[Heroine Polly gets the lowdown from the local teenage tearaway.]
‘Julien was a doll,’ he said. ‘They’d have destroyed her today, just like they did in the 16th century. All the grey-faced moneybags with their fur-lined coats and their earthly paradise of property. Julien threatened them by the way she looked and the way she lived. She wore men’s clothes for riding out, and that in itself has been half-way to witchcraft since the burning of Joan of Arc. As well as that, she treated the peasants like human beings, and that was bad, ‘cos the Granchesters weren’t the only lords of the manor in the district, and the others didn’t like it one bit… Do you have a fag please?’
Polly gave him a cigarette and lit it for him, looking down at his bowed face and his long, downswept eyelashes.
He blew a column of smoke towards the ceiling and went on: ‘I don’t know the ins and outs of it, nor does Miss Granchester, but the time came when even her own family got slightly bugged with the way Julien carried on. And by then the local Establishment had definitely decided that her behaviour was frightening the horses and making the peasants restless for more bread, so they lined her up for the chop – and there was a classic means….’
commentary: If the Past Offences year-of-the-month meme hadn’t already done 1971, I would be suggesting it so I could use this book – it would be ideal. Nothing could be more of its time – the picture of an English village changing, the rough boys, the oh-so-uptodate Polly Lestrange, who has come from Canada so is bringing a new eye to the old-fashioned ways round here. She has come to visit her dying elderly relative in a weird old house. Everybody behaves in a strange and suspicious manner. But maybe the respectables aren’t so respectable, and the tearaways aren’t so wicked?
Polly’s ancestor Julien, above, was burned as a witch, and now her grave is a focus of attention – there are flowers on it, and is a new coven forming? Why is the vicar so upset? Why can Polly not get in to see the dying Miss Granchester?
It’s very Gothic and over the top, and will remind a certain generation of English readers of a Hammer House of Horror film – there’s a touch of Witchfinder General in there, along with those films featuring young women in mini-skirts and English manor houses. And strange noises in the night.
It’s an atmospheric romp, with a surprisingly solid plot at the centre.
Someone recommended this book, and I cannot track down (in my head) who it was – I’m guessing someone on a crime and mystery forum. Please tell me if it was you, and take a bow. [He did tell me! Thanks, Xavier!]
Apparently Michael Butterworth used his own house in Suffolk as the recognizable model for the house in the book.
The picture is from a 1915 silent movie called The Witch Girl via the NYPL.