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James Morrow’s The Last Witchfinder has had a tortured history: it was written several years ago and languished, unloved and bereft of sponsorship. This is ironic, given that what we have here is a bibliophilic love story, an intense romance between book and reader, between words and numbers, between humanity and the world we inhabit. It is a love story in which the human is the object rather than the subject, the loved rather than the lover.

In a deceptively simple shift of focus, James Morrow puts Jennet Stearne under the adoring microscope of the Philosophia Naturalis Principia Mathematica. His conceit is delicate: books exist as personae, and as personae they inhabit the world, commenting on it through the engendering of other books: “Mein Kampf can claim credit for most Hallmark greeting cards printed between 1958 and 1967” (p. 5). Each offering is a gift to the reader, a love poem. All words matter, all words paint the world. Principia Mathematica wants to paint for us a portrait of a person and of a time: of Jennet Stearne, witchfinder’s child, plantation maid, and Philadelphia philosopher, and of a world in which one form of reason argues it out with another.

The book begins as a memoir; like Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, the Principia Mathematica remembers its moment of conception, and like Tristram Shandy, Principia Mathematica takes pleasure in its own complexity. To Principia Mathematica Morrow bequeaths a rich, humorous, and self-deprecating voice that describes itself as “pretty rough. . . . Propositions proliferating, scholia colliding, lemmas breeding like lab rats,” which wants to share the aesthetics of mathematics. “Have you ever beheld a more sensual set of lines? . . . Have arcs and cycloids ever been more beautiful? My father set geometry in motion. He taught parabolas to pirouette and hyperbolas to gavotte” (p. 4). This is the voice of wonder, delivered sometimes directly, channelled sometimes through Jennet Stearne (a name I suspect is not coincidental), sometimes through curiosity curator Barnaby Cavendish, and sometimes through Benjamin Franklin. It is a voice that embodies the theme of the book, that the world is sufficient in its wondrousness to need no theological augmentation.

I have said that this is a love story, and while The Last Witchfinder is about the love of its characters for this notion of sufficiency, the tale is put into motion with the Principia Mathematica’s passion for Jennet Stearne, “high sprited . . . zesty, kinetic . . .” (p. 6). Jennet Stearne is the daughter of Walter Stearne, Witchfinder General for Mercia and East Anglia. While he is on summer campaign, Jennet spends the time with her aunt Isobel, a noted natural philosopher and a gentlewoman. But Jennet’s fellow student Eleanor is the daughter of a minister, and it is his horror at Isobel’s vivisection experiments that prove the catalyst for the tale. The irony is that Isobel’s vivisection is designed to discover a Natural theory of witchcraft for these scientific times. Isobel is a signature for the period, both fully rational and scientific yet wholly convinced of the proof that her brother-in-law has laid before her as to the existence of witchcraft. She exists, as so many scientists of the period did, in two worlds, her experiments ofttimes originating in the desire to prove a “truth” already given.

To pause a moment before proceeding to the rest of the tale: the genius of this book—and I think it partakes of genius—is that it perfectly captures the prismatic situation of science and theology in the eighteenth century. In one of the many doublings that Morrow uses, we see Stearne catechizing his son in the signs of witchcraft in just the way we witnessed Isobel catechizing Jennet and Eleanor in the physics of light. The point is not lost: science and superstition in this time and this place claim common ground of method. In his library, Sir Isaac Newton is dabbling in Chymistry while he contemplates the mathematics of the universe. The difference between Isobel and her brother-in-law Walter, between Franklin and Boyle, lies only in their respective willingness to accept disproof for long-held beliefs, or to persevere, to seek the evidence they “know” exists. Morrow writes with wry and gentle skill, “if by Reason we mean an orderly presentation that cleaves to a kind of perverse Aristotelian logic, then the Malleus Maleficarum is an imperially reasonable tome” (p. 379). And later the Principia Mathematica will take a tour in the tumbril of the French Revolution, and reflect, “rationality disconnected from decency, deliberation and doubt . . . leads not to Utopia but to the guillotine” (ibid.).

Towards the end of the tale, the Principia Mathematica will reflect on how the Scopes trial failed to convince the mass of educationalists of the reasonableness of evolution, yet still created a situation in which the scientific estasblishment thought it had won.[1] The Last Witchfinder begins in a world that has not yet fully accepted that science will not augment religious faith, proceeds as a tale that comes to accept this as the state of mankind, and ends on a note of celebration that humans are capable of embracing a notion of science and sufficiency while mourning that many do not. The Last Witchfinder can do this because Morrow has placed the weight of the tale not with victory, but with battle; not with the ending, but with the journey. It is therefore meet that Jennet Stearne composes first her journeyman work, “A Treatise of How the Four Aristotelian Elements May Serve to Convince There are No Elementals,” in accordance with scientific superstition—by which I mean untested notions of the elements. Jennet’s early philosophical experimentalism is still directed at confirming the classical world; she has not yet applied the lesson learned from Aunt Isobel that even scientific convention cannot be left unchallenged. Only in her final treatise, The Sufficiency of the World, will Jennet fully believe in the experimental universe.

Isobel’s death plunges Jennet into a whirl of confusion: hatred for her father and increasingly for her brother (younger than herself but a trainee witchfinder); and loyalty to the memory of her aunt Isobel, who gifts her two things, A Woman’s Garden of Pleasure, which she has written specially to protect Jennet’s sexual future, and “your female mission,” to construct the argumentum grande that will bring down belief in witchcraft. This paralleling of personal pleasure with truth is a steady romantic thread in Morrow’s text. Later, Jennet and Ben Franklin will experiment with a Van de Graaff generator to electrify their passion.

Forced to follow her father to Haverhill, a small village outside Boston, Jennet sits through the Salem witch trials [2] and watches her father and brother entranced by spectral evidence and, crucially to the argument of the book, abandon the demand of maleficium (proof of evil deeds) in favour of “experimental” evidence such as swimming witches, pricking blemishes, and watching for familiars. Once more Morrow makes the point that “reason” is a claim that may lead away from enlightenment. To balance this, in another doubling of the tale, shortly afterward Jennet is kidnapped by Algonquin Nimacooks, a group she finds have an admirably rationalistic approach to sex and the natural world, balanced by a belief in the very animism that her father labels witchery.

When Jennet escapes (rather reluctantly) from the Nimacooks, she establishes herself and her philosophy in Philadelphia; her marriage to a postmaster breaking down, she embarks on an affair with a young Ben Franklin, noted for his taste for older women and well-recorded radicalism in the arena of social mores (see his "Silence Dogood" letters). Together they begin the revision of Jennet’s treatise, and after a journey to England and back via a desert island inhabited by escaped slaves bent on political experiment (the most fabulous part of the narrative [3]), they return to Philadelphia where Jennet completes her Sufficiency of the World and embarks on her most audacious venture yet: she sets herself up in a local village as an eccentric and waits for the accusations of witchcraft to start. The remainder of the text consists of the witch trial, conducted by her brother Duncan and his wife Abigail Williams of Salem, and the defense mounted by Montesquieu, ably assisted by Ben Franklin and the Pennsylvania Gazette, a public test of the demon hypothesis. The trial is a rout. Stearne and Montesquieu stage numerous demonstrations of natural philosophy and its immunity from devils and demons, while Franklin and his Junto lead the crowd in celebrating reason and discovery. As with the Scopes trial, science wins the performance but loses the verdict. Here, though, there is no technicality on which to release Jennet Stearne Crompton (as she now is), and it is left to Franklin’s Junto to stage an “Indian raid” and carry her off to exile with the Nimacooks, until, in 1736, George III repeals the witchcraft acts, his legislators inspired in part by J. S. Crompton’s The Sufficiency of the World, “rooted in the most rigorous Newtonian Experimentalism, whereby ev’ry thoughtful Christian might see how the suppos’d Crime of Witchcraft is an Impossible thing” (p. 472).

When Jennet dies, the Principia Mathematica mourns, and The Last Witchfinder is its belated memorial to its long-held love. This love marks every page of the text, whether the Principia Mathematica is focal character or narrator. Granting to the Principia Mathematica the role of narrator, Morrow can deliver a tone of historical disgust proper to its character, and which shapes the humour of the narrative.

I have an opinion, for example, concerning the affectation by which the events of 1692 are routinely termed "the great witchcraft hysteria", as if the whole affair were but a passing aberration . . . . The Salem tragedy could never have occurred were not an aggressively rational witch-hunting apparatus already in place throughout Western civilisation. Hysteria, my foot. (p. 147)

Morrow is relieved from studied neutrality, relieved from the fear of didacticism. His realised narrator can partake of the anger that Joanna Russ once wrote was the only really truthful motivation. Morrow has long been one of our most able irreligionsts. In The Last Witchfinder he never once lets Christianity off the hook: belief in and persecution of witchcraft is not an aberration, it is in the body and bones of both the New and Old Testaments. As the Principia Mathematica notes, Wesley acknowledged that “the giving up of witchcraft is in effect giving up the Bible” (p. 490).

Our narrator is known, it is a book, and when we read of Jennet and Ben experiencing electrical attraction we know that it is the book’s humour we read. Morrow emphasises this with a delicious movement that could have become affected but that it is used with such discretion. The Principia Mathematica’s declaration that “We call this epoch the Rennaissance, a rebirth of art and classicism. Dear reader, it was nothing of the kind . . . ,” (106) turns historical lecture into affectionate collaboration. We are drawn closer to the stage; reader is brought into the emotional drama. As the tale proceeds, it swings from the story of Jennet to direct commentary from Principia Mathematica, the last word of one perspective becoming the first word of the next.

The landholders looked variously sodden with sleep, benumbed by

ale, and transfixed by boredom. It seemed fair to suppose they’d under-

stood nothing of what she’d meant by Nature’s laws. Instead

they’d found in Rebecca Webster a woman so impious

and arrogant that she’d routinely attempted

to make Heaven’s fire

submit to

her

*

Will

the war of

the worldviews eventually cease? Will the Armageddon of ideas in

time run its course? I doubt it . . . (p. 415)

The swing-shift reminds us that we are in an interpreted tale, a reminiscence which is part and parcel of the argumentum for which the Principia Mathematica hopes. Engaged in its own war against Malleus Maleficarum the Principia Mathematica tells its tale on the eve of battle and in its aftermath and is, like Jennet, engaged in its own wranglings of consicience. The Last Witchfinder is in part a tale of the momentum of persecution, and Principia Mathematica discovers it is not immune from the metaphorical gravitation of instinct and passion as its biliophages, once unleashed, cannot be held back from their devouring of the latest edition of the Malleus Maleficarum. At this too-late moment it mourns, “I must beg your sympathy, gentle reader. Now that I’ve regained my senses, I see that the best counter to a malicious idea is a bon mot, not a bonfire” (p. 465). Yet it is one of the great ironies of the text: as the Principia Mathematica enjoins us not to believe what we cannot test, it also demands belief in its own spiritual existence, that it and its fellows can command the kinetic forces.

Part of the delight of this novel is the richness of the language, the carefully balanced coyness and coquetry of eighteenth-century literature, and the way in which the Principia Mathematica writes all the world in Newtonian geometry. Aunt Isobel’s sex manual, A Woman’s Garden of Pleasure and Pain, although destroyed in the fire, remains extant in the world, with a walk-on part at various times in Jennet’s life: Jennet’s Nimacook husband (Okommaka) does not resent her withholding intercourse when she has at her disposal “Chapter Six, ‘Labia North and South,’” “Chapter Four, ‘The Lust of the Goat,’” and “Chapter Five, ‘The Algebra of Desire’” (p. 174). Jennet, the Principia Mathematica’s greatest love, sees the sublime in the eccentricity of the world:

The Creator was perfect. His Creation was perfect. Ergo, every planet moved in that most perfect of shapes, the circle.

. . .

Except the planets didn’t move in circles. They simply didn’t. Her blood leapt up, alive to the brilliance of that astonishing first law. The orbit of a planet describes an ellipse, with the sun as one of its foci. (p. 125)

This imaginative leap, the ability to believe in the power of the imagination, is one of the unexpected focii that Morrow offers. Science as it exists today relies on the power of the human being to hypothesise. When the retraction of Junius, Burgomaster of Bamberg, is presented, it is dismissed by the prosecution, “A succubus named Füchsin who is also a were-goat—that’s certainly not something a person could simply invent out of his head” (p. 425). The most depressing aspect of Creationism is the way it limits the imaginative powers of both God and Man. But the Principia Mathematica’s point is that the speculative imagination is intrinsic to humanity and powers the love of books. To not love books is therefore to not love the human. This joy in bibliophilia is the more forceful for being expressed by one of the objects so loved:

. . . readers had to contend with Socrates’s pronouncement that books are useless artefacts. Literary works cannot explain what they say, the great philosopher argued—they can only repeat the same words, over and over. . . . Socrates clearly missed the point. Books don’t repeat the same words over and over. The Gulliver’s Travels whose whimsy amuses you at twelve is not the Gulliver’s Travels whose acid engages you at thirty. (p. 194)

And it is the people who read words this way who are the objects of the Principia Mathematica’s affection in a reciprocated “reading” of the reader, so that just as individuals cherish heroic books, the Principia Mathematica salutes “the community of readers . . . [who] have paid for your passion in humiliation, mutilation, and sometimes . . . even immolation” (p. 195).

There is more in The Last Witchfinder than I can possibly account for in the limited space allotted to a review, and to continue too long is to rewrite the book in much inferior style. The greatest compliment I can pay this book is that although I cannot find J. S. Crompton’s Sufficiency of the World in the British Library catalogue, I remain very sure that it is there, stored, perhaps, in the glowing gold and red stack of the King’s Library that stands at the heart of the new King’s Cross reading rooms.


Footnotes

[1] For a discussion of the impact on American education, see Homer Hickam’s Rocket Boys (Delacourt Press, 1998).

[2] My one real regret is that Morrow has not mentioned Judge Sewall’s apology in 1697. He was the only one of the judges to repent, although one judge, Nathaniel Saltonstall, resigned early in the process. See this article.

[3] Although Franklin freed his slaves, he was actually hostile to the presence of Africans in the Americas, feeling it a blemish on “the red and the white.” Morrow’s Franklin would not have written this.

Farah Mendlesohn is the editor of Foundation.



Farah Mendlesohn is the author of The Inter-Galactic Playground, and the editor of On Joanna Russ, both nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Related Book this year. She edited the journal Foundation for six years.
2 comments on “The Last Witchfinder by James Morrow”
Alaya

I absolutely adored this book. Great review!

Dave Somers

Just getting to the end of the book now. A gripping read, never sure of the historical accuracy, but a great story with great characters.

 

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