New Zealand-raised debut author Margaret Meyer, who has lived in the UK for many years, has deservedly hit the international jackpot with her compelling historical novel The Witching Tide. Set in in 1645, the novel was inspired by actual historical events: the shameful East Anglian 1645-47 witch hunts that culminated in numerous innocent women losing their lives.
The novel opens with mute forty-seven-year-old Martha Hallybread – servant, healer and midwife – cutting medicinal and culinary herbs in her ‘physick’ garden. She observes three men approaching. ‘The men faltered and fell back as though they had seen a hell-fiend rise: that hag was her.’
Right from the start we encounter escalating menace and dread – and a deep vein of misogyny running through the community. After brutally shoving Martha to the ground, the thugs drag Prissy, a young kitchen maid, ‘between them like a heifer bound for the slaughterhouse’. An apposite image for a woman in an era when suspected witches were treated worse than the lowliest animal.
Silas Makepiece, inspired by real-life fanatical seventeenth century witch-finder Matthew Hopkins, has arrived in the fictional East Anglian coastal village of Cleftwater to pursue his God-given mission of executing by hanging any woman who shows the slightest evidence of having made a pact with the devil – witches, or the devil’s brides.
Terror and mass hysteria ensue. Soon Martha witnesses other women in her community rounded up and detained by Makepiece. She takes bread to the accused women in gaol.
Eyes gleamed at her from the murk. The women: dirty, tangle-haired.
Gape-mouthed, damaged-looking. A low keening was starting up, soft pleas and cries, the noise something she had heard before, recent, a stamp on her mind.
Martha is marginalised by her muteness. She communicates solely by ‘shaping’: hand gestures and signs, understandable to those who know her, but baffling to strangers. Her hands ‘must talk for her’. Italicised text has been substituted for dialogue, so the reader is always aware of what Martha struggles to communicate.
Inside her were unvoiced words – so many – that shoved and bobbed inside her head and chest. They could not be sounded because of the thing in her throat – a thick, throbbing form that stole her voice and used her breath for its own. Something lived in it: a serpent, a worm. Since childhood it had been there.
The women accused of witchery are subjected to invasive and humiliating full-body examinations by Makepeace’s search mistresses, the ‘prickers’, seeking evidence of any inexplicable mole, wart, skin tag or extra nipple – ‘a teat from which an imp has lately suckled’ – that is then pricked with a lancet to test if it bleeds.
Five slender inches of steel ending in a point . . . immune to evil,
indifferent to a witch’s tales. It knows only what it finds at its tip.
The women are tortured to extract confessions: deprived of sleep, starved, dehydrated, and led on enforced continuous walks through the night leaving a trail of bloody footprints.
As a midwife whose work has recently resulted in the death of a deformed baby, Martha fears that her own arrest is imminent. Complicating matters is the fact she’s hiding a dangerous secret that if discovered will seal her fate. In her possession is a ‘poppet’, a small wax charm doll, ‘a weapon’ gifted to her by her late mother.
From its open mouth she thought she heard a tiny leaking – a sinister, persuasive hum . . . The doll seemed to cling to her skin. Mam had taught how a left eye was the witching eye, able to see things not readily visible but present nonetheless.
Martha re-makes the doll and immediately feels the change in her body, ‘as if her own solid self had been nudged aside to make room for something other – a force, a spirit. It coiled up at her, very chill.’ She attributes power to the poppet, using a form of witchcraft to try to save herself and the other women, to ‘slow this evil. Thwart the hunt. Stop the witch man, who’d infected Cleftwater with his special contagion.’
Her small fishing community is rife with rumours and speculation, no woman exempt from suspicion. Misogyny, mistrust and malice smoulder. Tale-tellers and grudge-keepers queue for an audience with the witch-hunter to dob in neighbours, dividing the community.
Martha is requisitioned by Makepeace to assist with the body searches. ‘You must listen to them, to all they say – their secrets, accounts of witch deeds, their vows to Satan, the names of their imps.’ She begins to walk a dangerous path between doing what is right and compromising her loyalty to her master Kit and mistress Agnes, and to ‘the taken women’, to avoid the gallows herself.
The accused women deny their charges, but no one believes them. The witch trials are a sham. The scales of justice are already tipped, the women indicted on manufactured evidence and false charges by Makepeace, the searchers and vindictive neighbours looking for plausible explanations for illness, death and misfortune. As she had feared, Martha, too, is eventually arrested.
The powerlessness of the accused women and the hopelessness of their plights is rendered in harrowing, unsparing detail. It would be difficult to read The Witching Tide and not be emotionally affected by the monstrous injustices perpetrated on Martha and the other accused women.
The novel poses big questions: In extreme circumstances would you take a stand against a perceived injustice if it meant risking losing your own life? And how do you hold onto your own sense of integrity when truth and lies have become indistinguishable, and common sense and reason abandoned?
In The Witching Tide, herbalists, midwives, spinsters and elderly, impoverished women are easy targets for the witch-finder. The silencing of women’s voices and the dismissal or undermining of their knowledge and skills – their basic human rights – are themes just as relevant and urgent today, when freedom of speech – and truth itself – are increasingly under threat. Some women risk career-ending backlashes if they dare to express unpopular views or those deemed to be politically incorrect. Our former prime minister Jacinda Ardern was demonised by conspiracy theorists, anti-vaxers and misogynists.
The Witching Tide is written in vivid, lyrical prose. Village life in the 1640s and the sensory details of the natural world experienced by Martha are particular strengths in this beautifully crafted novel. The horror of the witch trials is skilfully evoked. Meyer has given Martha a rich inner life, rendering this mute and flawed character convincing and complex. At the end she senses the presence of a collective of countless other women who have suffered and died.
The women urge her on. As they go, they one after another speak; she hears them in her pith, she hears them with her soul, their voices chiming like tones in a sound box. We are bitch. We are chit. We are slut. We are wench, harlot, bawd, madam, jezebel, whore, daemon, sorceress, doxy, cunt, slattern, jade, hag . . . We are monstrous, legion; we are too many, we are never enough.
The Witching Tide combines meticulous research with a dramatic and memorable story. A dazzling debut.