In April 1593, the whole Samuel family – Alice Samuel, her husband John, and their daughter Agnes – were tried for witchcraft. They were hanged for their supposed crimes, ‘the bewitching of the five daughters of Robert Throckmorton Esquire’ and ‘the betwitching to death of Lady Cromwell’. If you weren’t already aware of the Witches of Warboys, this is not the fictional setting for Kate Pullinger’s 1999 novel Weird Sister, it is a genuine case that scholar George Kittredge called ‘the most momentous witch-trial that had ever occurred in England.’
I was introduced to Weird Sister by Marion Gibson in her excellent reading list of witches in fiction who is right in saying the novel is neglected, despite the excellent press reception it received when released. It tells the story of Agnes Samuel, a beautiful and enchanting, if cold, American woman who arrives in present-day Warboys, the same Fens village hosting the original witchcraft trial of 1593, seemingly from out of nowhere. There appears to be no motive to her stay and Agnes brushes off the question when asked. It quickly becomes apparent that Agnes is driven by her own internal motivations – anger and revenge – and quickly manages to infiltrate the Throckmorton family (descended from the original 16th-century Throckmortons), cleverly and coldly manipulating each family member. It isn’t just the Throckmortons at Agnes’s mercy, the entire village seems to be under her spell, treating her as if she were a glamorous American film star. Is Agnes a witch? As Gibson said in her reading list, ‘probably – other interpretations are part of the elusive pleasure of the story, and it has multiple narrators.’
She has a lot of luggage. It matches. As the taxi stops at the Black Hat the bulb in the streetlamp overhead explodes. A shower of sparks falls over the roof of the black hackney cab, fireworks heralding the arrival of Agnes. The driver doesn’t notice; he switches off the engine and climbs out onto the pavement.
Weird Sister has one of the strongest and most memorable openings I have read for a long time and those first two pages capture so many of the defining elements of this novel. Agnes arrives in Warboys in a shower of fireworks, but the driver doesn’t notice. Agnes’s arrival turns out to be one of the most important things to happen in Warboys since, probably, the witchcraft trial of 1593. This sleepy little village is going to be turned upside down. And yet, despite the significance of her appearance, the peculiarity of the circumstances and the events that follow, the people of Warboys barely recognise that anything is amiss. Occasionally, creeping and worrying thoughts are conjured by Agnes, but they’re often forgotten after yet another of her charm offensives.
‘…heralding the arrival of Agnes’. Agnes is a great antiheroine. We know Agnes’s motives are not innocent. Her anger was barely concealed, ‘Agnes was an incredibly angry person… she controlled that anger, like she controlled everyone around her… And I think it’s what made people love her.’ The anger would flash in her beautiful green eyes, that for a moment can seem ‘black, as though the pupil eclipses the iris and is restored by a blink.’ And yet, for the early stages of the novel at least, we root for her. She is an image of great strength, cunning, and femininity. Perhaps some of this is to do with the knowledge that she is here in Warboys to seek revenge for the unjust execution of her family. We want Agnes to succeed and we’re as bewitched as the residents of Warboys. As the book progresses and we begin to care more deeply about the characters populating Warboys and orbiting Agnes – Pullinger has drawn a cast of incredibly rich characters – our feelings towards Agnes begin to sour, almost in tandem with the rest of the village, as the hunter becomes the hunted.
The novel is told from a variety of different perspectives in short sharp chapters. Sometimes we’re over the shoulder in a third-person point of view while other chapters are told in the first-person, jumping between the characters deeply entwined in Agnes’s own story. Through this, we’re offered different glimpses of the events from characters whose state of bewitchment is graduated from head over heels in love to eventual mistrust and deep concern. Different versions of the truth are offered and we understand the full extent of Agnes’s manipulation of those around her.
And yet decades, generations, centuries, have passed between then and now; it is more than four hundred years since Agnes Samuel last met the Throckmorton family. Agnes hasn’t forgotten.
Pullinger writes that the ‘Throckmortons of Warboys have forgotten’. Even ‘the village woke up one morning and looked upon itself with shame. Grotesque, they said, not worth the telling. Not worth remembering.’ Agnes, and the chaos she seeks to bring to Warboys, is the direct result of not remembering the past, of forgetting what we have learned from our gruesome history. The Throckmortons’ only hope is to try and remember Agnes Samuel.
Much too often, we can observe the consequences of forgetting our past in today’s politics. Every generation has its own witch-hunt, even gross misappropriations. Kate Pullinger’s Weird Sister is a brilliant story of revenge, of the aftermath of turning strangers into scapegoats, and why we cannot forget the past – even if we try.