task that will become her raison d'être – she charges her with finding the Newtonian proof against witchcraft and demons. And, of course, it's a task that Jennet takes to her heart, doggedly pursuing it in spite of the obstinacy and intransigence of society and the myriad obstacles that Morrow throws in her way. Jennet though is a gutsy and resilient character and as fate buffets her throughout her long and interesting life, she responds admirably to all her challenges, all the while remembering the injustices that were heaped upon her aunt.
This then is a story of the clash of empiricism and mysticism, of proof against faith, of old religion and modern science - something that is hugely relevant in our so-called modern era, an era where arguments still rage about evolution and about how our origins should be taught in our schools. Morrow's book shows us only too well how plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose – the more things change, the more they stay the same – and serves as stark reminder of the shameful record we have of killing each other in the name of God. At one point our narrator attempts to tally the number of so-called witches burnt over the centuries and the number runs into the hundred of thousands – an undeniable and chilling historical holocaust.
It's clear that a very serious message lies at the heart of this extraordinary story, but it is by no means the author’s intention to depress his readers with such weighty allegories. Instead, whilst somehow maintaining this dignified core, Morrow provides us with a string of endlessly entertaining escapades – some have the feel of a Richard Lester comedy, others recall more dramatic moods, but each set-piece moves the story purposefully onwards. Morrow even, rather brazenly and certainly impressively, messes a little with history, filling in the gaps in our accepted knowledge with explanations of his own, a la Tim Powers. And there’s a central conceit concerning the aforementioned narrator of the novel – for it is revealed early on to us that this story is being related by none other than Newton's Principia Mathematica, a mind-boggling, slightly indulgent idea which, though it serves no real purpose in advancing our story, is nevertheless a welcome bit of whimsy, particularly to those of us who share the author’s love of books.
Readers who enjoyed Neal Stephenson wonderful if weighty Baroque Cycle will find much to celebrate here, not least the page count! The two works share a similar heritage and both authors evoke the times and colourful historical characters with enormous panache.
The Last Witchfinder is a hugely affable work, and great pleasure to read. I recommend it highly.