Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Talking of Witches - Guest Post by Leslie Wilson

Malefice, the novel I for adults that I wrote in the very early nineties and which I have just self-published on the Kindle platform, is the story of a witch who was prosecuted and hanged in the seventeenth century, and my inspiration for it was the simple thought: I want to write a novel about a witch. The reason it's set in the seventeenth century is that the only local witch prosecution I could find out about was in Waltham St Lawrence parish register:

"Mabel modwyn widowe abact 68 years old arraigned for witch craft at Redding 29th Feb: and condemned on the 5th of March, 1655. Shee lived at ye south-wist cornr. of lower Innings in ye cornr. next to Binfield"

I changed the name of the village, and the witch; I was definitely writing for adults, and Mabel sounded a bit like The Worst Witch. Alice Slade, my witch would be called, and the village would be Whitchurch St Leonard.

I did a lot of research; I always do for my novels, and I found out that the English witch prosecution scenario was much different from the popular image, largely derived from the mass witchhunts of continental Europe. There were a few mass witchhunts in England, famously in Essex and Lancashire, but these were the exception rather than the rule. In fact, in English history, there were a lot of poverty-stricken old women who managed to live off their reputation as a witch. People were so afraid of their supposed evil powers that they gave them bits of food, flour, honey, yeast to make beer, and do on, and so the poor things scraped a living - at the cost of being mistrusted and feared, of course.

So the question that had to be asked about every witch prosecution was: what went wrong? Far from a witchhunt orchestrated by fanatical outsiders, this was usually a case of a community turning on one of their number and deciding that this one person was responsible for a range of harms. Most of those harms, in fact, were provoked by people offending the witch, or even committing crimes against her. I found this last fact very interesting, from the story point of view; someone damages you, and you're found guilty. And yet, if people believe you're a witch, you have been using this reputation for maleficence; maybe not deliberately, but you've been taking advantage of it all the same. Of course, as I've said, it's often your only option.

So it seemed to me that what I had was a crime novel, in an odd way, and what I had to find out was not the criminal, but the nature of the crime. I framed the story round the accounts of the witnesses, those people who were convinced Alice was responsible for the disasters that had befallen her, and the action of the novel moves back in time, through a series of periods of Alice's life, gradually unfolding all the things that anyone had against her, and their reasons for distrusting her. Frequently these were the things she knew about them, that they wanted to keep secret, but it seemed to me that somehow the root of the 'crime' and Alice's outsider status in the community, lay right at the beginning of her life, while she was still a child. I was inspired to do it like that by the brilliant Elizabeth Jane Howard, whose novel The Long View also tracks backwards, in this case, through a married relationship to the beginning. I have always thought it was the most perfect novel I've ever read.

Re-reading Malefice, what strikes me is that it's possibly more modern now than when it was first published. I thought of it then as a drama, with people stepping forward on a stage and giving their versions, but now, when the focus of journalism is so much on personal experience, it feels like a lot of interviews, or people posting their own accounts on the Internet. It's a very short novel (the hardback was printed on specially thick paper to make it feel more substantial) and in fact, after it went up on Kindle, I discovered how good it looks on a smartphone. There were never a huge amount of words on the page, and they sit very nicely on the small screen. I hadn't thought of that, though my daughter, who did the jacket layout (she did fashion design at Brighton, not quite the same kind of jacket, but she did a marvellous job), is more savvy than me, and she did frame it so that it would look good on a phone. Some time I'd love to do another edition, with additional material added, historical background and so on, but for the time being, I've just put the original novel up, and updated the author info, etc.

I had various thoughts about the jacket, but it happened that I took a photo of a bank with writhing roots and chalk, when we were walking the dog on Watlington Hill, and it seemed just perfect for Malefice, with its prologue of the witch's daughter, Margaret, struggling with the difficult Thames Valley soil as she buries her mother secretly in the churchyard.

I have also blogged about Malefice and the English witch hunt at

You can buy Malefice at amazon uk


Lydia Bennet said...

Welcome to AE, and thank you for a most intriguing post. I see you mention you've self published it on Kindle after writing it in the 90s: did you try to get it published traditionally, or did you at the time and now are doing the ebook version? I see you have a comment by Mantel, with support like that you might well hope for a trad pub deal. Just interested to know why you made the decision to self-pub. Good luck with the novel!

Umberto Tosi said...

Novels and films about witches rarely depict them as real women based upon the actual and shameful history of their persecution. Instead, they go for stereotypes and pop mythology - which I suppose is entertaining for many readers. Your approaching the subject from authenticity is refreshing, and I'm sure, entertaining as well. I look forward to reading Malefice. Thank you.

Leslie Wilson said...

Lydia, it was published by Picador, Pantheon in the US, and Editions Rivages in Paris, and then went out of print (though I think it may be still in print in France). It was well received - see the reviews on the Amazon page. However, it is quite normal for mainstream-published books to go OP, and I got fed up with the fact that it was still selling, but only second-hand booksellers were getting any money for it (though I treasure second-hand booksellers for dead authors).
Umberto, thank you for your appreciation!

Dennis Hamley said...

Yes indeed, Leslie, Malefice is indeed a lovely book. My signed copy is in front of me now! And what a bonus to take a photograph so peculiarly right for the book. A far more effective cover than the curious but uninspiring medieval drawing of the Picador edition. It really does say something important about the novel - and not just a hint of what it was about, the only effect of the original. And why shouldn't you do a revised, expanded and annotated new version? I have, twice now, of books which I'd been longing to get my hands on again since they were published in the 90s and I can tell you that it's a wonderful feeling. Finished them at last! If only I'd known then what I know now! That's the glory of being independent.

Katherine Roberts said...

Great to see Malefice back 'in print' Leslie - I missed it the first time around and it does sound perfect for reading on a Kindle (or phone!)

Enid Richemont said...

Leslie - as I've already said on this site, MALEFICE affected me deeply, as it seemed to reflect the chaos in my own life. I also, soon after finishing it, went back to the beginning because I felt there had been so much I'd missed out on. I do this rarely.

I am now considering self-publishing my two adult novels, the first completely re-written, but to no response from my agent, which feels ominous. Am possibly in the market for cover illustrators - any takers?

madwippitt said...

Appetite whetted ... another for my 'to read' list ... it sounds marvellous

Leslie Wilson said...

I think it's unlikely that my daughter, who did the Malefice jacket, would take this one, as she's very busy, but I'll ask her. Thanks, Katherine!