Word search and rescue

Livi Michael has brought any number of fascinating stories to light, including the Pendle Witches, but when it came to writing about class it was hard to find a voice

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Some years ago, I was asked to write a children’s book about the Pendle Witch trials of 1612. This would be published by Foxtail Press, a small publishing house set up by the Lancashire Literature Festival. The book was to be released on the 400th anniversary of the witch trials and executions, so I only had a few months to complete the manuscript. I said yes, because I enjoy writing historical fiction and because the story itself always fascinated me.

It’s not an easy story to tell for children, including, as it does, betrayal, persecution, torture and murder. It was the first mass hanging of people accused of witchcraft in England. Of the12 accused, nine were hanged at Lancaster, one at York, and one died in prison. One was found not guilty. The main fact that made it possible to write it as a children’s story is also one of the most horrific – the accused were tried on the basis of a child’s testimony. According to the report of Thomas Potts, clerk to the court, the key witness, Jennet Device, was “about nine years old”. Her testimony led to the death of her grandmother, who died in prison, and the execution of her mother, sister and brother, as well as several neighbours.

It is hard to make the leap of imagination necessary to recreate the circumstances, context and motivations behind these terrible events. What, in particular, impelled Device to betray her entire family? There are many gaps in the historical evidence, but gaps, as any writer will tell you, are useful things. Where the evidence ends, the story begins.

My starting point was Potts’s record of court proceedings, published in 1613 as the Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster. He recorded the first words of Device’s testimony as: “My mother is a witch and this I know to be true.”

This gave me pause.

Like her, I was brought up by my grandmother. My grandmother was born roughly 300 years later and spoke a form of Lancashire dialect that would be incomprehensible to us today. England was particularly rich in dialects, most of which have disappeared. People who lived in neighbouring villages couldn’t always understand one another’s speech. When King James sent out his ministers and witchfinders to scour the country, they were confronted by the incomprehensible “barbarous dialects” of the North.

Device’s family lived in abject poverty and there is no record of her ever going to school, where she would have learned to abandon her own dialect and speak the King’s English.

Did Potts translate Device’s words for her? Or was she trained, in the four months between being removed from her family and her appearance in court, to speak differently?

Either way, it seems unlikely that we have any accurate record of Device’s own words. This was the starting point for my story, Malkin Child.

King James I of England, VI of Scotland, was the son of Mary Queen of Scots. He inherited the English throne from Elizabeth I, who had no children, but he had been brought up in Scotland. His embrace of the English language was a source of disappointment to his compatriots. English, not Scots, was spoken at the Jacobean court. It was the language of Parliament, education, law, and, of course, the King James Bible. There has been a long history of resistance to this linguistic imperialism among Scottish writers, who have, like Irish and Welsh writers, worked to ensure the survival of their language in poetry and prose.

There is no such tradition in Lancashire.

My first novel, Under A Thin Moon, followed the lives of four women on a council estate in Ashton-under-Lyne. It was a portrait of where I grew up, which became a sink estate in the late seventies and early eighties. There was unemployment, substance abuse and suicide.

I began Under A Thin Moon at the age of 24, and finished it at 30. Part of the difficulty I had was in finding a suitable narrative voice, and voices for the speech of characters that didn’t make them sound stupid, ignorant or comic. This can be the effect if you use dialect in juxtaposition with standard English. When I went to university, at the age of 26, I discovered other possible approaches to narrative and speech in the work of writers such as Lewis Grassic Gibbon. He wrote the Scottish classic A Scots Quair, in which he developed a form of narrative he called “the speak”. This gave voice to an entire community and blended English and Scots prose in a story that commemorated the dispossessed in Scottish history, from the impoverished crofter to the working class in the fictional city of Duncairn. I did my PhD on A Scots Quair, setting it in the context of earlier working class and political writing from the 18th century onwards, and it undoubtedly helped me to find a voice for my own work.

Shortly after my first novel was published, in 1992, I was approached by a film company that wanted to make a short film about my book on the estate where it was set. It was interesting, if painful, to revisit the place where I had grown up. The first woman I spoke to was pushing her tenth child around in its trolley. She was 30. Most of her other children had been taken into care. Other women had similar stories to tell. One, pregnant for the eighth time at the age of 22, was hoping that she would be “allowed to keep her baby this time”.

I felt increasingly uncomfortable about speaking either for or about these women. My experience was different from theirs. Although I too had been a teenage mother, I was almost 20 when my first son was born. By that time I had flunked my A levels, but later I did a threshold course and went to university. By the time the film was made I had completed my PhD and was an academic as well as a writer, with a third novel about to be published. I wrote about the experience of revisiting the estate in an article called Feminism and the Class Ceiling, published in a Virago anthology called On the Move, in 1999. It wasn’t that I couldn’t empathise with these women, or felt no rage on their behalf – I simply couldn’t find a narrative position from which I could write authentically about their experience. What was I – researcher? Voyeur? Or someone claiming their experience as my own?

This discomfort led to me exploring different avenues: children’s fiction, (fantasy and historical) and historical fiction for adults. I don’t know, but would speculate that something similar led Pat Barker away from her early working class fiction into historical fiction, where authenticity depends on research and imagination, rather than the politics of identity. However, I didn’t abandon the subject of class altogether. My children’s books feature orphans in a workhouse, a Romani boy, the Pendle witches and a series of books about a hamster who escapes to form a commune run according to socialist ideals.

Recently, my 20th novel, Reservoir, has been published. The protagonist, Hannah, has moved away from her working class background into a career as a psychotherapist. She has reinvented herself, changing not only her social class but her name and nationality, yet still she is haunted by the past, and by one incident in particular. Among the complex factors underlying this incident are the politics of class and social discrimination, yet it has taken years for Hannah to fully realise this. Despite her professional expertise, Hannah’s childhood has affected her in ways she has never fully articulated, and has a profound effect on who she is as an adult. This is at least partly because we no longer have an adequate language of class in the UK.

The meaning of “working class” has changed, and continues to change along with other social descriptors such as “underclass”, which seems both derogatory and vague. In my childhood, for instance, there were very few homeless people. Now the numbers and variety of homeless defy linguistic designation. Class is less visible than other social signifiers such as race, yet at the same time the economic divide between rich and poor continues to grow. It is hard not to conclude that the lack of visibility is in some way linked to the growth of this divide, that it is in some way supported by the loss of language, identity and definition.

Which is why we need to keep talking and writing about class.

Reservoir by Livi Michael is published by Salt as a paperback original at £10.99. Available from all good bookshops, Amazon or directly from Salt (saltpublishing.com)

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