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The Last Witchfinder- review of the book by James Morrow

By Edited Apr 29, 2015 0 0

The novel "The Last Witchfinder" by James Morrow is a fictional account of the demise of the witchfinder as a profession. A witch finder was actually a witch hunter , a man who would act on information received to seek out and bring to trial women who were suspected of being a witch.   Witch hunting reached its zenith during Stuart times and the most prolific witch finder was  Matthew Hopkins who was responsible for the deaths of at least 300 women.

The novel  is a fictional account, at times I had to pinch myself as it was so realistic and had been related to historical events, I guess that the central witch finder character was based on someone like Matthew Hopkins.

The book is narrated by another book ( you have to think out of the box a little with this one). The book is called "Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy"- the "Principia" for short. written by Isaac Newton.  Initially I thought that this was just a name invented for the story but I found by googling the title that Isaac Newton did actually write this book!

The book follows the life of Jennet Stearne from her early years in Colchester in Essex, United Kingdom when she lived with her younger brother Dunstan and her father Walter Stearne, Witchfinder General for Mercia and East Anglia. The year is 1688 and witchfinders are still working throughout Europe. Jennet is left behind with her aunt Isobel whilst Walter and Dunstan travel through the towns and villages interviewing witches that have been discovered or "cried out" by their neighbours. Their interview techniques involve shaving the body, inserting needles in bodily blemishes and lowering the witch into water such as a river. They find all their victims with cases to answer and so  conviction at trial is usually swift and death either slow by hanging or agony by fire being burned at the stake. Jennet's aunt Isobel a scientific lady is "cried out" and burns at the stake courtesy of her brother in law Walters's diligence to his job. Jennet then a child trys to save her aunt but is thwarted and vows to devote her life to overturning the Parliamentary Witchcraft Act.

A  witch trial taking place
Credit: See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

As we read further into the book we follow our heroine across the Atlantic to America where her father becomes involved with the Salem witch trials. Jennets's life is adventurous, living with the Indians as a family member and bearing three children, one whilst marooned on a desert island. Jennet becomes involved with Benjamin Franklin in a relationship where she is most definitely 30 years older than him.

Despite being brought to  trial by her own brother Dunstan, as a witch Jennet manages to escape and her scientific studies succeed in stopping the "prickers" in their jobs as witchfinders. She lives happily ever after and dies of old age. Absolutely riveting.

I think I am now off to try some of his other work including "Shambling towards Hiroshima" which according to the reviews is another cleverly constructed book with humour thrown in.



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