A Discovery of Witches at Oxford University

After visiting Oxford University’s Bodleian Library and the Ashmolean Museum, I had a new appreciation for Deborah Harkness’ All Saints Trilogy, beginning with “A Discovery of Witches.” Harkness based her fictional stories on real characters and a real book. In an interview she noted:

“Elias Ashmole was a seventeenth-century English antiquarian and scholar. He gave major bequests to Oxford University, including the collection of books and objects that provided the foundation for the Ashmolean Museum (which is still in operation today). Ashmole’s books and manuscripts were first kept at the museum and then moved to the university’s Bodleian Library in the nineteenth century. The Ashmole manuscripts include numerous rare alchemical texts. One of the manuscripts, Ashmole 782, is currently missing. As a scholar, I’ve done a lot of research in the Ashmole alchemical manuscripts and always wondered what Ashmole 782 might contain.”

In the Ashmolean Museum bookstore I found a copy of “Alchemy and Mysticism: The Hermetic Museum” by Alexander Roob – the closest I could get to the missing book. A heavy tome,full of wood cuttings and illustrations connecting medieval mysticism with alchemy. Images include hieroglyphs and early scientific illustrations in the fields of medicine, and chemistry. Too heavy for my suitcase, I left it to be rediscovered by another.
Review of “A Discovery of Witches”

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Salem Witches – Real and Imaginary

9781589791329_p0_v1_s260x420Mary Roach’s new book – The Salem Witch Trials: A Day-by-Day Chronicle of a Community Under Siege – offers a factual account of a riveting piece of history that has fostered fictional plays and novels.  Roach based her nonfiction book on twenty-seven years of original archival research, including the discovery of previously unknown documents, chronicling the real drama of Salem in 1692.  I usually prefer fiction to nonfiction, but having read Roach’s Packing for Mars, I look forward to her unbiased research mixed with her practical humor and cynical perspective.  That said, I still prefer imagining those lives from Katherine Howe’s The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane or Deborah Harkness’ “All Souls Trilogy,” following the fictional modern trials of witch Diana Bishop (A Discovery of Witches).

How true to fact does historical fiction need to be? Do you get stuck on the details that don’t quite fit (if you know them), or let the author’s poetic license weave a story that has universal appeal? Traditionally, historical fiction uses incidents that happened at least a hundred years ago.  Authors expect the reader to make the connections to history, but also understand that the author is creating conversations and actions that probably did not really happen.  (Going back in time to lurk under the bed of all those Elizabethan queens to hear those conversations was not an option for Philippa Gregory).   The more realistic they seem, the better the book. Often a movie follows, with even more digression from the facts.

Authors may offer a disclaimer that their story was inspired by an incident, a person, a place that appears in the book as an anchor, with the rest from the imagination of the writer.  If the authors of historical fiction are not accurate – this is fiction, after all – do they risk misinforming the literal reader?  creating alternative history?  Were the reputations of Frank Lloyd Wright (Loving Frank), and, most recently, Robert Louis Stevenson (Under the Wide and Starry Sky), enhanced by Nancy Horan’s fictional imaginings to their life stories?  Or, do some readers want, like the Queen in Hamlet,  “More matter with less art” ?

What fiction have you read based on real history? How did that work out for you?

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Shadow of Night

Modern witch Diana Bishop and her vampire lover, Matthew Clairmont, are back in Deborah Harkness’s Shadow of Night. Diana and Matthew, scientific creatures who research DNA and alchemy in the new world, time travel back to merry Old England’s Elizabethan Age to hone Diana’s witching skills and look for the elusive book – Ashmole 782 – that started the tale.

Harkness cleverly manages the time differential with threads weaving through the magic, and delivers as much adventure, mystery, romance – and fun – as she did in A Discovery of Witches, her first book in this All Souls trilogy. If you are a fan of sixteenth century English literature, you will marvel at the literary luminaries that Diana meets – Christopher Marlowe and Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” will never be the same.

As a recognized scholar and continuing student of Elizabethan London, Harkness adds details that create the clothing, manners, and rivalries of the Old World better than any Renaissance fair. Scientific inquiry is a major catalyst in the plot, and Harkness sets the record straight on who invented the telescope, sending me to google Galileo and Thomas Harriot.

Like the first book, this one is long and complicated with plot twists and surprises.

Read A Discovery of Witches first, if you can – check out my review here

It’s going to be a long wait until the third book’s final installment, but Hollywood is already planning the movies.

A Discovery of Witches

What is the real secret of the philosopher’s stone? Deborah Harkness in A Discovery of Witches connects its immortality, wealth and knowledge to vampires.

Although the story begins slowly with academic references and a strange book recalled from the Oxford library stacks by Dr. Diana Bishop, it’s not long before witches, daemons, and vampires are locked in a battle for the ancient and powerful information the book promises. With a witch pedigree that tracks back to the Salem witch trials, Diana has stubbornly refused to acknowledge or use her magical powers until a handsome irresistible vampire, Dr. Matthew Clairmont becomes her protector and true love.

By mixing scientific inquiry, evolution and DNA, with popular interest in vampires and other worldly magical creatures, Harkness creates a compelling combination of mystery thriller, romance, and fantasy – with a sprinkling of scholarly historical fiction.  If you look closely, she also added a dash of intolerance for bigotry and racism.  As the action escalates, imaginative details on witchcraft and vampire lore, as well as a few well-used myths, supplement the plot line.  The antics of Diana’s childhood home reminded me of Jessica Day George’s Tuesdays at the Castle, but The Discovery of Witches is not for children.

This is the first of a trilogy, and I missed this book’s debut last year, but thanks to a good friend who reads the Mount Holyoke alumni newsletter, I’m back on track.  The second book – Shadow of Night – is already on the New York Times bestseller list, and I won’t have to wait long to find out what happens to the star-crossed lovers as they battle the forces of evil – time traveling back to sixteenth century England.  I can’t wait.