The year is 1621: a time of paranoia following the English Reformation. In London’s Newgate prison, Elizabeth Sawyer, the mother of eleven children, lies shackled in her cell. Denounced as a witch by her woodland neighbours and condemned to death by the court, Elizabeth has one last chance to make her peace with this world. By way of confession, she tells the prison chaplain three stories about her life.
Chaplain Goodcole at first responds with revulsion. Like the court he condemns Elizabeth as wicked and depraved but as her execution draws near, his opinion shifts. Does this ‘ignorant’ countrywoman know something that he doesn’t? Has she indeed made a wonderful discovery, or has he, as his colleagues suspect, fallen under the spell of a wily and malign witch?
Based on a true story, this novel is rooted in the struggles of rural women 400 years ago. Exploring different types of power, it unravels the fear and superstitions surrounding any girl or woman who spoke her mind.
Jonathan Vischer was born in London where he first worked as a craftsman and then trained as a teacher. Since moving to Northern Ireland in 1996, he has combined his work in schools with producing artwork and writing stories. For the past ten years, Jonathan has studied at The Seamus Heaney Centre in Queen’s University Belfast. His novel, The Wonderful Discovery of Elizabeth Sawyer, draws on his research into the historical character that inspired the play, The Witch of Edmonton.
Member Profile: https://www.netgalley.co.uk/publisher/member/651022 (Guest Review) - 19 Jan, 2023
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
King James I of England (VI of Scotland) dismissed witchcraft ae trickery and yet he feared it so much thousands of women would be put to death. Not as well known as the Pendle Witch Trials, a decade earlier, this novel looks again at the life and death of Elizabeth Sawyer, the Witch of Edmonton.
This is a gripping story, authentic, believable and poignant. Newgate Prison and Tyburn are brought vividly to life; the sights, sounds and smells of 1621 permeate every page.
The author has the potential to become the next C.J. Sansom, Hilary Mantel or Andrew Taylor in the crowded field of historical fiction.
Would you purchase this book for yourself or a friend? Yes
Will you recommend this book/author to your audience? Yes
Member Profile: https://www.netgalley.co.uk/publisher/member/651022
Jonathan Vischer - 11 Dec, 2022
My favourite line in this book summed it up for me: "It is storyteller's magic. For the story is not just a story, it is a spell and once told it has the power to change everything." Henry Goodcole as a prison chaplain is tasked with listening to the final confession of Elizabeth Sawyer, condemned as a witch. Some creepy moments of her testimony stood out to me, such as the shape-shifting nature of the devil, appearing to her while pregnant as a red-eyed fox and coming back later as a wolf to take her firstborn away. There was a real sense of impending biblical doom in her confession for god-fearing Goodcole as he listened to her story, at first fearing her as a monster. I liked how through dealing with Sawyer, Goodcole was forced to confront his own past, in particular regrets that he had relating to his family and how his fear of Sawyer's power got the better of him. The 'wonderful discovery' of the title was unexpected too, and the aftermath of this as Goodcole sought to make sense of her confession. Sawyer herself was fascinating and charismatic. Really enjoyed this book, and totally recommend it, especially for readers who like stories based on real historical events.
Katherine Mezzacappa, The Historical Novel Society (Guest Review) - 10 May, 2023
London, 1621. Condemned to death for witchcraft, Elizabeth Sawyer recounts her life to a prison chaplain (historical fact is that Elizabeth did exist, and Henry Goodcole did write his account of her). In Vischer’s remarkable novel, Sawyer emerges as more than a match for the clergyman, not through occult powers but for her intelligence and theological perceptiveness – which is not to say she is above manipulation and subterfuge. It is clear from the story she tells that her end was inevitable, as a woman feared and disliked by her neighbours. In any case, being female, she is automatically considered unclean in the eyes of Goodcole’s church (the female felons in Newgate even merit a shorter religious service than their male counterparts in this ‘conduit to draw off the waste of a nation’).
This is a world in which ‘old’ practices persist: a Marian shrine guarding the bones of the unbaptized, a rosary quietly told, but where an anachronistic note in post-dissolution London is sounded by a group of singing nuns – even as a recusant is carted to Tyburn’s tree. Ultimately, Sawyer brings about an epiphany in Goodcole, forcing him to examine his own motives and find some kind of redemption.
One can never, of course, know how accurate he is, but Vischer convinced this reader that he is able even to think in a 17th-century way. Partly this is to do with the sense of place he creates, in days when Barking was ‘a small fishing town some nine miles east of London’ and Tottenham, Edmonton, Winchmore were farmed or wooded. His is an extraordinary achievement.