Book Review: The Last Witchfinder by James Morrow

218573Title: The Last Witchfinder
Author: James Morrow
Genre: Historical fiction
Year of Publication: 2006
Pages: 497p.
Rating: 4,5 stars

In the spring of 1688, Walter Stearne, Witchfinder General for Mercia and East Anglia, roams the countryside in search of heretics, delivering the English nation from Satan’s hordes. His daughter Jennet is left behind in the care of her Aunt Isobel, who schools her in the New Philosophy, expounded by Isaac Newton. But Isobel’s style of scientific enquiry soon attracts the attention of the witchfinders. Desperate to save her aunt, Jennet travels to Cambridge and seeks the aid of Newton himself. Joining the expedition is Dr. Barnaby Cavendish and his ‘Museum of Wondrous Prodigies’, including the Bird-Child of Bath, the Lyme Bay Fish Boy and the Sussex Rat Baby. The mission of this strange fellowship comes to naught, but in Isobel’s dying moments, Jennet determines to devote her life to overturning the Parliamentary Witchcraft Act. Our heroine’s quest entails many picaresque adventures, including a brush with the famous Salem Witch Trials; captivity by Algonquin Indians; erotic nights wtih Benjamin Franklin; a shipwreck in the Caribbean Sea; a perilous enconter with pirates and a great final showdown between old superstition and new science. The Last Witchfinder is narrated by another book, namely Sir Isaac Newton’s Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, which is engaged in an eternal struggle with the most notorious of the Renaissance witch-hunting manuals – a battle fought with squadrons of paper-eating moths and regiments of booklice.

I stumbled upon this novel last year at a book fair, and since it came at the cheap price of 3 euros, I decided to buy it right away. I didn’t exactly think the book would be great, since I was unfamiliar with both the writer and the title of the novel. However, The Last Witchfinder was a pleasant surprise. The book I bought was in English and I believe the book hasn’t been translated into Dutch, so if you want to read it, you’ll have to stick to the English version.

The Last Witchfinder reads fluently and even though English isn’t my native language, I could understand the story without much hassle. Since the story is told by another book, the Principia written by Sir Isaac Newton, the viewpoint is highly original. The way a book looks on human kind is quite interesting, to say the least. The story plays during the 17th and 18th century, when Renaissance slowly drops into Enlightment. We see this clash between eras in every part of the book, from the changing environment to the personality of the characters. Duncan Stearne, the brother of our heroine, is stuck in Renaissance with its romanesque and superstitious beliefs about witchcraft and satanism, whereas Jennet herself is the exact opposite. She has a very rational and practical personality, sometimes on the verge of being emotionless. Highly devoted to the new sciences and a typical bookworm, feeding off on the famous works of not only Newton, but also John Locke, Charles Montesquieu, Voltaire, etc. the heroine strikes me as a very clever and educated woman. Her personality is interesting, to say the least.

Although through university, I have already learnt a lot about the great authors of the Enlightment, they never really came to life for me until I was reading The Last Witchfinder. James Morrow has a writing style that makes the greatest minds in history, ranging from Kepler to Benjamin Franklin, appear very alive and very human. It’s almost as if you are thrown back into the 18th century and you feel like joining the great battle between superstition and the new science. Although highly amusing and informational (James Morrow includes at least fifty titles of other, some famous and others less famous, works in his novel) the story also strikes me as very tragic. It’s the ending of an era, a war between the old and familiar and the new and unknown, a war that leaves a long trail of victims behind.

The Last Witchfinder is a bit of a mix of everything but mostly it’s a beautiful piece of fiction that I am proud to have in my library. I also believe it’s a novel you will keep on appreciating, even if you read it for a second or a third time.

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