The two reviews I read of Helen Humphreys newest publication, Machine Without Horses, were somewhat negative, claiming that the combination of memoir and fiction simply do not work. Humphreys is one of my favorite writers. She never fails to please, and so I was curious.
I’ve just now finished it and I beg to differ. I found this to be an innovative and inspiring work.
Machine Without Horses is billed as a novel: therein, I think, lies the problem. The first half of this “novel” is a memoir of the author researching and thinking through how to write about her subject, Megan Boyd, a famous fishing fly maker from Scotland.
I particularly love the author’s thoughts on writing. Coming from Humphreys, these are gold. Here are some examples of her thoughts on character development:
The beginning of a life is often the start of the story. Character is formed from the early incidents and accidents, from sudden trauma, or reassuring constancy. These are more important than aspects of personality because they are the ground on which the inherent nature of the person blossoms or is stifled. (Page 7)
I particularly like this because it jives with my current thoughts on character development. (See my thoughts regarding the book Story Henius.)
When I set about making a story, one of the first things I think about is the motivation of the main character. What is it that they want? What are they driven by? Story is created from combining a character’s motivation with their circumstances. (Page 16)
In this section of Machine Without Horses, the author taking lessons on making fishing flies.
“Anything will help,” I confess.”I’m trying to work my way inside her mind before I write about her.”(page 24)
Her teacher Paul asks, “How do you get inside someone’s head to write about them? Especially someone who was a real person?”
This is the sixty-million-dollar question, and one that I don’t really have a definitive answer for because I’m constantly shifting my thinking about how to accomplish this kind of transference. It is hard enough to be oneself. How can we effectively become someone else? (pages 26/27)
This quote pertains especially to writing biographical fiction:
The trouble with writing a novel is that there are so many ways to make mistakes that you just have to give up on the idea of getting it right. Instead, you have to choose a few aspects to remain faithful to and do your best to make everything else as believable as possible for the reader. (page 33)
I especially love this passage:
A writer must slowly build a story and characters, as though they were making a machine, with each part intersecting snugly, each sentence casting forward to hook onto the next. You must lean the way they lean, have the understanding they have, never step outside the limits you have determined for them. You cannot just kill them off with no real warning. It will feel unbelievable to readers and they will stop trusting your story. Fiction is measured and reassuring in a way that life isn’t, and perhaps that’s why we read it, and also why I write. (pages 89/90)
Throughout this section, there are now and again descriptions that echo fly fishing, i.e. “each sentence casting forward to hook onto the next.”
Starting a novel is like starting a love affair. It demands full and tireless attention or feelings could change. Commitment takes time, and so there must be a rush of passion at the beginning. This means that the other life of the writer, the “real life,” has to fade into the background ground for a while. (Page 11–12)
Not exactly like being in love, however:
When I’m working on a book, I just wear the same clothes day after day, eat the same food with no variation. Novel–writing and depression have a great deal in common, as it turns out. (page 41)
This is a spare book, only 267 pages, and this section on Humphreys preparing to write about her subject accounts for more than half of it. The last 120 pages is the work itself, a beautifully spare biographical novella about Helen Boyd.
I’ve known Mary Sharratt for some time on-line. I’ve read all of her novels, and have recommended them highly to friends and family. Daughters of the Witching Hill, her latest (now out in paperback), is her best yet: a wonderfully evocative novel of 17th century England.
Mary is a serious historical researcher, so I’m pleased to have the opportunity to interview her with respect to her research into the 17th century.
What do you find most challenging about research?
It’s not enough to just present the historical backdrop and pretty costumes. To me, the true challenge, and the mark of good historical fiction, is evoking the worldview and mentality of another age. In Daughters of the Witching Hill, I wanted to place the reader in a world where mainstream people—the wealthy and educated as well as the poor and illiterate—believed that magic was real. Where a fifty-year-old widow, walking past a stone quarry at twilight, could “come into her powers” by encountering a familiar spirit who took the form of a dazzling young man. Where one bad harvest or one disease epidemic could spell the difference on whether a family could survive the winter. The past is another country, another culture, with perceived realities very different to our own.
Tell us some of 17th century resources (on-line and print) you used most frequently.
For Daughters of the Witching Hill, the primary source material, A Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster, the official transcripts of the 1612 Pendle Witch Trials, provided the backbone of the whole story. Not only was it a catalogue of each perceived act of witchcraft, but it also revealed local feuds and simmering resentments leading up to the trial, all presented in rich period language (daylight gate for twilight). Although it was strongly biased to flatter the prosecution, when read against the grain, the accused witch Elizabeth Southerns, aka Old Demdike, emerges as an unforgettably strong heroine:
She was a very old woman, about the age of Foure-score yeares, and had been a Witch for fiftie yeares. Shee dwelt in the Forrest of Pendle, a vast place, fitte for her profession: What shee committed in her time, no man knowes. . . . Shee was a generall agent for the Devill in all these partes: no man escaped her, or her Furies.
Outstanding new research on popular magic, social history, and Reformation Studies proved invaluable for putting this primary source material in context. Those who want an ?inside view? of historical magical practitioners will find many riches in Emma Wilby’s study, Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits.
The King James Bible, completed in 1611, is a treasure trove of period language and imagery, as well as a stark mirror of its time, in which the scriptures are rewritten to further the King?s agenda. Exodus 22:18, originally translated as, “Thou must not suffer a poisoner to live,” became “Thou must not suffer a witch to live.” King James, author of Daemonologie, was convinced that a vast conspiracy of satanic witches was threatening to undermine his nation.
How do you organize your information? How do you keep track of it?
I write meticulous notes in a big notebook. I also keep a file of loose papers, maps, period illustrations, and computer print outs.
Is there software you find helpful?
Alas, no. I am the biggest Luddite you shall ever meet!
In your research into the 17th century, did you discover anything particularly surprising?
In Early Modern, post-Reformation Britain, Protestant authorities directly conflated recusant Catholicism with witchcraft. “No part of England hath so many witches,” Edward Fleetwood states in his 1645 pamphlet describing Lancashire, “none fuller of Papists.” Even Reginald Scot, one of the most enlightened men of the English Renaissance, thought the act of transubstantiation, the point in the Catholic mass where it is believed that the host becomes the body and blood of Christ, was an act of sorcery.
Mother Demdike’s family’s charms recorded in the trial transcripts mirror the ecclesiastical language of the pre-Reformation Church. Her incantation to cure a bewitched person, quoted by the prosecution as evidence of diabolical magic, is a moving and poetic depiction of the passion of Christ as witnessed by the Virgin Mary. This text is very similar to the White Pater Noster, an Elizabethan prayer charm Eamon Duffy discusses in his landmark book, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England: 1400-1580.
It appears that Mother Demdike, born in Henry VIII’s reign, at the cusp of the Reformation, was a practitioner of the kind of quasi-Catholic folk magic that would have been fairly common in earlier generations. Keith Thomas’s social history Religion and the Decline of Magic is an excellent study on how the Reformation literally took the magic out of Christianity.
What do you think are our most prevalent misconceptions about the 17th century?
Until very recently, the history of 17th century Britain has been presented as all too black and white, with dour Puritans battling effete and foppish cavaliers—it’s a tableau of caricatures. The lives of those caught between the clashes of Protestant and Catholic, Parliamentarian and Royalist, tend to get written out of history. As well as a time of sectarian violence, witchcraft hysteria, and civil war, this was a time of radical change that gave birth to many utopian grassroots movements, such as the Diggers and the Levellers. The Quaker religion, founded in 1652 after George Fox received his inspiring vision on top of Pendle Hill, is one of the most enduring legacies of these visionary times. The Quakers’ message of absolute human equality, including gender equality, and their rejection of war, feels as radically uncompromising today as it did nearly 400 years ago.
Thank you so much, Mary. That’s fascinating. (I’m putting your statement “The past is another country, another culture, with perceived realities very different to our own.” into my Quotes page.)
P.S. Mary and I share a love of horses. This is a photo of Mary exploring Pendle Hill on her sweet horse. What a perfect way to do research into the 17th century.
Be sure to visit Mary online: www.marysharratt.com.