The Mark of Satan
The heart of all good witchcraft stories is the compact with the Devil, the model for which is concisely provided by the Inquisitors Sprenger and Kramer in their Malleus Maleficarum:
Now the method of profession is twofold. One is a solemn ceremony, like a solemn vow. The other is private, and can be made to the devil at any hour alone. The first method is when witches meet together in conclave on a set day, and the devil appears to them in the assumed body of a man, and urges them to keep faith with him, promising them worldly prosperity and length of life; and they recommend a novice to his acceptance. And the devil asks whether she will abjure the Faith, and forsake the holy Christian religion and the worship of the Anomalous Woman (for so they call the Most Blessed Virgin MARY), and never venerate the sacraments; and if he finds the novice or disciple willing, then the devil stretches out his hand, and so does the novice, and she swears with upraised hand to keep that covenant. And when this is done, the devil at once adds that this is not enough; and when the disciple asks what must be done, the devil demands the following oath of homage to himself: that she give herself to him, body and soul, for ever, and do her utmost to bring others of both sexes into his power. He adds, finally, that she is to make certain unguents from the bones and limbs of children, especially those that have been baptized; by all which means she will be able to fulfil all her wishes with his help (Summers, 1978, 100).
The Brothers, who fear women as much as they hate them, then move immediately from the theory to the practice, and offer verification of the above based on their own experiences of the seduction into the craft of a young girl in Breisach by her witch-aunt (whom they later burned alive in Strasburg). In common with the earlier gothic writers whom he admired so much, the theme of the satanic pact and eternal damnation held considerable interest for Ainsworth, as can be seen from his earliest fiction, for example the short story ‘The Spectre Bride’ (1821), and it is also present in Windsor Castle and the abandoned Auriol.
Ainsworth’s narrative is full of deals. In the impressive introduction, when the beacon on Pendle Hill is not fired and the Pilgrimage of Grace collapses before our eyes, the warlock Nicholas Demdike of Worston (‘he whose wife is a witch’) tells the disgraced Abbot John Paslew that ‘I alone can save thee, and I will on one condition.’ Paslew responds by denouncing the wizard as a ‘bond-slave of Satan,’ developing Demdike’s infernal credentials further by next wailing that ‘It must be the demon in person that speaks thus to me!’ as Demdike continues to point out the hopelessness of his situation as a renegade Catholic and an offence to the King. Demdike’s response is ‘No matter who I am,’ which is not a denial, Demdike being both the tempted (in the diegetic, pre-narrative space) and the tempter (Ainsworth, 15 – 16).
Demdike’s origin is soon told, ironically growing out of the last confession of Parslew, in which he discloses to the disguised Demdike his guilt over denouncing a rival Cistercian monk as a witch in order to further his own career thirty years before. In an episode which would not have been out of place in Scott’s Marmion, the accused monk, Borlace Alvetham, was walled up within a tiny cell at Whalley Abbey. Borlace is, of course, Demdike, who recounts his satanic conversion in a passage which recalls the legend of the monk Theophilus, an Anglo-Saxon source of the Faust tradition, previously reimagined by Charles Maturin in the landmark gothic novel Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) during ‘The Tale of the Spaniard.’ The Devil appears before Borlace/Demdike in his cell, and offers him freedom and revenge in exchange for his soul:
‘I discerned a tall shadowy figure standing by my side.
“Thou art mine,” he cried, in accents graven forever on my memory; “but I am a generous master, and will give thee a long term of freedom. Thou shalt be avenged upon thine enemy – deeply avenged.”
“Grant this, and I am thine,” I replied, a spirit of infernal vengeance possessing me. And I knelt before the fiend’ (Ainsworth, 41).
Demdike’s story also announces the recurring theme of the morally destructive nature of vengeance within the text. Demdike’s enemy, the Catholic Abbot Paslew, is presented as the author of the disastrous chain of events that forms the main novel. In addition to facilitating an innocent monk’s fall from grace, he also vindictively curses Demdike’s child, and we are told:
As to the infant, upon whom the abbot’s malediction fell, it was reserved for the dark destinies shadowed forth in the dread anathema he had uttered; to the development of which the tragic drama about to follow is devoted, and to which the fate of Abbot Paslew forms a necessary and fitting prologue.
Thus far the veil of the future may be drawn aside. That infant and her progeny became the LANCASHIRE WITCHES (Ainsworth, 62).
The deal Demdike had offered Paslew on Pendle Hill was not for his soul, but to baptise his daughter (later Mother Demdike). Already, it is difficult not to sympathise with the witches, which would seem to be the author’s intention.
The offers, pacts and general metaphysical horse-trading introduced in the prologue continue throughout the text, as a kind of controlling moral metaphor; every major character is, or has been, tempted in the wilderness. In a desire for advancement that mirrors Paslew’s confession, Thomas Potts, the self-styled witch-finder, plays upon Jennet Device’s envy of her half-sister Alizon’s new relationship with Alice Nutter, and tempts her into making an incriminating statement against his enemy:
‘You may have attended a witch’s Sabbath … If you have seen this, and can recollect the names and faces of the assembly, it would be highly important … Has it ever occurred to you that Alizon might be addicted to these practices? … I cannot help thinking she has bewitched Mistress Nutter.’
‘Licker, Mistress Nutter has bewitched her,’ replied Jennet.
‘Then you think Mistress Nutter is a witch, eh?’ cried Potts eagerly.
‘Ey’st neaw tell ye what ey think, mon,’ rejoined Jennet, doggedly.
‘But hear me,’ cried Potts, ‘I have my own suspicions also – nay, more than suspicions.’
‘If ye’re shure, yo dunno want me,’ said Jennet.
‘But I want a witness,’ pursued Potts, ‘and if you’ll serve as one –’
‘Whot’ll ye gi me?’ said Jennet.
‘Whatever you like,’ rejoined Potts (Ainsworth, 184).
Discounting the brave but rather painful attempt at the regional dialect, this type of examination is particularly disquieting if read in conjunction with the actual witness testimonies presented in Potts’s original transcripts because, according to the King in his Daemonologie, children, women and even known liars could be witnesses over ‘high treason against God’ (Cronin, 2011).
There is also the legend of Isole de Heton, the fallen nun and grandmother of Nicholas Demdike, whom ‘invoked the powers of darkness, and proffered her soul in return for five years of unimpaired beauty,’ ageing like Dorian Gray when her time was up (Ainsworth, 284 – 286). But for the witches, the devil’s compact is an infinite regress, as they must endlessly provide their master with innocent souls to prolong their own existences: ‘Thou who seek’st the demon’s aid/Know’st the price that must be paid’ chants an ‘awful voice’ from beneath the ground during the great sabbat at the heart of the novel, to which the appropriate catechetic response from the witches is:
I do. But grant me the aid I crave,
And that thou wishest thou shalt have
Another worshipper is won,
Thine to be when all is done (Ainsworth, 199).
Whether or not they succeed in recruiting Alizon (who Ainsworth has made an adopted Device, beautiful, virtuous and actually of nobler birth) is a constant threat in the novel. Mistress Nutter, along with Mothers Demdike and Chattox, has already sold her soul, but her daughter has not. Alice is determined to protect her, ironically with black magic if necessary, while the satanic Mother Demdike is equally determined to corrupt her. She offers to give Alizon the aristocratic Richard Assheton as a lover ‘if you will only follow my counsel and do as I bid you,’ and plans to sacrifice Alizon to Satan to prolong her own life and take revenge on Alice, after Alizon refuses to make a deal in Malkin Tower (Ainsworth, 354). The dramatic question constantly raised by the text is whether or not Alizon will fall from grace, owing to the vengeance of Alice’s enemies and her own desire for Assheton, or take the place of her damned birth mother in hell. The narrative model is thus not Shakespearean but rather Miltonic, and by further rewriting Paradise Lost, The Lancashire Witches is both a return to the ideals of Romantic Radicalism and a precursor of Victorian feminism.
Many Romantics had adopted Satan as the true hero of Milton’s epic, favouring the parallel narrative arc of Paradise Lost in which Lucifer rebels and later braves the Abyss over the story of Adam and Eve and man’s first disobedience. In a passage removed from Schiller’s The Robbers, Karl von Moor asks Spiegelberg if he has read Milton, adding, ‘He who could not endure that another should be above him, and who dared to challenge the Almighty to a duel, was he not an extraordinary genius?’ (qtd. in Praz, 59). In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, William Blake famously notes that ‘The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it’ (Blake, Plates 5 – 6). Shelley similarly writes in his A Defence of Poetry that:
Nothing can exceed the energy and magnificence of the character of Satan as expressed in Paradise Lost. It is a mistake to suppose that he could ever have been intended for the popular personification of evil – Milton’s Devil as a moral being is as far superior to his God (Shelley, 1840, 37).
Finally, upon reading Paradise Lost the creature of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the ultimate Romantic rewriting of Milton, tells his creator that ‘Many times I considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition, for often, like him, when I viewed the bliss of my protectors, the bitter gall of envy rose within me’ (Shelley, 1818, 396).
With the exception of Mary Shelley’s elegant re-evaluation of Milton – as explored in the now classic feminist readings of Frankenstein by, most notably, Mary Poovey, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar – the male Romantics (Blake being the only anomaly) were not as interested in Eve as they were Satan, often taking their implicitly female muse completely for granted. When the Romantic poet stares into a female face, he invariably sees his own, narcissistic reflection. This can be seen quite clearly in Wordsworth’s ‘Lines written above Tintern Abbey,’ in which the poet sees his own childhood in Dorothy’s eyes, not hers:
Of this fair river; thou, my dearest Friend,
My dear, dear Friend, and in thy voice I catch
The language of my former heart, and read
My former pleasures in the shooting lights
Of thy wild eyes. Oh! Yet a little while
May I behold in thee what I was once,
My dear, dear sister! (Wordsworth, 1798, 116 – 22).
Similarly, debate over the true identity of the subject of the ‘Lucy Poems’ seems incongruous when we consider that she has none in the text:
She liv’d unknown, and few could know
When Lucy ceas’d to be;
But she is in her Grave, and Oh!
The difference to me (Wordsworth, ‘Song,’ 1800, 9 – 12).
Charlotte Brontë also recognised that the female voice seemed to be as absent in Romanticism as it would later be in the Victorian poetry of writers such as Matthew Arnold (‘The Buried Life’) and Coventry Patmore (‘The Angel in the House’ and ‘The Wife’s Tragedy’). She thus cheekily inverted Wordworth’s ‘Strange fits of passion I have known’ in Villette (1853), in the scene in which Miss Marchmont waits for her lover; he eventually arrives dragged behind his horse and dying (9).
Ainsworth is, as always, looking forward as well as back. There is a certain ambivalence in his work with regard to the portrayals of Satan who, in some of his Miltonic guises, can be read as a Romantic hero. Yet it is the strong women of The Lancashire Witches that remain the most interesting characters. Ainsworth’s narrative may not have the subtlety and depth of Frankenstein, nor the overt feminism of the three Brontë sisters, but there is a case, as yet unmade, that can place him in the same ideological camp as Mary, Charlotte, Emily and Anne. As I have written elsewhere, Ainsworth’s underworld women, Poll Maggot and Edgeworth Bess, are radically different from their sacrificial counterparts in Dickens’s early fiction; these happy hookers are about the only members of the criminal cast left standing at the conclusion of Jack Sheppard (10). The year of The Lancashire Witches, 1848 – a year of revolution – also saw the publication of fellow Mancunian Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton, wherein the fallen woman, Esther, fares no better than Dickens’s Nancy had a decade previously in Oliver Twist. Against such a familiar frame, Ainsworth’s witches are positively trail-blazing in their self-emancipation. As ‘The Old Chevalier’ remarks in the story of the same name by Isak Dinesen, ‘most women, when they feel free to experiment with life, will go straight to the Witches’ Sabbath. I myself respect them for it, and do not think that I could ever really love a woman who had not, at some time or other, been up on a broomstick’ (Dinesen, 57).
Gilbert and Gubar read Paradise Lost as a distillation of the endemic, institutional misogyny of Western literary culture, arguing that ‘if Eve is in so many negative ways like Satan the serpentine tempter, why should she not also be akin to Satan the Romantic outlaw.’ Eve, therefore, ‘is the only character in Paradise Lost for whom a rebellion against the hierarchical status quo is as necessary as it is for Satan’ (Gilbert and Gubar, 201 – 2). Although Adam is subordinate to God, he is still the master of Eden and Eve. Eve, however, dreams of flying:
Forthwith up to the clouds
With him I flew, and underneath beheld
The earth outstretched immense, a prospect wide
And various (Milton, V, 86 – 9).
Parallels between Satan and Eve abound in Paradise Lost and, note Gilbert and Gubar, ‘not only is Milton’s Satan in certain crucial ways very much like women, he is also – enormously attractive to women’ (Gilbert and Gubar, 206).
Ainsworth’s novel would seem to offer a similar reading, with his witches representing, in Blake’s terms, the various ‘emanations’ of Eve. In his previous, Maturin-inspired takes on temptation and fall, the protagonists were all flawed male Faustian figures prosecuting the destruction of female innocents, with only ‘Mary Stukeley’ in the December Tales collection (1823) offering an ambivalently drawn female tempter. In The Lancashire Witches, Ainsworth’s previously passive female victims become suddenly very active. The Demdike dynasty is one based upon matriarchal rather than patriarchal authority, the implication being that the peasant women have fallen into grace rather than out of it, from a cultural hell of repressive fathers, husband, priests and landlords into a heaven of self-realisation and determination. This can be seen quite clearly in the story of the landed and independent Alice Nutter:
A proud, poor gentleman was Richard Nutter, her late husband, and his scanty means not enabling him to keep up as large an establishment as he desired, or to be as hospitable as his nature prompted, his temper became soured, and he visited his ill-humours upon his wife, who, devotedly attached to him, to all outward appearance at least, never resented his ill-treatment.
All at once, and without any previous symptoms of ailment, or apparent cause, unless it might be over-fatigue in hunting the day before, Richard Nutter was seized with a strange and violent illness, which after three or four days of acute suffering, brought him to the grave. During his illness he was constantly and zealously tended by his wife; but he displayed great aversion to her, declaring himself bewitched, and that an old woman was ever in the corner of his room, mumbling wicked enchantments against him. But as no such old woman could be seen, these assertions were treated as delirious ravings (Ainsworth, 81).
Ainsworth wryly concludes that ‘Mistress Nutter gave the best proof that she respected her husband’s memory by not marrying again.’ It is later revealed that Richard Nutter was jealous of his best friend, one Edward Braddyll, and made his wife a prisoner in her home. When she escaped, begging Braddyll for help, he responded by propositioning her sexually. Her husband, aided by John Device (Elizabeth’s husband), pursued her, killing Elizabeth’s baby daughter in a fit of jealous rage, believing her to be Alice’s child. John Device came to a sticky end, drowned in a moss-pool, and Edward Braddyll, like Richard Nutter, succumbed to a painful and mysterious illness. This story also explains Alizon’s parentage; she was entrusted to Elizabeth, and believed dead by Alice. Alice tells Alizon that Richard’s crime was: ‘hidden from the eyes of men’, but not the women, who had their revenge (Ainsworth, 153).
The innocent Alizon of course represents the young, prelapsarian Eve, and resists all temptations to the dark side, being the only one of Elizabeth Device’s family to do so. The witches are Eve ‘fallen,’ free, empowered and unrepentant (the dream of flying now a reality), with only Alice becoming a penitent and guilty Eve-figure. The head witch, Mother Demdike, is the ultimate radical feminist, choosing to rule in hell rather than serve in heaven:
There was nothing human in her countenance, and infernal light gleamed in her strangely set eyes.
‘Saw’st thou ever face like mine?’ she cried. ‘No, I wot not. But I would rather inspire aversion and terror than love. Love! – foh! I would rather see men shrink from me, and shudder at my approach, than smile upon me and court me. I would rather freeze the blood in their veins, than set it boiling with passion. Ho! Ho!’
‘Thou art a fearful being, indeed!’ exclaimed Richard, appalled.
‘Fearful am I?’ ejaculated the old witch, with renewed laughter. ‘At last thou own’st it. Why, ay, I am fearful. It is my wish to be so. I live to plague mankind – to blight and blast them – to scare them with my looks – to work them mischief’ (Ainsworth, 307).
The aptly-named ‘Mother’ Demdike’s inhuman and androgynous appearance, coupled with her supreme supernatural power, also casts her as the most overtly satanic-Eve correlative in the text:
Scarcely had the last notes died away when a light shone through the dark red curtains hanging before a casement in the upper part of the tower. The next moment these were drawn aside, and a face appeared, so frightful, so charged with infernal wickedness and malice, that Richard’s blood grew chill at the sight.
Was it man or woman?
The white beard, and the large, broad, masculine character of the countenance, seemed to denote the former, but the garb was that of a female. The face was at once hideous and fantastic – the eyes set across – the mouth awry – the right cheek marked by a mole shining with black hair, and horrible from its contrast to the rest of the visage, and the brow branded as if by a streak of blood. A black thrum cap constituted the old witch’s headgear, and from beneath it her hoary hair escaped in long elf-locks … Throwing open the window, she looked forth, and demanded, in harsh imperious tones, ‘Who dares to summon Mother Demdike?’ (Ainsworth, 305).
As Satan’s coupling with Sin in Paradise Lost begets death, Mother Demdike’s deal with the devil has produced generations of witches. Her tower protected by a wild tempest, through which Richard must battle, the elemental Mother Demdike is also Mother Nature unrestrained, an angry goddess who seems to mock the order imposed on her realm by patriarchal society:
Fast as Richard rose up the steep hillside, still faster did the black clouds gather over his head. No natural cause could have produced so instantaneous a change in the aspect of the sky, and the young man viewed it with uneasiness, and wished to get out of the thicket in which he was now involved, before the threatened thunderstorm commenced. But the hill was steep and the road bad, being full of loose stones, and crossed in many places by bare roots of trees. Though ordinarily surefooted, Merlin stumbled frequently, and Richard was obliged to slacken his speed. It grew darker and darker, and the storm seemed ready to burst upon him. The smaller birds ceased singing, and screened themselves under the thicket foliage; the pie chattered incessantly; the jay screamed; the bittern flew past, booming heavily in the air; the raven croaked; the heron arose from the river, and speeded off with his long neck stretched out; and the falcon, who had been hovering over him, sweeped sidelong down and sought shelter beneath an impending rock; the rabbit scudded off to his burrow in the brake; and the hare, erecting himself for a moment, as if to listen to the note of danger, crept timorously off into the long dry grass.
It grew so dark at last that the road was difficult to discern, and the dense rows of trees on either side assumed a fantastic appearance in the deep gloom. Richard was now more than halfway up the hill, and the thicket had become more tangled and intricate, and the road narrower and more rugged. All at once Merlin stopped, quivering in every limb, as if in extremity of terror. Before the rider, and right in his path, glared a pair of red fiery orbs, with something dusky and obscure linked to them; but whether man or beast he could not distinguish.
Richard called to it. No answer. He struck spurs into the reeking flanks of his horse. The animal refused to stir. Just then there was a moaning sound in the wood, as of someone in pain. He turned in the direction, shouted, but received no answer. When he looked back the red eyes were gone.
Then Merlin moved forward of his own accord, but ere he had gone far the eyes were visible again, glaring at the rider from the wood. This time they approached, dilating, and increasing in glowing intensity till they scorched him like burning-glasses (Ainsworth, 303 – 304).
At this point, Mother Demdike is the forest, her spirit possessing every rock, branch and creature. This is the language of fairy tale, but we can also read in it a description of hell as uncontrolled, feminine Nature, blasting Richard’s horse much as Morgana Le Fey did his namesake in Arthurian legend. The battle between good and evil enacted in this amazing episode is as much a battle between matriarchal Nature and patriarchal Culture, and deep in the woods Culture has no chance. Richard is no match for her. In accordance with Vladimir Propp’s model of the folktale, Richard is given a magical agent for protection (a talisman given to him by Alice), which Mother Demdike effortlessly cons out of him, before throwing him in a dungeon with Alizon, whom he has come to rescue (11).
Alice Nutter is similarly powerful when she first appears in the narrative, and has no trouble outwitting the avaricious magistrate Nowell and the idiot witch-finder Potts. Having tasted the forbidden fruit and the attendant freedom which it offers, she does, however, ultimately adopt a feminine role with which Victorian readers would find more acceptable, that of guilt-ridden penitent. The original Alice was a mysterious figure from the original trial of whom little is known, which gives the author particularly free reign with the character. As she is independent of the Demdikes and the Devices, she is not subject to the abbot’s curse and has thus chosen freely to sign the dreaded parchment in return for the power she is seen to wield at the sabbat at the conventual church, where the other witches ‘bent so lowly at her coming, and rose so reverentially at her bidding’ (Ainsworth, 198). Alice, however, moves from the ‘queen witch’ of Book I to the ‘penitent’ in Book III, brought to feelings of remorse by the love of the pure Alizon:
For the first time remorse assailed her … This change of feeling had been produced by her newly-awakened affection for her daughter, long supposed dead, and now restored to her, only to be snatched away again in a manner which added to the sharpness of the loss. She saw herself the sport of the juggling fiend, whose aim was to win over her daughter’s soul through her instrumentality, and she was resolved, if possible, to defeat his purposes. This, she was aware, could only be accomplished by her own destruction, but even this dread alternative she was prepared to embrace. Alizon’s sinless nature and devotion to herself had so wrought upon her that, though she had at first resisted the better impulses kindled within her bosom, in the end they completely overmastered her.
Was it, she asked herself, too late to repent? Was there no way of breaking her compact? (Ainsworth, 317).
This is essentially a filial version of the Gretchen episode from Goethe’s Faust Part One (1808). Moving then towards Christopher Marlowe, Alice finally finds herself sitting before an hour-glass waiting for eternal death like Doctor Faustus, who admits ‘I writ them a bill with mine own blood: the date is expired, this is the time, and he will fetch me’ (Marlowe, XIX, 66 – 7). On her forehead, she bears the mark of Satan, and as long as it remains we know she is damned, and one cannot help but feel that Bram Stoker had this in mind when Mina Harker was similarly branded by Van Helsing’s crucifix in Dracula (1897). The finale comes in a highly kinetic battle between Alizon and her mother’s former demon familiar over Alice’s immortal soul:
‘Pray thou, mother!’ cried Alizon.
‘I cannot,’ replied the lady.
‘I will kill her if she but makes the attempt,’ howled the demon.
‘But try, mother, try!’ cried Alizon.
The poor lady dropped on her knees, and raised her hands in humble supplication.
‘Heaven forgive me!’ she exclaimed.
The demon seized the hour-glass.
‘The sand is out, the term has expired; she is mine!’ he cried.
‘Clasp thy arms tightly round me, my child. He cannot take me from thee,’ shrieked the agonised woman.
‘Release her, Alizon, or I will slay thee likewise,’ roared the demon.
‘Never!’ she replied; ‘thou canst not overcome me. Ha!’ she added, joyfully; ‘the brand has disappeared from her brow.’
‘And the writing from the parchment,’ howled the demon; ‘but I will have her notwithstanding.’
And he plunged his claws into Alice Nutter’s flesh; but her daughter held her fast.
‘Oh, hold me, my child – hold me, or I am lost!’ shrieked the lady.
‘Be warned, and let her go, or thy life shall pay for hers,’ cried the demon.
‘My life for hers willingly,’ replied Alizon.
‘Then take thy fate,’ rejoined the evil spirit.
And placing his hand upon her heart, it instantly ceased to beat.
‘Mother, thou art saved – saved,’ exclaimed Alizon, throwing out her arms.
And gazing at her for an instant with a seraphic look, she fell backwards and expired (Ainsworth, 483 – 484).
Alice is then burned at the stake with all the rest, but her passing is serene and her soul is saved. Whereas Matthew Lewis’ Ambrosio, The Monk (1796), and Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer die horribly and go to hell forever in the manner of Doctor Faustus, Ainsworth’s redemptive conclusion returns to Goethe’s text in positive contrast to the desolate endings of ‘The Spectre Bride’ and Auriol, Faust Part Two concluding:
Ah, look down,
Thou Rich in heaven’s renown,
Turn thou the grace of thy dear face
On the fullness of my bliss;
For now my lover,
Earth’s sadness over,
Comes from that world to meet me in this (Goethe, 1831: V).
As in Ainsworth’s tragedy of Guy Fawkes and Viviana Radcliffe, Alizon sacrifices her life for a penitent sinner, and both achieve a state of grace as a result. When Alice and Mother Chattox challenge Mother Demdike on Pendle Hill at the climax of Book I, Alice’s reply to Mother Chattox’s rabid vow that she will do ‘anything to avenge myself upon that murtherous hag,’ is ‘I do not want vengeance … I want only to save my child’ (Ainsworth, 483 – 484). The rebellion is over, and the hell’s angel is once more the angel of the house.
The ostensibly conventional Christian conclusion to The Lancashire Witches does little, however, to dispel the overall impression (in common with Shadwell’s play) that it can be good to be bad. The story of Alice and Alizon merely confirms that the rewards of virtue are largely spiritual, whereas the witches are seen actively to enjoy their mortal existence. The novel concludes:
Jennet was the last of the Lancashire Witches. Ever since then witchcraft has taken a new form with the ladies of the county – though their fascination and spells are as potent as ever. Few can now escape them – few desire to do so.
But to all who are afraid of a bright eye and a blooming cheek, and who desire to adhere to a bachelor’s condition – to such I should say, ‘Beware the Lancashire Witches’ (Ainsworth, 493).
As with Dinesen’s broomstick, witchcraft is now a metaphor for female sexuality, which is really what it always was historically. While in flippant praise of Lancashire ladies, the author leaves the battle of the sexes raging, also suggesting that the sexual/supernatural power of women that informed his novel may have been transmuted, but that female magic is merely dormant rather than completely absent, at least in his home county.
Ainsworth always sympathised with his outlaws, obviously preferring the social freedom they seemed to symbolise compared to the political norm. His own position as a literary outsider since the Newgate Controversy might well also be read allegorically within the pages of this book. Similarly, it should be noted that The Lancashire Witches was written during the year of the final Chartist petition, and many Lancashire Chartists found themselves incarcerated in Lancaster Castle, the place where the Lancashire Witches met their unpleasant end (12). Finally, and most significantly, Ainsworth’s witch-women seem to anticipate what is to come in mid-Victorian women’s writing.
The Eve Titan
Like the traditional gothic narrative, Ainsworth’s vogue was now passing. A letter he wrote to his brother-author, the historical novelist G.P.R. James, during this period seems to signal their mutual departure from the mainstream of literature as the new generation of Victorian novelists comes of age:
My dear James
Anything I can do for you at any time you know you may command, and I shall only be too happy in the opportunity of making kindly mention in The New Monthly Magazine of your Dark Scenes of History (13). The times are not propitious to us veterans, and literature generally has within the last two years suffered a tremendous depreciation –
Do you know, I took it into my head you were the author of Jane Eyre, but I have altered my opinion since I read a portion of Shirley (14) Currer Bell, whoever he or she may be, has certainly got some of your ‘trick,’ and I began to think you were coming upon us in fresh and more questionable shape. But Shirley has again perplexed me.
I hope when you are next in town you will come and dine with me. It will really delight me to see you.
Ever cordially yours,
Harrison Ainsworth (Ainsworth, letter to G.P.R. James, dated November 14, 1849).
Ainsworth, like his beloved outlaws, seems suddenly out of time and place: the last of a line, a fantasist in an age of fact; the last of the original English gothic novelists, soon to be pensioned off by Lord Palmerston.
Although baffled by Charlotte Brontë, Ainsworth might, despite his perplexity, have paused to consider the heroines of Jane Eyre and Shirley in relation to those of his last novel. Consider, for example, little Jane Eyre’s instinctive rebellion against Mrs Reed:
‘What would Uncle Reed say to you if he were alive?’ was my scarcely voluntary demand. I say scarcely voluntary, for it seemed as if my tongue pronounced words without my will consenting to their utterance: something spoke out of me over which I had no control.
‘What?’ said Mrs. Reed under her breath: her usually cold, composed gray eye became troubled with a look of fear; she took her hand from my arm, and gazed at me as if she really did not know whether I were child or fiend. I was now in for it.
‘My Uncle Reed is in heaven, and can see all you do and think; and so can papa and mamma; they know how you shut me up all day long, and how you wish me dead.’
Mrs. Reed soon rallied her spirits: she shook me most soundly, she boxed both my ears, and then left me without a word. Bessie supplied the hiatus by a homily of an hour’s length, in which she proved beyond a doubt that I was the most wicked and abandoned child ever reared under a roof. I half believed her, for I felt, indeed, only bad feelings surging in my breast (Brontë, 1847, 60).
Jane is here possessed by something which she does not fully understand herself, the devil of dissent, and the notion of the child-fiend (a controlling metaphor developed throughout the novel, Jane forever being described in supernatural or elemental terms) establishes Jane Eyre firmly within the Romantic/satanic tradition. In the second round, a couple of pages further on, Jane also realises for the first time that rebellion and revenge can be rather enjoyable, and she experiences the heady pleasures of the satanic:
Ere I had finished this reply, my soul began to expand, to exult, with the strangest sense of freedom, of triumph, I ever felt. It seemed as if an invisible bond had burst, and that I had struggled out into un-hoped-for liberty. Not without cause was this sentiment: Mrs. Reed looked frightened: her work had slipped from her knee; she was lifting up her hands, rocking herself to and fro, and even twisting her face as if she would cry – I was left there alone – winner of the field. It was the hardest battle I had fought, and the first victory I had gained. I stood awhile on the rug, where Mr. Brocklehurst had stood, and enjoyed my conqueror’s solitude (Brontë, 1847, 69).
Jane shortly enters Lowood, where her heroic struggle continues, including her rejection of the passive Christianity of Miss Temple and Helen Burns. When the Byronic Mr. Rochester formally meets Jane, he famously remarks that ‘No wonder you have rather the look of another world – When you came on me in Hay Lane last night, I thought unaccountably of fairy tales, and had half a mind to demand whether you had bewitched my horse’ (Brontë, 1847, 153).
Brontë’s use of satanic symbolism is obviously much more refined that Ainsworth’s tendency towards brute literalism, and she also takes the rebellion much further, leading some critics to evoke comparisons with the dangers of Chartism, much as they had done with regard to Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard. Currer Bell’s ‘autobiography,’ wrote Elizabeth Rigby in The Quarterly Review, ‘is pre-eminently an anti-Christian composition,’ adding, ‘The tone of mind and thought which has fostered Chartism and rebellion is the same which has also written Jane Eyre’ (Rigby, 173). Miss Rigby, a middle class woman happy to be complicit in her own subjugation, also made the connection with rebellious Eve implicit in her review by stating that the daughters of Eve should accept their guilt and know their place: ‘She [Jane] has inherited in fullest measure the worst sin of our fallen nature – the sin of pride.’ As Gilbert and Gubar note, what disturbed Victorian critics most about Jane Eyre was her refusal to accept her position in the social order, read as ‘anti-Christian’ and, therefore, satanic:
Jane Eyre is proud, and therefore she is ungrateful, too. It pleased God to make her an orphan, friendless, and penniless – yet she thanks nobody, and least of all Him, for the food and rainment, the friends, companions, and instructors of her helpless youth – On the contrary, she looks upon all that has been done for her not only as her undoubted right, but as falling far short of it (Rigby, 174).
‘In other words,’ respond Gilbert and Gubar, ‘what horrified the Victorians was Jane’s anger’ (Gilbert and Gubar, 338). Without actively selling her soul to Satan (unless we count her marriage to Rochester rather than St John, which is certainly on her own terms), as did Ainsworth’s witches, Jane Eyre is fighting in exactly the same revolutionary war as Eve and the hell’s angels. ‘Humility,’ says the pious suitor St John, ‘is the groundwork of Christian virtues,’ but we know that Jane will never know her place in the orthodox hierarchy (Brontë, 1847: 428).
In Shirley, the other novel by Brontë we know ‘perplexed’ Ainsworth, Eve’s potential omnipotence and present political impotence are further developed by her author, and the feminist revision of the Romantic dialogue with Milton continues. ‘Milton was great; but was he good?’ wonders Shirley rhetorically, continuing:
‘His brain was right; how was his heart? He saw heaven: he looked down on hell. He saw Satan, and Sin his daughter, and Death their horrible offspring. Angels serried before him their battalions – Milton tried to see the first woman; but, Cary, he saw her not’ (Brontë, 1849, 314 – 15).
Alluding to the episode in Book V of Paradise Lost where Eve prepares food for Adam and the archangel Raphael (being only a girl), Shirley explains that ‘It was his cook that he saw.’ The independent Shirley, however, sees a different Eve:
‘I saw – I now see – a woman-Titan: her robe of blue air spreads to the outskirts of the heath, where yonder flock is grazing; a veil white as an avalanche sweeps from her head to her feet, and arabesques of lightning flame on its borders. Under her breast I see her zone, purple like that horizon: through its blush shines the star of evening. Her steady eyes I cannot picture; they are clear – they are deep as lakes – they are lifted and full of worship – they tremble with the softness of love and the lustre of prayer. Her forehead has the expanse of a cloud, and is paler than the earthly moon, risen long before dark gathers: she reclines her bosom on the ridge of Stilbro’ Moor; her mighty hands are joined beneath it. So kneeling, face to face she speaks with God. That Eve is Jehovah’s daughter, as Adam was his son’ (Brontë, 1849, 315).
Shirley’s companion, the shy and retiring Caroline Helstone, thinks they should carry on into church but Shirley replies ‘Caroline, I will not: I will stay out here with my mother Eve, in these days called Nature. I love her – undying, mighty being! Heaven may have faded from her brow when she fell in paradise; but all that is glorious on earth shines there still’ (Brontë, 1849, 316). The vision is interrupted by the symbolically charged passing of a group of soldiers, bought into the area to quell the Luddite uprising, and by the Moore’s foreman, Joe Scott, who quotes St. Paul’s first Epistle to Timothy, as if to remind us how radical Shirley’s Eve differs from her biblical counterpart: ‘Let the woman learn in silence, with all subjection. I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man; but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve’ (Brontë, 1849, 322).
Shirley’s Eve-Titan, which Caroline considers to be pagan, refers to the six sons and six daughters of Uranus (Heaven) and Gaia (Earth), the elder-gods of Greek mythology which were overthrown by Zeus and the gods of Olympus. She has lost heaven but gained the earth, and has to kneel to look God squarely in the eye. Her titanic physical proportion also recalls Milton’s Satan after the fall:
Thus Satan talking to his nearest mate
With head uplift above the wave, and eyes
That sparkling blazed; his other parts besides
Prone on the flood, extending long and large
Lay floating many a rood, in bulk as huge
As whom the fables name of monstrous size,
Titanian or Earth-born, that warred on Jove,
Briareos or Typhon, whom the den
By ancient Tarsus held, or that sea-beast
Leviathan, which God of all his works
Created hugest that swim th’ocean stream (Milton, I, 192 – 202).
Shirley, which is all about rebellion, the Luddite riots during the Napoleonic Wars providing the historical frame, once again returns us to the implicit relationship between Eve and Satan, not as the fallen but as revolutionary heroes. As in the argument between Shirley and Joe, Brontë often reminds us of how the Bible is used to justify the subjugation of women and the exploitation of the working classes under capitalism, Christian orthodoxy making legitimate all forms of social, economic and sexual repression. With regard to the perceived role of women, Shirley clearly understands the false and fragmentary nature of the male gaze, with particular regard to literature. What Shirley realises needs to be done, under pain of biblical retribution, is to unite and accept all feminine emanations in life and in literature:
‘If men could see us as we really are, they would be a little amazed; but the cleverest, the acutest men are often under an illusion about women: they do not read them in a true light: they misapprehend them, both for good and evil: their good woman is a queer thing, half doll, half angel; their bad woman almost always a fiend. Then to hear them fall into ecstasies with each other’s creations, worshipping the heroine of such a poem – novel – drama, thinking it fine – divine! Fine and divine it may be, but often quite artificial – false as the rose in my best bonnet there. If I spoke all I think on this point; if I gave my real opinion of some first-rate female characters in first-rate works, where should I be? Dead under a cairn of avenging stones in half an hour’ (Brontë, 1849, 343).
Ainsworth being, like Milton, a comparative mythologist of sorts, was as guilty of the above as anyone in The Lancashire Witches, yet I cannot help but feel that Mother Demdike’s first appearance atop Malkin Tower offers us another image of the Eve-Titan, another emanation to place beside Shirley’s: Mother Nature unbound, angry and destructive (which we know she can be), rather than nurturing and protective; both belong to a pre-Christian mythology, both look God in the eye, and both choose another path.
We know that Ainsworth read Brontë, even if he did not get the point, but we do not know if Brontë read Ainsworth. We do know, however, that the Brontës did not lead the life of romantic isolation that the English heritage industry has sold us. The family had full access to the periodicals of the day and, even if they did not concern themselves overmuch with popular literature, as Yorkshire folk they would have certainly known the legend of the Lancashire Witches. Ainsworth may well not have appreciated the full implications of his narrative, and he also put the genie firmly back into the box at its conclusion, throwing it onto the fire for good measure (as Brontë did Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre), but his well-established love of outlaws and powerful women at least allows us to place his work back within the romantic literary tradition that leads us to the ideological concerns of the writers who succeeded him in redefining the satanic and the gothic once more. His women at least do know how to fly.
Pendle Hill is still associated with witchcraft, and every Halloween there is a gathering on the hilltop. Within the last twenty years, two petitions have been presented to parliament (the first in 1998 and the second in 2008), calling for the Pendle ‘witches’ to be pardoned, with another campaign launched in 2012, the 400th anniversary of the original case. The anniversary was marked by a series of high profile civic and cultural events, culminating in the unveiling at Roughlee of a haunting life-size statue of Alice Nutter in chains, sculptured by local artist David Palmer, a powerful reminder that there were real men and women behind all these myths and legends who died horribly in the name of mistaken belief.
For Notes and Works Cited please click here
The full text of Ainsworth’s novel can be found at Project Gutenberg