James Morrow discusses The Last Witchfinder
Book reviewers have categorized your previous novels as wild Vonnegutian satires full of fantastical and even surrealistic events. Why this sudden leap into straight historical fiction?
The leap was a long time coming. About twenty years ago I had a mind-boggling encounter with a single sentence in Masks of the Universe, a history of science by the physicist-astronomer Edward Harrison. At one point Harrison asserts that the witch universe, the zeitgeist of the late Renaissance, would have destroyed European society but for the intervention of science. And I said to myself, What a great subject for a novel! Even if Harrison was overstating the case, I simply had to explore that astonishing idea, the near destruction of a civilization by its own theology.
So you spent twenty years researching and writing The Last Witchfinder? You have a long attention span.
Not the past twenty years, no. I kept deferring the project, daunted by its scope, and composed other sorts of fiction instead. But I never stopped thinking about Harrisons riveting sentence, and then about eight years ago I took the plunge and committed myself to writing a magnum opus about the shift from the witch universe to our modern, scientific world-picture. Before long I realized that a woman born around 1678 dont ask me why, but I knew the main character had to be a woman would have lived through the great transition, and so The Last Witchfinder became the story of Jennet Stearne, who makes it her lifes mission to bring down the Parliamentary Witchcraft Act of 1604.
Why did the main character have to be a woman?
Ive always enjoyed creating strong female protagonists. My fourth novel, Only Begotten Daughter, recounts the adventures of Jesus Christs divine half-sister in contemporary Atlantic City. By placing a woman at the center of The Last Witchfinder, I believe I made the Renaissance-to-Reason rotation more engaging than if Id used a male protagonist. Obviously a woman would face an uphill battle convincing the world that she has discovered a scientific refutation of the demon hypothesis. And I thought there would be a certain poetic justice in having a heroine, as opposed to a hero, put the witchfinders out of business, since women endured a disproportionate amount of persecution during the burning times. Indeed, the main reason Jennet goes on her quest is that, early in the novel, her beloved Aunt Isobel is publicly executed as a Satanist.
Jennet Stearne is a formidable heroine: brilliant, sharp-tongued, courageous. But why would even the cleverest 17th-century woman imagine she had the intellectual and political resources to destroy the witch universe?
Throughout her quest, Jennet takes heart in a kind of talisman bestowed on her by Aunt Isobel: a letter from Isaac Newton in which he implies that a demon disproof lies hidden between the lines of his scientific masterwork, the Principia Mathematica. Jennet comes to believe that, by studying the Principia, shell uncover an argument that will persuade the English legislature to overturn the Witchcraft Statute. After several false starts, she manages to write a persuasive treatise, but then she faces an even bigger problem: convincing Parliament to read it. And so, in a daring move, Jennet puts herself on trial for witchcraft in Colonial Philadelphia, using the attendant media circus to publicize her argument.
Is Jennet based on a real person?
No, though many women of this era, through their salons and soirées, were passionately involved with the new mechanical science or, as it was called then, natural philosophy of Descartes and Newton. The recent epochal exhibit at the New York Public Library called The Newtonian Moment featured a gallery of Newtonian Women, among them Laura Bassi, Diamante Medaglia Faini, Maria Gaetana Agnesi, and Voltaires celebrated collaborator, Madame du Châtelet. In the 1750s Oliver Goldsmith, noting the phenomenon of women wedding themselves to natural philosophy, remarked that a man who would court a lady must be capable of discussing Newton and Locke.
So Jennet is your own creation, but many actual historical figures parade through the novel: Benjamin Franklin, Isaac Newton, Robert Hooke, Cotton Mather, the Baron de Montesquieu.
The real catalyst for The Last Witchfinder the event that got me moving beyond Edward Harrisons inspiring sentence was my discovery of an obscure historical fact: in 1725 the young Benjamin Franklin, age eighteen, traveled to London on a mission for the Pennsylvania Royal Governor, and eventually penetrated Newtons inner circle, hoping to meet the genius behind the theory of universal gravitation. But Newton saw no reason to waste an afternoon talking to some cheeky kid from Philadelphia .
But in The Last Witchfinder Newton and Franklin really do meet.
I realized that I could use these fascinating characters as symbols of the two universes: Newton the avatar of the Renaissance, as pious a man who ever lived, versus Franklin the quintessential Enlightenment skeptic, eternally playful and irreverent. When they finally cross paths in my novel, they have nothing to say to each other. Newton wants to talk about the great preoccupation of his dotage, biblical prophecy, and Franklin wants to talk about electricity. The problem isnt just that theyre from two different continents and two different generations. Theyre also from two different universes.
Extreme cases to be sure. But wouldnt it be fair to say that most people during this period lived in both universes at the same time?
Indeed. Thats what makes the worldview of early modern Europe and its counterpart in Colonial America so compelling. For Jennets generation, demonology and the new mechanical philosophy were not ipso facto incompatible. We tend to think of witchcraft as a mere superstition, belonging largely to the Middle Ages or even the Dark Ages, but the theology of Satanism was actually quite sophisticated, flowering fully only during the Renaissance. For nearly a century, the Age of Demons and the Age of Demonstrations overlapped. Many members of the Royal Society, most famously Robert Boyle, believed that evil spirits were a fact. And, of course, the various proofs of Satanic compact were ostensibly scientific. It stood to reason, for example, that the Devil endowed his disciples with special teats for suckling their animal familiars, and so the witchfinder would search the suspects skin until he found an unusual excrescence, then prick it with a needle: if the nipple failed to bleed, this confirmed its demonic nature. It was equally plausible to assert that pure water, the medium of baptism, would reject a disciple of Lucifer: hence the practice of swimming the witch tossing her into a river and then, if she floated, declaring her a Satanist.
This large theme of yours, the clash between Renaissance theology and Enlightenment science for some prospective readers, it may sound a trifle dry.
Or even dull?
Or even dull. And yet The Last Witchfinder is a rollicking, satiric, picaresque, and sometimes bawdy adventure. As the plot progresses, Jennet runs afoul of Indians, pirates, whores, scoundrels, charlatans, hurricanes, and a smallpox epidemic.
My models included those juicy, spirited, comic novels of the 17th and 18th centuries Laurence Sternes Tristram Shandy, Henry Fieldings Joseph Andrews, and, of course, Voltaires Candide that people still read today with pleasure. I especially enjoyed juxtaposing the scientific and the erotic, as when Jennet and Ben Franklin seduce each other while performing an experiment with a rotating sulphur ball. Theyre diligently determining the degree to which a human body can conduct static electricity, and soon theyre sparkling and crackling with mutual desire, and before long theyre swiving on the mattress in Bens garret.
It rhymes with driving.
You mentioned that the encounter between Newton and Franklin never really happened but many of the events in the novel are historically accurate, yes?
I was continually delighted by how much real history I could incorporate into The Last Witchfinder. It seemed as if these glittering shards of the past were lying around in a field, and all I had to do was glue them together into an urn of my own design.
Almost as if the book was asking to be written?
Exactly. At one point the storyline required Jennet to be abducted by Algonquin Indians from her home in Haverhill, Massachusett s. Well, it turned out that the Abenaki tribe really did attack Colonial Haverhill in 1696. When Jennet puts herself on trial for witchcraft, I thought it would be interesting if the Baron de Montesquieu another personification of the Enlightenment came forward to defend her. So naturally I was pleased to discover that, not only had Montesquieu denounced the conjuring statutes, he was a world traveler and could easily have landed in Colonial Philadelphia at this time. Even the climactic courtroom battle has a rough historical counterpart. In a 1730 issue of The Pennsylvania Gazette, Franklin reported on a witch trial that had supposedly occurred across the Delaware River in Mount Holly, New Jersey. The article is clearly a hoax, but I decided to take Ben at his word.
Evidently you did a lot of research.
More that I care to think about. I began with weighty tomes like Stuart Clarks Thinking with Demons and Bernard Cohens Franklin and Newton. At one point I even waded into Andrew Mottes famous English translation of the Principia Mathematica. Thanks to a rigorous high school calculus class, I more-or-less understood what was going on. The real fun was the legwork I did on both sides of the Atlantic. Eventually I spent a week in England, following in Jennets footsteps as she encounters Robert Hooke at Cambridge University, witnesses Aunt Isobels execution behind Colchester Castle, and tracks down Newton in London.
We began by talking about The Last Witchfinder as your foray into straight historical fiction. But the novel has one frankly fantastical dimension. The narrator technically is not James Morrow but rather Newtons Principia Mathematica. From the first sentence onward, you give us a world in which books have minds, souls, and a passion to write other books.
Id always envisioned The Last Witchfinder as a qualified defense of the 18th-century Enlightenment. And yet these days, Ive noticed, the Age of Reason has few friends. The religious right detests the Enlightenment because it leads to secularism; postmodern academics reject the Enlightenment as the presumed progenitor of an oppressive scientism; and the New Age fringe invites us to regard Reason as Spiritualitys feeble and overrated shadow. So from the instant I started composing chapter one, I wanted to incorporate a contemporary perspective not only to give the anti-Enlightenment argument its due, but as a way to avoid the bane of historical fiction: characters who are implausibly aware of what their lives will mean to their descendants. At first I tried to achieve this distance by having Aunt Isobel compose a long, prophetic poem in which she foresees the French Revolution and other disasters accruing to the apotheosis of Reason. But it didnt ring true, and so I tried an even stranger ploy: turning the narration over to Newtons Principia, a sentient book living outside the bounds of time and space.
Your Principia narrator invites us to regard the witch-persecution era as a mirror of our present age. Do you see The Last Witchfinder as an allegory on the contemporary problem of faith versus rationality?
If satire is what closes on Saturday night, allegory doesnt even get into the theater nor should it. The last thing I had in mind was inflicting an uplifting lesson on the reader. That said, were obviously living in an age when theology is again leading people down some very dark paths indeed. Whether were talking about the rise of jihadism or recent attempts to cast intelligent design as commensurate with Darwins theory of natural selection, the shadow side of religious faith is haunting the West. So if I had to tease a message out of The Last Witchfinder, I would paraphrase Churchill and hold forth as follows: Reason is the worst possible mode in which to negotiate the world except for all the others.