Monday, October 22, 2007

One Never Knows...or, Follow Your Accountant

Pendle Hill, Lancashire, Aug. 2005

The below is just in from Mary Sharratt, most recently the author of the novel The Vanishing Point and co-editor of the UK anthology Bitch Lit. A Minnesota native, Mary lives on the edge of a town in Lancashire, England, where I visited her between stops on my fabulous Yiddisher Britisher Tour two years ago. Now she's at work on a novel about the 17th century Pendle witches.
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Recently I made a wonderful discovery: it pays to be open to unexpected speaking invitations. My tax accountant invited me to give a talk at the Clitheroe, Lancashire Rotary Club. Although it’s not the demographic group I normally hang out with or that would typically be interested in the kind of “strong women” fiction I write, I said yes. And I had a blast.

Targeting my speech to this specific local audience, I discussed my new novel-in-progress, A Light Far-Shining: A Novel of the Pendle Witches.

In 1612, in one of the most meticulously documented witch trials in English history, seven women and two men from the Pendle region were hanged as witches, based largely on “evidence” given by a nine-year-old girl. At least one of the accused witches, Elizabeth Southerns, aka Old Demdike, who died in prison before the trial, had a strong reputation as a “blesser” who used her charms to heal cattle.

Some of Demdike's spells were recorded in the trial documents. What is interesting is that they do not reveal any evidence of diabolical beliefs but use the ecclesiastical language of the Catholic Church, driven underground by the English Reformation. It was likely that she was a practitioner of the kind of quasi-Catholic folk magic that would have been tolerated and widespread only a generation earlier. Had it not been for ruling monarch James I’s obsession with the occult—he was the author of Daemonologie, a treatise on witch-hunting—the Pendle Witch trials might not have even happened.

People in the Pendle region are proud of the enduring legends of the Lancashire Witches and my audience really seemed to enjoy the talk, which sparked a spirited discussion. One very straight-laced, conservative-looking gentleman came up afterward and told me that his late mother-in-law had been a witch and claimed descent from one of the Pendle Witches—he did not say which one. Another audience member gave me the contact details for a reporter from the local newspaper who might be interesting in doing a story on my novel when it comes out. Then I received an invitation to come along on a historical ghost walk.

Not only was this a great experience, but another speaking invitation soon followed: I’ve been asked to give the annual Christmas dinner speech at a local family heritage and heraldry society.

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