I recently attended a reading at my local Oxfam given by the author Livi Michael to promote her new novel Malkin Child (2012). This is a book commissioned for children that retells the story of the Pendle witches, which, as Michael suggested during her talk, was more of a challenge to write than she had initially thought. For a start the story is true, the events took place in 1612 in the county of Lancashire and are still remembered in that area. A family were accused of witchcraft, along with several ‘accomplices’, following an incident between their eldest daughter and a pedlar. Alizon, the young woman, was begging some pins from the pedlar and when he refused she cursed him. Now, as Michael pointed out during her reading, people truly believed in the power of curses at this time and although the pedlar suffered the symptoms of what we would commonly understand as a stroke, this neurological reaction was probably triggered by the sheer terror of being cursed. Even today, curses have deep psychological effects, imagine the hold that they would have gained in the darkness of an illiterate and isolated world without electricity.
I will not tell you the whole story of the Pendle witches; the mistakes Alizon made, the determination of the authorities to establish guilt – since I expect you to read Michael’s short and gripping novel. However, the real reason it was a challenge to write is the end of the story, which is worth knowing in advance. The grandmother, the mother, the sister and the brother of this family were all tried, convicted and ultimately executed on the evidence of a single person – their youngest daughter, Jennet. To be called Jennet in Lancashire today is still to be called ‘witch’, even though she was never herself accused of witchcraft. This fate, of both Jennet and her family, is a difficult one to present to children; however, Michael’s novel achieves this feat with breath-taking ease. Importantly the book is also linked to the modern day reality of witch-hunts, through supporting Stepping Stones Nigeria – a UK-based charity upholding the rights of persecuted children in the Niger Delta region of Africa.
I want to highlight two aspects of Malkin Child that particularly excited my interest. First, considering that this is such a story of gaps and lacuna, is the use of the ellipsis at the beginning to link up the introductory chapters:
‘James was just jealous, because his and Alizon’s dad died before I was born, and then a man came from over Our Hill, who turned out to be…
My Dad’ (p. 14)
James is Jennet’s half-brother, while ‘My Dad’ forms the heading for the next chapter. The form emphasises the significance of the gap between James and Alizon as primary and Jennet as secondary, marginal, unknown – since her father is cast both as an intruder while also simultaneously remaining invisible.
The ellipsis is a spinning out of the possibilities for signification because even at the end of a sentence, as above, it can be questioning, sarcastic, uncertain and also change the whole tone – forcing a rereading, particularly when the final ‘arrival’ of the phrase ‘My Dad’ is both a completion and a departure. This approach seems to suggest something about narrative, as operating out of the gaps, which is an ambiguity reinforced by Jennet who is trying to take ‘control’ of the story – Our James, Our Alizon, Our Hill, My Dad – but acknowledges that this is difficult. The Justice of the Peace, Roger Nowell, coaches the evidence out of Jennet in the King’s English – fascinating in itself – but, more interesting that the ends, are the means he employs. He positions Jennet as a saviour, which sets up fatal problems around meaning and understanding:
‘I’ve thought about it a lot since, and all I can think is, there’s more than one meaning to certain words, like save, and truth. There’s what he meant, and there’s what I meant’ (p. 77)
Another ellipsis, and a difficult lesson to learn whether child or adult – there is what you mean and there is what I mean – and then there is the gap in-between.