Recognising Robert Neill: Witch Bane


Apologies for the severely belated nature of this post, which should have appeared between the posts on The Devil’s Weather and the Crown & Mitre trilogy. It was certainly written at that time, but somehow I seem to have managed to overlook posting it, a failure I have only now realised. Smack wrist, must do better. I feel a proper fule!

witchbane
I have mixed feelings about this novel, Neill’s eleventh, which date back to my first discovering his works, and seeing those novels that were available in paperback in my late teens, 1974/5, the middle of my University years. Mist over Pendle and its first three successors were available in every bookshop/book section I went in, those four and Witch Bane.
Naturally, I assumed to be his latest novel, though it had actually first been published in 1967, and there was a far more recent book that I knew nothing of. But compare the covers of Pendle et al – indeed, of all the other novels – and what stands out about Witch Bane? The word that comes into my head every time I see it is Cheap.
Though the novel pre-dated the notorious film Witchfinder General, and the subsequent Hammer horrors that were slipping towards soft-porn territory, by a year, the paperback didn’t appear until 1970 and it’s a definite attempt to draw on the sadoporn imagery of terrified women stripped nude or semi-nude.
As for the book itself, it’s a rather slight, almost indeterminate book, awkwardly marrying two things together and using one to draw a line under the more substantial (in story terms) other. What’s more, a substantially longer Historical Note at the end once again admits to a lack of the evidence that Neill would normally have absorbed to the full: authoritative accounts of the Battle of Preston are few and contradictory, whilst the witchcraft and what surrounds it is portrayed on something of a ‘must have happened’ level.
What of the story? It is set over a few short weeks in 1648, making it technically another Stuart novel: the First Civil War has ended, King Charles I has made allies of the Scots and has initiated the Second Civil War, that would lead to his beheading.
But we are not concerned with that. The novel begins in media res, and how! Mary Standen, newly widowed at 23, has been accused of causing the death of her unloved and doctrinaire Presbyterian husband by means of witchcraft. In a moment, she will be thrown onto a table in Clitheroe Market Place, stripped publicly naked, explored for the ‘Devil’s Mark’, whereupon the Pricker (stop sniggering at the back, there) will plunge a three inch brass pin into whatever skin blemish he finds: if she does not feel pain, if she does not bleed, she is a proven witch.
The Pricker (stop it. Now) is a professional witch-finder, paid for each witch he finds, so not biassed then. Mary, though not a witch, neither screams nor bleeds and would be condemned were it not for the intervention of Major Dick Rowley, who points out that Mary, being a woman of the better sort, has actually fainted at the treatment she’s had. A second test, administered after she’s roused, produces screams, blood and a rather reluctant acquittal.
Rowley, and the Army, are not well liked in such a godly county as Lancashire – meaning a county full of Presbyterians determined their religion shall be the only one. The Army are Independents in religion, all determined to resist the tyranny of ministers as such as they have overthrown the tyranny of Kings, and Rowley has, for some undisclosed reason, taken a considerable shine to the comely Mary.
So Mary is reinstated in her late husband’s farm, Twelvetrees, and supported thus by the Minister, Mr Soames, though it was he who ordered her stripped and pricked (for the last time…). But though Soames is as hot against witches as ever, his conscience insists that Mary, having been acquitted, be restored to the community fully.
This is not a position that can be held by Mary’s sister-in-law, Isobel Grimshaw, a hating, loathing harridan who will not allow herself to accept Mary. Isobel is crazed about witches, bitter and determined that they be destroyed with fire and brutality. Her inability to control herself will put Mary and her friends in danger as the novel reaches its end, forcing them to flee to Preston, just as the Battle is being fought between Cromwell’s New Model Army and the ill-disciplined, rebellious Scots.
But at a very early stage, Neill shows Mary learning that Isobel has more of the right of things than she cares to think. For there are witches in the unspecified village near to Clitheroe where Twelvetrees is established. There is a Devil who leads the coven and there are followers. They arouse Mary’s disgust at their behaviour, and her shock at learning that seventeen year old Judith Hay – who also escaped the Clitheroe Market Place – is its current Maiden, and Mary’s own maid, Betty, is a coven member.
For Judith it’s a way of life, for she is daughter to a witch and has certain powers, not to mention a tactical mind far better than all the Presbyters put together. For Betty, it is something to do, something fun in a county that has banned fun: if it were not for the fact that she has sold her soul to the Devil, Betty would happily be a social member of the coven.
Mary’s problem is that, leaving aside her concerns about Betty, and her increasingly reluctant liking for Judith, she is genuinely disgusted at the coven but, after Clitheroe, implacably opposed to doing anything that will see anyone put into a position like the one she experienced.
It’s this tension that underpins the story, together with the rising concern about the rebel Scots getting into the county, and Preston’s significance as having the only bridge across the Ribble. Mary’s romance with Dick Rowley is unusually perfunctory: he likes her, she likes him and that’s the future sewn up, if only these bloody witches would go away.
Which is where the book starts to get into difficulties. Because it’s only going to end if the compromised Judith leaves for good. After certain shenanigans on Mary’s farm, she’s willing to go, but Isobel’s intervention intervenes, and the three women, with Mary’s friend Prudence, who has been sent out of Preston to avoid the forthcoming battle, are forced to flee back to Preston, escorted by a rebel soldier who’s taken a more direct shine to the shapely Judith.
So the battle forms the backdrop to a scene whereby Judith’s soldier is saved from the bloody rout to take Judith away, whilst Mary gets to see her soldier survive routing the rebels bloodily, and all will be well and the coven dispersed.
And that’s it as far as a resolution goes, and not particularly convincing really, is it? We’re not even given any intimation, for those not already familiar with the details of the Second Civil War, that the Battle of Preston is, to all intents and purposes, its end.
I’d love to know how Neill’s books sold, how they were received. Reading them in publication order, yet with an overview in my head, it’s impossible not to start fantasizing scenarios of how he would move from book to book. The fact that he openly admits that he has had to come to conclusions about the Battle of Preston that could be challenged is one thing, but there’s a greater confession made when Neill talks about the almost complete lack of history of witches in Lancashire.
There’s the 1611 case, he says (being the Pendle Witches) and possibly another in 1634, which also depends on a single document, but given the inevitable presence of witches, and the prevalence of Presbyterians, what he presents must have happened in some form, and the forms may be taken from other sources, notably Scottish ones.
This is not an approach, we feel, that Neill would usually take, but there are those uncharacteristic novels that have perhaps dragged down his reputation (and sales?) this half-decade, and perhaps The Devil’s Weather hasn’t gone down as well as it deserved to. Perhaps something deliberately harking to his first and biggest success, something about Witches in Lancashire, might do the trick?
I stress that this is just an imaginative interpretation of the interplay between the books themselves, a decipherable pattern that is based on no facts whatsoever. If there is any element of truth in it, I am in no position to say. But it would be three years before Neill’s next novel, and that, when published, would be announced as the first in a trilogy set in Stuart times, featuring a single family. Which, given Neill’s forte, would again be the sort of move onto home territory that a writer suffering a decline in sales might make.
It would also be another recovery of form, and a welcome one.

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