OK, boys and girls, let’s have a look at Victorian novelists. You’ll have heard of Charles Dickens, right? You know, Oliver Twist and Great Expectations, that chap. Pickwick Papers and David Copperfield, all that stuff. Anthony Trollope? Barchester Towers, Palliser novels. Him. Invented the pillar-box, wasn’t that him? Walter Scott – Ivanhoe, Rob Roy, Waverley? Didn’t they name a railway station after that one? Edinburgh, I think. How about William Makepeace Thackeray? Vanity Fair and err, some other stuff. Pendennis, wasn’t that one of his? How about William Harrison Ainsworth? Hum, not really. Did he write that, what was it? The one about that … no, that was somebody else. Well, back in his day, Ainsworth was mentioned in the same breath as Dickens, Trollope, Scott and Thackeray. He was a big name. His works were serialised in The Sunday Times. He was paid £1,000 per novel. But only one of his forty-some books has remained continuously in print since he published it back in 1849 - The Lancashire Witches.
|Title Page - The Lancashire Witches - Ainsworth 1849|
Originally, it was a triple-decker – three books costing the equivalent of a skilled workingman’s weekly wage - £1 11s 6d. It was a big hit, also available in serial form, single volume reprints, a cheap collected edition or from one of the many circulating libraries. Ainsworth was a Manchester lawyer who gave up the law and took to novel writing. The idea for The Lancashire Witches came from his friend James Crossley, who as President of the Chetham Society, (dedicated to the history, topography and archaeology of Lancashire), had re-published, with an introduction and notes, Thomas Potts’s The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the County of Lancashire (1613), in the Society’s Journal for 1845.
|Title Page - Discovery of Witches - Potts - Chetham Society reprint 1845|
Antiquarian societies of this sort were very popular at the time, and there developed a taste for historical romances alongside this interest. In 1847 and 1848, Ainsworth and Crossley travelled to Pendle to research the novel and get a feeling for the local colour. They visited Pendle, Houghton, Salmesbury, Cliviger and Whalley, along with other related sites, and Ainsworth spent all of 1848 writing his book.
It begins in 1536, with the Pilgrimage of Grace (another post, dear reader), and goings-on in Whalley Abbey with the Abbot and Demdike’s father, before moving in time to the 1600s, where Ainsworth plays fast and loose with the historical facts. The locals all speak in phonetically rendered Lancashire accents, all “ Ey knoa os much os ey care to knoa,” and so on, (which really put me off when I first read the book), and Alizon Device is raised to the position of a well-spoken, fair maiden, who, it turns out, is really the daughter of the gentlewoman Alice Nutter. It’s a roistering tale, with the aristos eventually bettering the nasty lower sorts, and restoring order to the County Palatine. King James even shows up. It has some excellent descriptive writing about local landscapes and architecture, and does what it does well.
Later critics have been a bit sniffy about Ainsworth’s works, but they blame The Lancashire Witches for not being something it didn’t set out to be, and judge it with modern critical hindsight. Of course it isn’t ‘realistic’, ‘didactic’ or ‘accurate’, it wasn’t ever meant to be. Of course it is ‘stilted’, ‘melodramatic’ and ‘stereotypical’, it is working within it specific genre you idiots, it’s a Victorian Gothic Romance. If you don’t realise that, stop wasting ink. OK, rant over.
Of course, with a story of so much potential, Ainsworth wasn’t the first (or last) to write about the Pendle witches. There have been many fictional, non-fictional, and everything in between, retellings of the events. Potts was the first, and is the primary source for all subsequent versions. In the year after the second outbreak of witchery in Pendle, Thomas Heywood and Richard Brome published The Late Lancashire Witches, which was performed on three consecutive days (when plays usually changed on a daily basis), by the King’s Men at the Globe Theatre (of Shakespearean fame), in August 1634.
|Title Page - The Late Lancashire Witches - Heywood and Brome 1634|
The events in the play were unresolved at the time it was performed, and it was written to exploit public interest in the subject, a popular theme which also resulted in Macbeth, Middleton’s The Witch and Dekker’s The Witch of Edmonton.
|Title Page - The Lancashire Witches - Thomas Shadwell 1682|
The play inspired Thomas Shadwell (later to be Poet Laureate) to write his The Lancashire Witches and Teague O'Divelly, the Irish Priest (1682), a comedy performed at the Duke’s Theatre, London, (Teague O’Divelly turns up again in Shadwell’s 1690 work The Amorous Bigot). The play was popular, but received criticism for the portrayal of the Irish priest, at a time of Whig and Tory conflict.
|Title Page - The Poetry of Witchcraft - J O Halliwell 1853|
These two plays were republished together in 1853 by James Orchard Halliwell, under the title The Poetry of Witchcraft, a very rare volume in a private edition of 80 copies.
|Title Page - The Witch of Pendle - J D Baxter 1909|
In 1909, John Dowling Baxter published The Witch of Pendle, a play with songs (music by Dr Christie Green, one-time organist at Blackburn Cathedral. Green lived at Adelaide Terrace, Blackburn, which I can see from The Study windows), which was performed three times at the Palace Theatre, Blackburn, (once a theatre, then a cinema, then a bingo hall, now a car park).
|Palace Theatre, Blackburn - extreme right side of picture|
I can find no reference that it has been performed since. The dramatis personae include Queen Elizabeth, Sir Walter Ralegh (sic), Edmund Spenser the 'Poet's Poet', and Dr John Dee, 'Astrologer and Alchymist'.
|Dramatis Personae - The Witch of Pendle - J D Baxter 1909|
The other ‘Pendle witch’ novel is Robert Neill’s 1951 Mist over Pendle. Neill was another author from Manchester, and evidently also researched the book in Pendle (he writes wonderfully that there is "… some brooding quality about this hill, as though it were sentient and knew more than it chose to tell.").
|Mist Over Pendle - Robert Neill 1951|
He introduces a fictional character, Margery Whittaker, who is sent from London to live with her cousin Roger Nowell at Read, and who becomes embroiled in the events of 1612. It is an excellent book, exiting and gripping, warm and intelligent, and evokes its time brilliantly. Read it if you can – but beware, I have heard rumours that modern editions have been edited, with some passages altered or deleted from the original, so maybe seek out an older copy. It was published in the US as The Elegant Witch.