The Lancashire Witches

The Lancashire Witches - William Harrison Ainsworth [These notes were made in 1984. I read this title in the undated but definitely 19th-century "Edition de Luxe" published by G.H. Howell:]. From the frequency with which I see its title, I think this must have been one of Ainsworth's more popular works, and indeed, in terms of a working narrative, it's one of his better ones. The nineteenth-century scholar/historian tone is nearly gone (he pops up sometimes, but he doesn't do a travelogue), and the novel is based on the assumption that witchcraft did exist in fact, and that the elder heroine, Alice Nutter, had sold herself to the devil. As usual with WHA, we are firmly located in place and time; the whole is located in the area of Lancashire near Preston; the opening section is set in the 1536 uprising when Henry VIII dismantled the monasteries, and the rest of the story takes place several generations later in the reign of James VI & I, who was, of course, very interested in witchcraft, and who duly makes his appearance in the last book. No-one lives happily ever after in this rather dismal story. Young Richard is done to death by witchcraft, and Alizon quite properly follows him to the grave. Mistress Nutter, the repentant witch, providentially expires (of grief, of strain?) on her way to the stake. And, of course, the baddies get it - Mother Demdike and Mother Chattox in particular have a spectacular taking-off in a fire on a Lancashire hill. No, the shibboleth is here the saving or losing of souls, and within that rigid framework, the Abbot of Whalley, whose curse sets everything in motion, and who reappears as a ghost, sits uneasily to say the least. The old problem of mixing folk-superstition with theology again. But I did rather enjoy this one.