“There’s men, and then there’s people.” So remarks one jaded widow to another, a little way into The Manningtree Witches. The two are merely gossiping, but the aside is slyly placed, for the man who afterwards happens into view will more than prove her point. AK Blakemore’s first novel is a fictional account of the Essex witch trials, and though it brims with language of arresting loveliness, it speaks plainly when it must.
We meet the young Rebecca West in 1643, amid the early convulsions of the English civil war. Her mother, known as the Beldam West, is a doughty widow with a fondness for drink and confrontation. Rebecca must share her mother’s mean lodgings and taint of disrepute, but though she chafes at the narrowness of her existence, she is not without resources. “I am useful,” she says of herself. “I have taught myself to watch and listen.”
And not for nothing, in a place where neighbourly bonds are now frayed by hunger and suspicion. Though she seldom finds a warm welcome, Rebecca has a way of putting herself in the right company, of catching the low talk or stray look that might warn of what is coming. At church she and mother must take the back pew, but from there she can survey the townswomen who elsewhere disparage her, noting their “emanations of rosewater perfume, womb-clot, sweat and cinders”. When a pale stranger named Matthew Hopkins arrives on unstated business, his fine garments and apparent learning draw general admiration. But Rebecca takes his measure more carefully: “There is something about him slant and insubstantial, as though all [his] dramatic outfitting houses none of the usual human meat.”
She knows to keep these icily exact impressions to herself, but her instinct for self-concealment is tested by youthful desire. Though the fighting has left lean pickings, her attention settles – fatefully, it will turn out – on a mild-mannered young scholar named John Edes. Like Rebecca West, Edes is a documented figure in the archives Blakemore draws on, but their entanglement is among her inventions. It is rendered with sensuous precision, like so much of this novel, but its outcome is never really in doubt. Nor is it incidental: when cruelty is called for, few of the men here will be found wanting.
The conflagration begins with little kindling. A drunkard sees shapes in the dark. Cattle and horses are variously afflicted, and a young boy stricken by mania. Petty grudges are stirred and fingers readily pointed. Hopkins steps forward, no longer reticent about his purpose, and a willing band of inquisitors soon assembles. This inchwise slide into depravity is as compelling as it is queasily familiar. The townsfolk are not all fanatics, but they find fanaticism quite to their liking.
The Beldam is naturally among the accused and reacts with characteristic defiance. A witch, she says, “is just their nasty word for anyone who makes things happen”. But it is their word, too, for any woman living as she pleases, or merely within easy reach. Hopkins, now styling himself Witchfinder General, soon ensnares Rebecca herself. He finds her worthy of special attention.
What follows must be hinted at with care, since Blakemore here spans a historical void, but it is persuasive and satisfying. Crucial to the proceedings is a grimly fascinating depiction of Hopkins, and one that strips away the aggrandisements of popular myth to show us an etiolated zealot who can’t decide what offends him most – the baseness of his own nature or the knowledge that a woman has seen and understood it. What he denounces as sin, Rebecca tells him at a climactic moment, is “the filth you like to play in”. There are people, and then there are men.
The Manningtree Witches ventures into dark places, to be sure, but it carries a jewelled dagger. Blakemore is a poet, and readers given to underlining may find their pencils worn down to stubs. A black feather lying in the grass is “glossy and ideal”; a fall of sleet “rarefies into a silk mist”. Her women are fiercely alive and, in the Beldam’s case, often deliciously bawdy: “A man like that’d stick his thing up a haddock if a Bishop told him not to.” Such sharp wit and rich textures would be welcome in any setting, but here they form what seems a fitting tribute. The persecutors in this tale are given close scrutiny, but the book belongs to the persecuted. And on these pages, in all their ordinary glory, those women are at last allowed to live.
• Paraic O’Donnell’s The House on Vesper Sands is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. The Manningtree Witches by AK Blakemore is published by Granta (£12.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.