The Vanishing Witch by Karen Maitland, book review: Maitland creates a wonderfully Gothic atmosphere
Sunday 17 August 2014
Karen Maitland is renowned for her painstakingly researched medieval novels and this story, set against the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, continues in that vein. She creates a wonderfully Gothic atmosphere in the city of Lincoln, with merchants reeling from the creeping loss of the wool trade and its inhabitants, rich and poor, struggling to survive in the stifling heat of summer. Above all this is a tale of a family and the love and loyalty, bitterness and retribution that ensues.
Robert of Bassingham is a successful wool merchant and lives with his family in a fine house in a prosperous part of Lincoln. Edith, his wife, is a rather sour woman but she has given him two sons, 12-year-old Adam and Jan, his father’s steward, who is being primed to inherit the business. One day, Robert is approached by Caitlin, a widow just arrived in Lincoln who asks him to advise her on investing her money. Robert soon becomes bewitched by Caitlin who is not a great beauty but has a mesmerising charm. Caitlin also has two children, her son Edward, and Leonia, her 13-year-old daughter who seems wise beyond her years. When Edith becomes ill Caitlin insists on nursing her regardless of the rumours that she is having an affair with Robert. Soon Robert finds himself seriously at odds with Jan, Caitlin’s relationship with Edward becomes curiously intimate, and young Adam and Leonia find common cause.
The hard life of Gunter, a boatman, and occasional interjections from an unidentified ghost, augment Maitland’s absorbing tale. Her major characters are pleasingly rounded and her minor characters are never flimsy. The period detail is fascinating but never overwhelms and Maitland includes a handy reference guide to the history of the period and explanations for the more unfamiliar words and phrases.
Maitland starts each chapter with a contemporaneous homily on how to ward off witches, engender good luck, or inspire love. Some are charming in their naivety, others are chilling in the fierce suspicion they demonstrate, particularly about women. They effectively add to the overall atmosphere of fearful superstition hanging over 14th-century society. The novel starts slowly but as the seemingly disparate strands are drawn together, it picks up pace. The story builds to an incendiary climax which devastates the Bassingham family. Some blame witchcraft for the family’s troubles but only the ghost, whose identity is finally revealed, seems to know the truth.
Maitland has produced another gripping tale, from a darker age, which has surprising resonances with the present.