'A Place of Women’: Herstory and Female Agency in Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Mercies and A.K. Blakemore's The Manningtree Witches

Authors: Henesy, M.

Conference: A New ‘Feminist’ Novel? Popular Narratives and the Pleasures of Reading

Dates: 16-17 June 2022


This paper analyses how recent historical novels The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave and The Manningtree Witches by A.K. Blakemore reinterpret the history of the 17th Century European witch trials from the perspective of the women who were accused, using female voice and agency to present a form of ‘herstory’.

The Mercies is set on the Norwegian island of Vardø where, on Christmas Eve 1617, all the men of the island are killed by a storm while fishing. The women of Vardø are left to fend for themselves, taking on the men’s work as well as their own domestic tasks, and reshaping the community following their collective tragedy. Eighteen months later, the arrival of the newly appointed commissioner of Vardø, Absolom Cornet, challenges the women’s new way of life as he launches a period of oppression and instigates a witch hunt which leads to trials and executions. The Manningtree Witches is set 26 years later in the small English town of Manningtree, Essex, where again the society is predominantly female due to the ongoing Civil War, and the arrival of Matthew Hopkins (the real self-appointed Witchfinder General) instigates a culture of mistrust, accusations of witchcraft, trials, and executions.

The real events that inspired these novels place them as examples of ‘herstory’. Herstories ‘bear witness to and speak out about traumatic experience’, while also challenging ‘official versions of patriarchal history’ (Pellicer-Ortin and Andermahr, 2013: 4-5), and these novels do so through their presentation of recognised feminist themes such as female resistance, female sexuality, patriarchal violence, and religious tyranny.

This paper aims to explore how these novels generates empathy in the reader by considering them as examples of traumatic and affective herstory. It will consider how Millwood Hargrave and Blakemore play with concepts of storytelling and language to remind us that these historic events were documented by men of letters, not the illiterate women who fell victim to these trials, and how reading imagined versions of these women’s experiences allows us to see uncanny echoes of oppression in the present.

Works cited Pellicer-Ortin, Silvia, and Andermahr, Sonia (2013). Trauma Narratives and Herstory. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Source: Manual