The Last Witchfinder by James Morrow

I'Christ! I can't take much more of this!
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The Independent Culture

This novel resembles the man you wouldn't want to get stuck next to at a dinner party: exhaustingly garrulous, refusing to let you get a word in edgeways, determined to trumpet his own erudition. If you were patient, by the end of the evening you might concede he wasn't such a bad bloke after all. You just wouldn't want to sit next to him again.

The central conceit of The Last Witchfinder is that its narrator isn't a person, but another book, to wit Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica. Presumably the point is to personify the virtue of Reason which Morrow champions, but the novel would be both shorter and better without this daft idea.

Jennet Stearne's father is a witchfinder in the late 17th century; after he consigns her innocent Aunt Isobel to the flames, Jennet vows to get the Parliamentary Witchcraft Act overturned, and devotes her life to doing so by means of philosophy and Baconian experiment. The story spans some 80 years, and features a voyage to the New World, the Salem Witch Trials, shipwreck, piracy, and capture by Algonquin Indians, as well as appearances by Robert Hooke, Benjamin Franklin, Isaac Newton and the Baron de Montesquieu. With raw material like this, it really shouldn't be boring. But for long stretches, it is.

Morrow has an English undergraduate's delight in arcane words: frisket, hortator, cordwainer, syzygies and ensorcelled. He is addicted to periphrasis, so a pile of books becomes "bibliographical bounty", the sky is a "celestial acreage" and worst of all, Jennet's vagina is her "womanly canal". The effect is both self-conscious and arch, like listening to Stephen Fry reading aloud from Roget's thesaurus.

Then there is the over-insistent attempt to replicate 17th- and 18th-century speech; every page bristles with t'wills and t'woulds and t'ises, and oaths such as 'sblood, 'steeth and I'Christ! He uses the familiar forms thee and thou inconsistently, so that we have incongruous utterances in which someone is addressed as both thee and sir in the same sentence. There are anachronisms (surely "wight" and "swive" were not still current in the 18th century?), and "betimes" is used to mean "occasionally" rather than "early". No doubt I'm being pedantic, but a book written in such a pedantic style cries out for a similar response.

And yet. By the time I'd worked through 494 pages of it, I'd developed a tolerance for The Last Witchfinder, and was even able to feel genuinely concerned about Jennet's fate. And it's high time someone stuck up for Enlightenment values, after the assaults of the post-modernists and Professor John Gray. But if only this had been edited down to about half its length, it could have been a cracking picaresque yarn. And a much more congenial dinner party companion.

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