The Lancashire Witches

This is something from the Gothic Blog, but as it’s quite an epic bit of research I thought it was worth sharing the introduction here as well. There’s a link to the whole article at the end of this post…

Largely because of a popular fascination with the occult, The Lancashire Witches is the only one of Ainsworth’s novels to have remained consistently in print to this day, often shelved alongside the work of Dennis Wheatley and Montague Summers (both of whom it undoubtedly influenced). The novel is also one of the mainstays of the Pennine tourist industry, and at time of writing, it is still available in many local museums, railway stations and gift shops. As the Dick Turpin narrative of Rookwood seamlessly passed into the national myth, Ainsworth’s romance of Pendle Forest has supplanted the unusually well-documented history of these unfortunate men and women in Lancashire folklore. This ‘classic tale of the supernatural’ (1) although generally overlooked by scholars of the gothic, therefore continues to exist quietly both as a popular cultural curio and, rather more erroneously, in an extra-literary sense as a genuine history.

The Lancashire Witches is the first of Ainsworth’s ‘Lancashire novels,’ and it is perhaps because of the author’s love for the county of his birth that the book does not suffer from the obviously hasty, and consequently often clumsy, composition that so often marred Ainsworth’s originally interesting ideas. While sharing the Faustian conceit of the Herne the Hunter subplot of Windsor Castle (1843) and the incomplete Auriol (1865), both of which in rushing headlong towards abrupt and unsatisfying conclusions had caused the author much critical ridicule, The Lancashire Witches was subject to uncharacteristically detailed preparation. ‘My desire,’ he admitted towards the end of his life, ‘has really been to write a Lancashire novel, a novel that should please the whole county, and I don’t care whether it pleased anyone else’ (qtd. in Crossley and Evans, 1881).

The Lancashire Witches is set on and around Pendle Hill in early-seventeenth century Lancashire, with an ‘Introduction’ set in 1536. The Cistercian monk Borlace Alvetham is falsely accused of witchcraft by his rival, Brother John Paslew, and condemned to a lingering death. Alvetham escapes by selling his soul to Satan, and returns as the warlock Nicholas Demdike during the Pilgrimage of Grace to witness the execution of the now Abbot Paslew for treason. Paslew dies cursing Demdike’s daughter and, ‘that infant and her progeny became the Lancashire Witches’ (Ainsworth, 62). The remainder of the narrative is set about a century later, when the ancient witch Mother Demdike wields tremendous supernatural power over the area, her evil family challenged only by the rival witches Mother Chattox and Alice Nutter. The elaborate plot centres on the fate of two lovers, the pious Alizon Device (raised by the Demdike clan, but in fact the long-lost daughter of Alice Nutter), and the young aristocrat Richard Assheton. In Book I, Alizon discovers her birth mother is Alice Nutter and resolves to save her soul. Book II chronicles the rivalry between Demdike, Chattox and Nutter, Demdike’s attempts to corrupt Alizon, and the eventual destruction of Demdike and Chattox in a fire on Pendle Hill. Book III follows Alice Nutter’s penitence, a visit from James I, and the final struggle between heaven and hell for the souls of Alice and her daughter. Both are killed in a violent confrontation with Alice’s ex-demon familiar, but they die in prayer and the mark of Satan fades from Alice’s brow. Richard Assheton, who has been cursed repeatedly by various witches throughout, pines away and the lovers are buried in a single grave.

The project appears to have commenced in 1845, three years prior to the first published instalment of the serial in The Sunday Times on January 1, 1848 (2). In dedicating the novel to James Crossley, Ainsworth acknowledges that both the source material and the original idea for the work came from his friend:

To James Crossley, Esq., (of Manchester), President of the Chetham Society, and the learned editor of ‘The Discoverie of Witches in the County of Lancaster’, – the groundwork of the following pages, – this romance, undertaken at his suggestion, is inscribed by his old and sincerely attached friend, the author (Ainsworth, 1848).

This is the quintessential Ainsworth/Crossley project, with each text, Crossley’s history and Ainsworth’s romance, complementing the other. Ainsworth’s references to the new novel in his correspondence with Crossley date from the Chetham Society’s 1845 reprint of the Lancaster Castle Assizes clerk Thomas Potts’s record of the 1612 trial of the so-called Lancashire witches (3), and document three years of preparation for what was to become his master work. In late 1845 Ainsworth wrote to Crossley that, ‘I have not yet started the Witches as I want to commence with effect … Pray see Rodd about Whitaker and the Witchcraft books’ (4) (Ainsworth, letter to Crossley, December, 1845). In the spring of 1846 he wrote, ‘I have some intention of running down into Lancashire to see the Witch Country once more … what say you to another trip?’ (Ainsworth, letter to Crossley, dated May 5, 1846) and, again, in August 1847, ‘I shall soon be in Manchester, as I want to pay another visit to Whalley’ (Ainsworth, letter to Crossley, August, 1847).

These frequent visits to Pendle Hill, the surrounding forest and the ruins of Whalley Abbey add an evocative authenticity to the recreation of the landscape in language, which Ainsworth then makes gothic and sublime:

This glen was in very ill repute, and was never traversed, even at noonday, without apprehension. Its wild and savage aspect, its horrent precipices, its shaggy woods, its strangely-shaped rocks and tenebrous depths, where every imperfectly-seen object appeared doubly frightful – all combined to invest it with mystery and terror.

No one willingly lingered here, but hurried on, afraid of the sound of his own footsteps. No one dared to gaze at the rocks, lest he should see some hideous hobgoblin peering out of their fissures. No one glanced at the water, for fear some terrible kelpy, with twining snakes for hair and scaly hide, should issue from it, and drag him down to devour him with shark-like teeth (Ainsworth, 225 – 226).

In Ainsworth’s magical forest, notions of fact and fantasy blur within the text just as they seemed to in wild, mysterious reality. As Crossley wrote in his introduction to Potts’s Discoverie:

The ‘parting genius’ of superstition still clings to the hoary hill tops and rugged slopes and mossy water sides, along which the old forest stretched its length, and the voices of ancestral tradition are still heard to speak from the depth of its quiet hollows, and along the course of its gurgling streams. He who visits Pendle will yet find that charms are generally resorted to among the lower orders … that each small hamlet has its peculiar and gifted personage whom it is dangerous to offend … that each locality has its haunted house; that apparitions still walk their ghostly rounds (Crossley, 1845).

Leo H. Grindon also wrote of Whalley Abbey that ‘In all Cheshire there is not a locality more desolate, bleak and lonely’ (Grindon, 63).

The Lancashire Witches succeeds because of this tangible tension between the real and the unreal which surrounds the complex aesthetic of the author’s native county. The seventy-two page ‘Introduction’ – which begins with the failure of the Pilgrimage of Grace as warrior monks wait by a beacon on the summit of Pendle Hill – establishes the symbolic nature of the landscape as a place of fire and violence:

As the beacon flame increased it lighted up the whole of the extensive table-land on the summit of Pendle Hill; and a long, lurid streak fell on the darkling moss pool near which the wizard had stood. But when it attained its utmost height it revealed the depths of the forest below, and a red reflection, here and there, marked the course of Pendle Water (Ainsworth, 9).

The signal beacon, rather than the call to arms it was intended to be, marks the end of the rebellion and foreshadows the fire of the sabbat on the hill at the climax of Book I. This ultimately becomes a funeral pyre for Chattox and Demdike and their gateway to hell, the place of ‘oceans of fire, in which miserable souls were forever tossing’ (Ainsworth, 481) and a familiar space within Ainsworth’s fiction. The river of blood snaking through the forest is also the line that Nowell, Potts and Assheton follow into the heart of darkness where Old Mother Demdike reigns absolute.

The shadow of Pendle Hill also falls across the entire text. The innocent locals find it glorious: ‘“I love Pendle Hill”, cried Nicholas, enthusiastically – “Some folks say Pendle Hill wants grandeur and sublimity, but they themselves must be wanting in taste”’ (Ainsworth, 220). The fallen find it ominous; when Alice looks towards it in a moment of peace: ‘One blot alone appeared in the otherwise smiling sky, and this was a great ugly black cloud, lowering over the summit of Pendle Hill’ (Ainsworth, 408), while Potts, the London lawyer, loathes it, declaring to Nicholas that: ‘I hate your bleak Lancashire hills,’ thus marking him as a rogue and a scoundrel in Ainsworth’s universe (Ainsworth, 220). As Mrs. Gaskell also understood, Pendle Hill carried a code of magic, mystery and evil, and she employed it as the sublime backdrop to her moral fable of 1850, ‘The Heart of John Middleton,’ a tale set in Sawley, ‘where the shadow of Pendle Hill falls at sunrise’ (Gaskell, 161). J.S Le Fanu similarly used it as a setting to his short story ‘Dickon the Devil’ (1872), which establishes mood by citing Ainsworth: ‘About thirty years ago I was selected by two rich old maids to visit a property in that part of Lancashire which lies near the famous forest of Pendle, with which Mr Ainsworth’s “Lancashire Witches” has made us so pleasantly familiar’ (Le Fanu, 41).

Ainsworth coverIn addition to Potts’s Discoverie, Ainsworth made good use of another Chetham Society publication, The Journal of Nicholas Assheton, which was the fourteenth volume of the same series that loosed Thomas Potts once more upon the world. Only the entries covering 1617-18 had survived, fortuitously including an account of the King’s visit to Lancashire in 1617, of which Ainsworth made much use, moving the event back five years in time with a historical novelist’s eye for dramatic pacing in order to place the witches in the royal presence.

Assheton is one of Ainsworth’s principal characters, essentially playing Mercutio to his cousin Richard’s Romeo, and the vivid accounts of country life in the journal found easy purchase in the sympathetic mind of the author, who obviously felt a great affection for the young squire: ‘Oh, Nicholas, Nicholas!’ cries the voice of the narrative at one point, ‘I am thoroughly ashamed of you, and regret becoming your historian. You get me into an infinitude of scrapes’ (Ainsworth, 181). Perhaps because both historian and subject were kindred spirits; Ainsworth’s portrait of Assheton is one of his best, and the complex personality which he ascribes to Assheton appears, on the strength of the journal, to be perfectly accurate. Assheton, writes Ainsworth on introducing the character, ‘might be considered a type of the Lancashire squire of the day,’ expertly combining piety and hellraising:

A precision in religious notions, and constant in attendance at church and lecture, he put no sort of restraint upon himself, but mixed up fox-hunting, otter-hunting, shooting at the mark … foot-racing, horse-racing, and, in fact, every other kind of country diversion, not forgetting tippling, cards, and dicing, with daily devotion, discourses, and psalm-singing in the oddest way imaginable (Ainsworth, 78).

In corroboration, the journal records, in the brief period covered, sixteen fox-hunts, ten stag-hunts, and a further fortnight spent hawking, shooting and fishing. There are also nineteen confessions of inebriation, ranging from the merely ‘merrie’ to ‘sicke with drinke’ (Raines, 1969). Sadly, there is no record of a wild dance with the saucy phantom votaress, Isole de Heton, as featured in Ainsworth’s account, but from what survives of the journal nothing would surprise me.

In early 1848, Ainsworth wrote to Crossley, ‘I hope you like the “Witches.” They find favour here; and satisfy the Sunday Times’ (Ainsworth, letter to Crossley, dated February 15, 1848). Further correspondence suggests that Crossley genuinely approved of the novel, and Ainsworth was also right to claim that the novel was popular with public and publishers alike. He had received £1,000 from The Sunday Times for the complete serial (copyright to revert to the author upon completion), which was the same deal he had accepted from them in 1841 for Old St. Paul’s – that his fee had not risen in seven years is an indication of his increasing commercial stagnation. Nevertheless, the serial was a hit, as was the complete novel upon its release the following year. Regrettably, this time the work was not illustrated by George Cruikshank, whose style would have perfectly suited the subject. It remained unillustrated until the third edition of 1854, which contained twelve drawings by Sir John Gilbert, all of which contribute to the fairy tale qualities that are often apparent in the text by depicting the witches as pointy-hatted, warty old hags with flying broomsticks.

The Lancashire Witches was to be Ainsworth’s last major, national success and marks the end of his literary celebrity, at least in the South of England, although a further twenty-eight novels were yet to be written. It is also, however, the first of an irregular series of works devoted to the history of his beloved Lancashire, which would result in the epithet of which he was so proud: that of ‘The Lancashire Novelist.’

To continue reading, please click here to link to full essay

For Notes and Works Cited please click here

The full text of Ainsworth’s novel can be found at Project Gutenberg

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