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  • ISBN10: 0753821532
  • ISBN13: 9780753821534
  • Paperback
  • 496 pages
  • Phoenix

The Last Witchfinder
by James Morrow

Reviewed by reynard

Rating: 5 out of 5

  • Posted 14 years ago
  • Viewed 6320 times, 2 comments
  • Average user rating: (5/5)

Stearne words for the faithful

Combining philosophy, comedy, tragedy, satire and the history of science along with pure fantasy, James Morrow's Last Witchfinder is in equal parts a compelling Enlightenment adventure and philosophical reflection on the age old but ever more relevant confrontation between faith and reason.

Beginning in late Seventeenth Century England, crossing to the American colonies then back and forth again via a Caribbean Island, The Last Witchfinder charts the life and adventures of Jennet Stearne, daughter of Mercia and East Anglia's Witchfinder General, in her battle to overthrow the Parliamentary Witchcraft Act. Jennet is spurred on to this action by the gruesome execution of her beloved aunt Isobel at the hands of the Witchfinders for indulging in alleged maleficium; in fact straightforward scientific investigation. Tutored by her aunt in the ways of Newtonian and Baconian experimentation, Jennet dedicates her life to exposing the fallacies of the notion of Witchcraft by scientific demonstration.

The novel's philosophical elements are always offset by the fantastical; the narrator after all is Newton's Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica. Yes, the book literally tells the story. Historical fact and fiction converge and Morrow gives roles to major figures of the time, including Benjamin Franklin and Baron de Montesquieu alongside his own fictional creations. The characterisation is sophisticated and sympathetic; Morrow's characters are never overly prescient of the future or mere stereotypes. Thus Morrow avoids the all too common trap of merely portraying the past through contemporary eyes. Even Jennet's father ultimately just wants to care and provide for his children; he is a product of his times, misguided but not evil.

This sophistication extends to the philosophical and theological arguments in the novel. Although the reader is left in no doubt as to Morrow's view of faith, the characters are not anachronistic mouth pieces for rational secular humanism or atheism. The heroine finally tends more towards Deism which must have offered the most precise vocabulary for explaining her developing world view. Morrow is an advocate of reason, but not an unquestioning one. During an interlude, the "narrator" reminds us that, "rationality disconnected from decency, deliberation and doubt... leads not to Utopia but to the guillotine". The interview with the author in the otherwise frankly embarrassing "notes for reading groups" which follows the novel in the paperback edition I read allows him to summarise his view. Paraphrasing Churchill,

Reason is the worst possible mode in which to negotiate the world, except for all the others.

Still, whilst a cautious rationalist, Morrow does not pull his punches when it comes to faith. In these times when organised religion in the West is finding a new confidence in the public sphere and secularism is coming under siege, it is timely to be reminded of the "cleansings" and where their rationale lay. During the final showdown between Jennet and the Witchfinders, she is ultimately defeated when she tries to use scripture in her argument against them. "Thou shalt not suffer not a witch to live" (Exodus 22:18) is only one of many scriptural reposts the Witchfinders are able to counter her anti-demonology arguments with.

That philosophical reflection can so naturally co-exist with such fast-paced adventure is testament to Morrow's writing. This is a wonderful and magical novel; one is almost tempted to believe in one of Morrow's more fantastical and irrational propositions, that books have souls.

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deargreenplace says:

This is on my to-be-read list and I'm looking forward to reading it even more now - what a thoughtful review.

#1 Posted 14 years ago

guncatsup26 says:

Yeah, thanks for your review, I want to read this book later.

#2 Posted 9 years ago

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