Books editor Claire Mabey talks with Margaret Meyer, whose historical novel about a brutal witch trial was the subject of a bidding war – a rare sort of publishing magic that can occasionally change an author’s life.
It’s impossible to picture the world without the figure of the witch. She enters our imaginations early, through children’s books, TV and film. Slippery to define but commanding in her presence, the witch has long been a fascination for storytellers. And perhaps more so now than ever. In the past few years there’s been a flourishing of witch-related conversation. Across publishing there are history books covering the witch trials across Britain, Europe and America; there is a constant slough of fiction for children and above; there’s a new BBC podcast called WITCH which explores the history of the devastatingly violent witch trials before asking what it means to be a witch today.
There was a heated seven-way bidding war in the UK for Margaret Meyer’s first novel The Witching Tide, which is a transportive reading experience set in the dark heart of the witch trials that took place in East Anglia, 1645-47. I zoomed Margaret to talk to her from her home in Norwich, England on the cusp of the book’s release in New Zealand (where Meyer grew up).
Claire Mabey: Margaret, I’m excited to talk to you. I was fascinated by your novel. Can you tell me how the idea for it first arrived to you?
Margaret Meyer: The idea began years ago, I can’t remember precisely but it would have been 2016 or 2017, something like that. I’d visited a beautiful coastal town called Aldeburgh in Suffolk, which has an iconic building right on the seafront called the Moot Hall. It’s a Tudor building and is very, very old.
The Hall, which doubles as the town museum, had been locked every other time I visited but it was open on this particular day. They had a small display up on the East Anglian witch hunt, which went from 1645 to 1647. The display talked about the witch hunter Matthew Hopkins, who had made several visits to Aldeburgh during that period and on his third search rounded up a number of accused witches. He rode into town at the beginning of the week, and when he left at the end, seven women had been hanged.
It affected me quite powerfully. Initially because of the fact that the women victims weren’t named, but everybody else was: the jailer, the judge, the juryman, the woman who ran the pub opposite Moot Hall, the guy who made the nooses. All of them but not the women. When I went to research the records I discovered it was because that’s how the records were made: of those seven women only two were named and nobody knows why.
The other thing I discovered was that there was a sort of co-worker to the witch hunter and she was a woman: I was shocked by that. An accomplice is the wrong word, but just to know there were women actively aiding the witch hunters. More powerfully though, I felt so sad for these women. I mean, it’s bad enough to lose your life, but to lose your name as well really just obliterates you from history.
CM: What was the publishing journey then for this book? Everything I’ve heard sounds like a writer’s dream.
MM: Well I wrote the book as part of an MA at the University of East Anglia which is quite a famous degree. I took in 5,000 words of this project and was surprised at the reaction from the group. And there was just such a lot of interest in the topic, there was a real energy to it.
And even at that stage, I was only going to write a novella of 25,000 words, but as I worked away, the word count went steadily up: I hit 25,000 words, and had only scratched the surface. One of the lecturers said well, publishers here like first novels to be between 60,000 or 80,000 words, so keep going, hit 60,000, then you’ve got a novel. The manuscript ultimately ended up at 90,000 words and by then I had been approached by an agent and the publishing process unfolded from there.
CM: How did you get an agent so quickly? How did they know about you?
MM: Because of the fame of the course, agents come and look at who’s graduating. The course produces a kind of booklet, they call it the dossier, which is a short biography of the students who are going to graduate that year, plus a 2,000-word sample of your work. So that had gone out to all the agents. So that’s how I got my agent, Peter Strauss⸺
CM: A legend!
MM: Yes, he’s a legend. In that particular year we were all in lockdown so the agent visits took place on Zoom. I remember seeing Peter on the Zoom call, but I had no real idea of who he was. The next morning after that call, there was an email from Peter in my inbox. I nearly fell off my chair! And then in the following days, several other agents also contacted me.
CM: I heard there was a bidding war?
MM: There was a bit – a small scale bidding war – which was a massive surprise to me. I genuinely thought I was writing an obscure, literary, historical novel about this not very well known episode in British history. And I never thought that any other country would be interested either. I was amazed when the Americans expressed interest.
CM: I am thoroughly unsurprised at the interest in The Witching Tide. There’s always been such a curiosity around how murder on such a mass scale, on the grounds of witchcraft, happened. But I wondered if in the writing of the book and your experiences since, if you’ve come to an understanding of why we’re so curious about witches?
MM: I think there’s certainly been in recent years a swing towards women writers reclaiming different aspects of history. I don’t just mean witch trials, I’m thinking of all the books about, for example, Pat Barker’s book about the siege of Troy, and Natalie Haynes’ retellings. There’s a push towards reclaiming and retelling aspects of history from a women’s perspective. And those projects are all engaged with writing women back into the record in all the narrative, depending on whether it’s an actual historical event or mythological work, but that’s what we’re all doing. I think there’s a huge sort of upswell of momentum around that by writers and from readers as well.
Also though, the witch trials is a gruesome history. It’s horrible. One of the things that stood out for me, and I hope I’ve captured it in the book, is just how quickly communities could swing. One moment you have a neighbour and the next thing you have a mortal enemy because they think you’ve been possessed by Satan.
There’s also the Justice for Witches campaign in Scotland, which is a social justice/reparative justice movement led by two women who are solicitors. I also think there’s an ongoing fascination with the figure of the witch as a kind of archetype. She’s always been an powerful figure. On the one hand on the margins of society, for whatever reason, but still able to have power over it. So that’s a sometimes fearful but fascinating figure.
The other thing from perhaps a more feminist perspective is that the witch has always represented an affront to patriarchy. The witch won’t die: the archetype just won’t lie down. I think there’s a strong parallel between this figure and what is happening right around the world. We’re all watching an erosion of women’s rights in one form or another and the witch kind of symbolises all of that. She pops up again, in different centuries in different guises.
CM: One of the things I admired in your novel is the way you show the transference of that archetype through a group of women. In the witch trials there was this idea of contagion: the fear of the coven. But the central figure is Martha Hallybread who is an ingenious protagonist because she is literally unable to speak. How did you come to her?
MM: It was more that she came to me. Quite often characters just kind of arrive that way: like being shown a snapshot of a character. I saw Martha standing in her garden in her physic garden. I could see that she was an older woman, and I could see she loved her plants.
Initially that’s all I had to work with so I just started writing about that. It’s very often that I start just writing out a character. Quite quickly, she became three dimensional. Except for the muteness, that came a bit later when I went to write the first dialogue scene involving her and really, really struggled.
I thought that it was very strange, and it kept happening through all the dialogue scenes. After a while it dawned on me that the struggle was because Martha was struggling to talk. So I sat with that for a few weeks. And then it dawned on the further that, oh, I don’t think she can talk. There’s some sort of problem. That’s when the idea of the worm in her throat began to materialise to me.
At that point, I stopped writing for a while because this was a massive technical challenge: how was I going to write a whole novel with a character who doesn’t speak? It took me quite a few weeks just sitting with that problem. It took a really long time, like more than a year when it finally came to me that she would have a sign language. At the second drafting stage, I had to go back and take out all that sketchy dialogue that was there in the first place and put in all of what you see now on the book, the gestural language between her and people who are very close to her.
Martha’s language is a sort of a ripple effect. The further away people get from her, the less they understand. And again, that was quite a technical impediment in writing the book until the point where I realised it was emblematic, and I could use it as an instrument for exploring the way women have been silenced and talked over and deliberately misunderstood.
All of those things happen to Martha in the book: she’s mocked for her silence and they presume to understand her. Or they deliberately misunderstand her or they take her silence as some sort of meaning. In my experience, that happens to women and especially to older women and that’s what I’m trying to explore. A lot of people said “Oh, it’s got so many parallels with now!” but that’s because, certainly as an older woman, those things still happen.
CM: Your world building of the 17th Century is so strong. What resources did you draw on?
MM: Cleftwater is a kind of mash up for various different towns and places along the stretch of the Suffolk and Norfolk coastline, which is for me a very powerful landscape. Cleftwater is partially modeled on Aldeburgh (and Moot Hall is present in the book), but I also drew on Staithes in North Yorkshire. Both towns have very long histories. Back in the day they were both prosperous ports and a lot of their wealth came from the herring trade and ship building. But by the time in which the book is set they fell on hard times. The Aldeburgh harbour was beginning to silt up because of drift in the oceans (the sea washes silt) and ultimately actually blocked the river Alde.
I read widely around witch hunting in general, and on this particular witch hunt. The other book that was very influential is something called The Midwives Book, which was written by a lady called Jane Sharp in the 1670s so it was contemporaneous with Martha [who is a midwife in the novel].
The references to medicine in my book came from Sharp’s book. She listed in enormous detail the plants, which were their frontline medicines. That’s all they had. She talks so movingly about each plant and what its uses and how you combine them together to say, make the placenta come out after the birth, or to make the milk flow, or stop the milk, or treat a fever. In the end, I bought my own copy, because I never want to be without Jane Sharp.
CM: The poppet is such a disrupter in the book and I wondered when it arrived in the process of writing this story?
MM: It was a surprise to me. And it was an enigma to me for a really, really long time. And it still is, really.
You just called it a disrupter. That’s a great way of describing it because when it did appear, it completely disrupted the whole thing. I was well into the book by that stage. And I had to go back and figure out when it came into the story. How did Martha come by it? What does it do? In the end what it does became less important than what Martha thinks it does.
Somebody was talking to me last week about a famous thought experiment in philosophy called the trolley experiment. It’s a runaway train coming down the track and you as a witness can do one of two things. You can either do nothing in which case the train will run on its current course and it will kill five innocent people who happen to be standing there, or you can pull a lever and divert it onto a different track, where an unknowing workman will be the only person killed.
The person was drawing a parallel between that thought experiment and Martha’s predicament in the book. The lever is the poppet, or at least Martha thinks it is. Because the book is ultimately about a question of agency: how much agency do women have? Martha is aware that her muteness potentially reduces her agency because she’s not able to speak to defend herself or correct assumptions. She reaches for the poppet and in doing so knows she’s taking a risk. On the surface level, she’s trying to fight a witch hunt through witchcraft. On the other hand that’s all she has.
It’s her ambivalence about it that I tried to weave all the way through.
CM: I thought it was a clever tool. The poppet seemed to reveal both the ridiculousness of the witch trials – the manipulation of meaning; but also the enduring appeal of possible (and private) magic. What kind of research did you do on the history of the poppet?
MM: There’s a museum in Cornwall, the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic: they have lots in their collection. I looked at pictures of them too and you’re right, they’ve often connected with witches: they’re mentioned in records and in other [historic fiction] books as well. For example in The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave there’s a scene where they search the accused woman’s house, and they find little poppets, which in her case are just basically ornaments on her mantelpiece. But they’re like “You’ve got poppets, that means you’re a witch.” And that was the common situation.
CM: There’s also that ironic double meaning.
MM: Yes, poppet is a term of endearment. I’m slightly playing with that as well. In fact, the original working title of the book was The Celftwater Poppets: you know that idea of the little poppet darling women. It’s demeaning.
CM: I got a sense from the ending of the novel that we might expect more of the poppet, perhaps? Could I be right there?
MM: Ah yes, the second book is a kind of a sequel. It’s set around Cleftwater – I’m still writing this book, so I don’t know some of it yet myself – and the idea is to have two or three other women from different periods of history who each discover the poppet and each time they do it, it sets them on a different path or it triggers a chain of events. At the moment it looks like there’ll be a 19th Century character and possibly a woman before Martha, like many centuries before. Possibly she’s the originator of the poppet. I’m still hanging out with her trying to figure that out.
CM: Can I ask about your connection with New Zealand?
MM: I was born in Canada but my parents are both from New Zealand. They had been living overseas for years, and eventually decided they wanted to go home. So we all upped sticks and went to Auckland when I was eight. I went to school and Uni and then when I was in my late 20s, came over here to do my OE.
I thought I was only going to be gone for a couple of years, you know that story. I got a job here at the Museum of London, a social history museum, and eventually met a colleague who eventually became my husband. So I’m still here and it’s very much home. Although one of the reasons why I love Norwich as much as I do is that funnily enough, it reminds me of parts of Auckland.
I live in a suburb of Norwich where all the houses are very close together. And it really reminds me of the early suburbs of Auckland where all the houses are together, and you can see into your neighbour’s yard and everybody checks over the fence and that kind of thing. I like that tremendous community feeling. The Norfolk coastline is also reminiscent of the big sea, the big sky of New Zealand.