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A. K. Blakemore

13th October 2022

With the sellout audience all sitting comfortably, the evening of our October event with A. K. Blakemore began. Janet prompted the conversation on all sorts of topics and insights were shared with an enraptured audience. We heard about the critically acclaimed and prize-winning debut novel The Manningtree Witches, a ‘dream project’ for the young writer, and tellingly, her darling.

Introducing herself as primarily poet but now novelist, Blakemore informed the room that she was inspired by Manningtree’s town sign, when visiting her father. That was the moment when the cogs began to turn and impel an interest in discovering more about the women convicted as witches. She was motivated to grapple with a darker aspect of our society and our history. The spark was there. Enjoying the process of researching, Amy Blakemore went to the archive of persecuted women of Manningtree and out they stood, like prophets, wanting their story told. A myriad of information arose, such as rivalries, crushes, strifes and annoyances: the textures of peasant women’s lives in their community. The research effort was rewarding, but the only records were produced in time of trauma, or horrible events and circumstances. Before The Manningtree Witches, Blakemore’s most celebrated work was in translated poetry, having taken a literal translation from a foreign poet’s work, adding flesh and life to the bones. This was the method she followed at the outset of the novel, liking that there was already a beginning, middle and end and modestly implying she’d just organised the scenes. Gaining confidence in attempting this new format, although daunting, was enjoyable. The space allowed renewed freedom for words, ending her writer's block with renewed passion after the crushing fear of never writing again.

Indeed, language is one of the novel’s strengths, employing fascinating obscure but enriching archaisms. She revealed that her university background assisted her linguistic interest, being an Oxford graduate in English studies, specialising in Middle English Literature. Whilst early drafts contained differing levels of Old English, she wanted to uphold her main aims: accuracy, authenticity and readability. Seeking justice for the persecuted women, Blakemore determined on staying as close to historical events as possible; even including actual, authentic testimony from surprisingly vivid, interesting and funny voices. She told the hushed and captivated room that for a more dynamic story she had to consider the reader, breathing life into her research, embellishing and enlivening, adding depth and interest. She wanted to dispel patronising views to provide the perspective that women did have power in their own ways, even against such overwhelming patriarchal forces. Blakemore revealed that women in the novel deliberately speak less archaically than the men to show the codes used between themselves, in contrast with the more formal male language. But this too had purpose: to show how authority and implied knowledge comes from language and how you speak.

The most difficult scene for her was the execution of Old Mother Clarke, her favourite character, but the one she subjected to the harshest treatment. Accusations came from her begging and being denied charity; her carelessness with words; being destitute, disabled and alone. Most women accused of witchcraft were victimised and extremely vulnerable. Blakemore found this story profoundly traumatic, harrowed by the research, especially about Clarke’s torture and humiliation. Those who have read the novel know that she stays with you long after the final pages.

Of course at the heart of these women’s tragedies is the man who caused them: Matthew Hopkins. The man who, for whatever motivation, sought out, preyed on, and destroyed, with the intrinsic belief that he was fulfilling God’s work in expelling the Devil. For Blakemore, he was of course just as much of a central pillar of the novel as Rebecca and those he had wronged. She made clear that she had to grapple with this man who seemed to have more depth than his infamous name conjures. Figures like him have become unreal, gothic, even mythic. In crafting a world involving real people, she felt obliged to add a sense of humanity to him, not just portraying him as innately evil, but as troubled by his puritanical religion and morals. Finding out that Hopkins was only 27 when he died compromised Blakemore’s idea of who he was: not a gnarled, decrepit, sinister misogynistic man, but youthful, educated, and gifted with potent charisma. Above all, he had an unwavering duty to God. Blakemore focused on this idea of religious ideology, how the Devil to the people in seventeenth century Essex was tangible, ceaselessly attempting to subvert society. This specific fear created her protagonist Rebecca, aspiring to capture what living in such a world must have felt like. Having strong, palpable and sinful emotions of desire, shame, jealousy and sin, coupled with the purported and constant threat of damnation, must have been terrifying. Blakemore thinks that Hopkins was genuinely troubled with religion, believing he was achieving God’s work, doing his divine duty by eliminating witches. Whilst there’s no historical evidence of alternate motivations other than his own writings, he is sensual in his descriptions. He is an ambivalent man, seeking out women to achieve his personal vendetta in the name of his God.

The evening ended on a more lighthearted note. One of the craziest theories Blakemore stumbled across was that of the Ergot fungus, infecting cereal crops and causing hallucinations, hence an uptick in ‘supernatural’ sightings. The idea of most of Essex being high, amused her, as well as the audience. As for her ‘A. K.’ initials? Simply to keep her writing separate from her personal life. And, more specifically, to keep the people she worked with from finding out that she’s a writer! She also dropped in the fact that The Manningtree Witches, wasn’t the title she favoured either. Upon asking her afterwards, she revealed that her preferred title was in the novel’s epigraph, ‘Delicate Firebrand-Darlings’. This novel is testament to her commitment to revive those innocent women’s stories, undermining the man who caused such suffering by transforming his words into their strength, if not in life, then through literature. These women, as Blakemore attests in this wonder of a novel, were strong and valiant right to the bitter end.

It was a privilege to be present that October evening to hear this fantastic talk.

James Phillips


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