The Peasants Revolt of 1381 followed hard on the heels of the Black Death, the Great Pestilence that destroyed families, emptied villages and traumatised survivors. With taxes and rents increased for the poorest of England’s poor, the time was ripe for unrest, revolt and superstitious fury. Karen Maitland tells the story of England in 1380 and 1381 not by dramatising the deeds and battles of kings and nobles but by focusing on the stories of a few households in Lincoln and its surroundings. At the heart of the novel and his society is Robert of Bassingham, a wool merchant, employer, landlord, husband and father. He is one of the most powerful men in his pond but it is a very small pond. Mistress Caitlin, a husbandless mother to Edward and Leonia, catches Robert’s eye, enchanting him with her widow’s tale and inheritance in need of investing. But as Robert and Caitlin grow closer, Robert’s wife Edith becomes ill and despite all that Edith’s faithful maid Beata and and son Jan can do to stop it, Caitlin is brought into the house to care for the ailing woman. Sorrow will ensue, in the company of death, injustice and madness.
In tandem with the story of Robert and Caitlin and their children, is that of tenant and boatman Gunter, who lives in a hovel with wife Nonie and three children, barely scraping an existence from his hard labour shared by his eldest son, the child Hankin. When the young King Richard increases the poll tax, there is little a man like Gunter can do to protect his family and home when his landlord likewise increases rents to cover his own losses brought on by conflict with foreign traders. In 1380 Robert is unmoved by the suffering of his tenants; by the end of 1381 he will have been transformed, if, of course, he, Gunter and everyone else in the novel survives this most terrible of years.
The Vanishing Witch is an immensely powerful tale. Divided by month and then subdivided again into short fast chapters, each told from one of several perspectives and many ending with a twist or cliffhanger, the substantial novel (my proof had almost 700 pages) is soon devoured. This is masterly storytelling, generous to the reader from start to finish.
The title suggests a supernatural element. This is the first Karen Maitland novel I’ve read and so I wasn’t sure how much witchcraft to expect. There is an element of magic, not just in the actions of one or more characters, but also in the wider depiction of superstitious beliefs and mysterious unease and in one of the narrative’s perspectives – that of a ghost who pops into the story now and again to comment on the events we’re watching and to remind us that existence doesn’t just end with a suicide or a murder. But, as a reader who shies away from witches and magic in novels, I was concerned that I would feel alienated – this didn’t happen for a moment. There is the presence of witchery but far stronger in the novel is Karen Maitland’s powerful evocation of life in late 14th-century England, a life in which Christianity was sprinkled with ancient supernatural beliefs and fears. The location, plus am intriguing prologue set hundreds of years before, helps set the mood – the Lincoln wetlands are both fertile and dangerous and a very long way from London.
While much of the novel focuses on the almost claustrophobic trials and drama of Robert and Caitlin and their children, the outside world does intrude as the Peasants Revolt gains momentum. Some chapters are set in London (or in the dungeons of Lincoln’s castle) and they are among the most thrilling and momentous of the book, for us and for the inhabitants of the novel.
The Vanishing Witch is beautifully written. The historical setting is evoked so richly and yet it is never done with a heavy hand. The characters are hard to forget. The story of Robert’s servants, Beata and Tenney, is particularly strong and is, I think, my favourite. Likewise, I always looked forward to the narrative’s return to Gunter and his family. It’s almost as if Robert and Caitlin are carrying out their own painful drama on the stage before us but our attention is continually distracted by the affairs of those around us. It’s difficult to like or dislike Robert, he’s set above us, but it is very easy to empathise with those who serve him, or with those who are punished by the crushing demands of king or landlord.
The Vanishing Novel is a fast, intriguing and thoroughly enjoyable read. There are fantastical elements but they are subservient to the rich historical feel to the novel, mixed throughout with a strong storyline, wonderfully told, full of twists and surprises.