“Donald Trump kept saying he was the victim of a witch hunt, didn’t he,” sighs Jill Dawson. “And that modern misuse of the term really annoys me. Because the original witch hunts [like the one she has fictionalised in her new novel, The Bewitching] persecuted poor, rural, uneducated people; 85 per cent of them were women. They had none of his power or privilege.”

Many date this repurposing of the term (to describe an innocent man hounded by hysterical women) back to Arthur Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible. At school, most of us were taught that the drama was written solely to draw parallels between the Salem witch trials of the 1690s and the McCarthyite persecution of mid-20th century Americans believed to have Communist sympathies.

But in recent years feminists, including Maria Dahvana Headley, have peered more deeply into the play’s misogyny, looking at how it was influenced as much by Miller’s personal life as his political beliefs. In a brilliant 2018 article for The Daily Beast Headley reminded readers that Miller first visited Salem, in Massachusetts, not long after meeting Marilyn Monroe.

He himself wrote that: “I had not approached the witchcraft out of nowhere, or from purely social or political considerations. My own marriage of twelve years was teetering and I knew more than I wished to know about where the blame lay. That John Proctor the sinner might overturn his paralysing personal guilt and become the most forthright voice against the madness around him was a reassurance to me, and, I suppose, an inspiration: it demonstrated that a clear moral outcry could still spring even from an ambiguously unblemished soul. Moving crabwise across the profusion of evidence, I sensed that I had at last found something of myself in it, and a play began to accumulate around this man.”

Miller drew the age of his hero’s accuser – Abigail – from the eleven-year-old child of historical fact into a seventeen-year-old temptress with whom he was having an affair. Abigail accuses her lover’s wife, Elizabeth, of witchcraft so she can marry the man (60 in real life, 35 in Miller’s version) herself. Miller even wrote Elizabeth a speech in which she takes responsibility for keeping a “cold house” from which he is excused from straying. Miller – who married Monroe four days after testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1956 – had exonerated himself and reframed the cultural understanding of the witch hunt.

Dawson, who played Abigail in a school production of The Crucible when she was sixteen, was appalled when she re-read Miller’s play as an adult. “His argument that these seductive girls were to blame for everything was absurd. I mean, if there’s one group who didn’t have power it is young girls. It seems like such a travesty to me to pretend they had the power to bring down whole communities. That power was all in the hands of male judges, male church leaders, male landowners… the male writers and scholars.”

Jill Dawson

She wrote The Bewitching (about the real witch hunt that occurred in the village of Warboys, near Huntingdon in Cambridgeshire, between 1589 and 1593) to reboot that truth. It’s a deeply unsettling and utterly immersive plunge into a lost East Anglian community in which a local “cunning woman”, Alice Samuel, is accused of sorcery by the wealthy Throckmorton family, who had called her in to treat a young girl suffering from fits.

Talking via video link, Dawson tells me how important she feels it is for women to “understand our history of persecution. Other communities, like the Jews, know the importance of that. And women have been horribly persecuted for being outspoken, for being sexy, for being post-menopausal and past it.”

Always passionate about research, the poet and novelist (whose novel Fred & Edie was shortlisted for both the Whitbread and Orange prizes, while Watch Me Disappear was longlisted for the Orange Prize) says she based much of her novel “on a 111-page pamphlet that was published at the time”. She was aware the source was written by the main male power-players: “the vicar next door, the uncles of the girls and possibly the father”, but through it she heard the voices of the ordinary women of the period.

“I was left thinking about the things people didn’t question at the time,” she says. “They kept saying there was ‘no reason’ for the girls to accuse their neighbour. Alice apparently came to stay with them and slept in their bed.” A raised eyebrow.  “Although my research suggests that a bed would have been a big deal in those times – giant four-poster things – and it would have been quite normal to share one, there was a part of me that thought: hmm. Alice was from a different class, a different household and yet they’re welcoming her into this intimate situation. What could that be about? I wasn’t convinced that there was no history between these families or that the Throckmortons were so beloved.” When Dawson read more about the village, she later learned that generations of local children would spit on the graves of the Throckmortons which, she notes, “suggests a more troubled legacy”.

The writer’s sparkly demeanour – merry laugh, bright pink lipstick – is a surprising contrast to the murky waters explored in her prose. It’s a treat hearing about her “crash course on witchcraft”. She singles out “a wonderful book by Keith Thomas titled The Decline of Magic” for encouraging her to explore the post-Reformation mindset. “Faced with fear, misfortune and illness, ordinary people no longer had recourse to the kind of Catholic comforts they would have had in the past. Things like lighting a candle for a saint, or scattering holy water. Such rituals became taboo. When their children became ill, what could they do? Yes, they could go to a conventional doctor [her novel features a girl’s traumatic consultation with one man who brutally sticks his hand up her skirt to assess her “female testicles” before selling the family some ale] but it seems to me they would have turned to cunning women who had some healing skills and knowledge.”

She adds that “The loss of Catholicism also saw the loss of the Holy Mother, the feminine divine. It was an intensely patriarchal time. I’m interested in mothering.” Much of her tale is told from the perspective of the Throckmorton’s moonfaced maid, Martha, who loves the children as though they were her own. Martha and the children all believe in witchcraft. They look for sinister spirits in snakes, mice and even the lice in their hair. They’ve been taught to read so they can study the Bible, but they use their literacy to revel in gossipy pamphlets, which Dawson says were “full of saucy accounts of sex with the devil and toads with faces. Details that would really stick in a child’s mind.” These dramatic details rise to the fore of the children’s minds when called to testify at trial. “And of course, the men presiding over the trial assumed children were so pure they couldn’t lie!” says Dawson. “Obviously these were men who had no part in the rearing of children.”

Women have been horribly persecuted for being outspoken, for being sexy, for being post-menopausal and past it

As the mother of two boys and foster mother of one daughter, Dawson has observed that “boys tend to act OUT while girls turn in on themselves”. One of the ways witch hunters checked to see if women were witches was called “pricking”: cutting with pins, bodkins and daggers to see if they felt pain. “They had their arms cut,” says Dawson, “which is so ghastly. The level of attack and torture on women’s bodies was very shocking. I’ve often wondered if young women have internalised this today and it feeds into self harm. It makes epigenetic sense.”

Although it’s become fashionable for fiction to present all women accused of witchcraft as innocent herbalists, Dawson’s book doesn’t soften Alice. She’s a difficult, outspoken woman. “In the pamphlet she was described as if she was 80,” she says, “but then she had a young daughter, so she couldn’t have been. And in court, when she said she thought she was pregnant, everybody laughed.

The mocking of the older woman’s body, its shape and flaws, says a lot about society. My own mother developed what was called a ‘dowager’s hump’ in her eighties. We’ve all got little things – lumps, bumps – which might be considered a Devil’s mark by somebody who is choosing to look for them, haven’t we.”

Dawson says the fear and suspicion of the villagers in her book was partially inspired by the pandemic atmosphere in which it was written. “There were competing views about what we should do about masks, behaviour, vaccines,” she says. “We were all searching around for information we could trust. Some of our friends didn’t have vaccines, we were trying to set their beliefs against our own. We didn’t necessarily trust our government.”

Lockdown trapped many of us in small communities, like the Fens of her fiction. “Anywhere that gets cut off makes for a community without a release valve, in which people can become fearful and quick to judge.” Dawson shakes her head. “And now look at what we’re living through. Roe v Wade reversed. Men reaching out again to control women’s lives, sexuality and fertility. It is quite frightening. I think we need to remember where those attitudes can lead.”

Helen Brown is an arts journalist writing regularly for The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, The Financial Times and The Daily Mail

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