'When it comes to women's history, the scariest stories are the true ones...'
This Halloween, I was honoured to read 'Agnes', inspired by the true story of Agnes Sampson and her persecution at the hands of James VI, at Edinburgh Literary Salon's October gathering. As regular blog readers know, 'Agnes' appears in The Golden Hours anthology and it was a privilege to share her real life story with the Salon, half a millennium later, on a night when the veil between this world and beyond grew gossamer thin.
The talented student team at the Salon - special shoutout to Sina, Alex and Natalie! - did an outstanding job of inspiring interest in the story's themes through their atmospheric social media coverage. I was especially thrilled to be interviewed about my thoughts on the writing process behind this piece, the strong spirit of sisterhood at my story's heart, and why giving voice to Agnes is more vital than ever today. Check it out below, then be sure to order The Golden Hours and support the Salon's work in shining a light on stories too long hidden in history.
Kirsten, there are strong parallels between the misogyny Agnes faces in the 1500s and what misogyny still looks like today, with the interlinking of women’s autonomy and bodies being controlled by those in power and patriarchal oppression having turned into hatred of women at large. When you were writing ‘Agnes’, did you purposely sew in those parallels from the beginning or was this something you considered an omnipresent issue worth exploring regardless of our current socio-economic setting?
For me, writing herstorical feminist fiction is first and foremost an exercise in empathy and, as Agnes herself articulates in The Golden Hours, in giving voice to 'the forgotten women of the past'. Tempting as it can be, I would never want to purposely co-opt her real life experience - much less, her real life suffering - to make a political point today, and I think across all art forms a work tends to be weaker if its creator's focus is didactic rather than authentic, using characters to tell a story rather than having faith that telling the story of those characters will illuminate the themes we wish to explore. In short:
My decision to write from Agnes's perspective - first inspired by Laura Graham's Soul Murder V: The Exoneration of Agnes Sampson on International Women's Day 2022, then later informed by the work of Witches of Scotland and Lucy Worsley's exploration of Agnes's story in The Witch Hunts - was a visceral, instinctive one that I felt urgently within my own woman's body. Discovering the facts of what Agnes went through during her imprisonment and interrogation - more accurately, her torture - lingered in me for days and nights afterwards; as it had every right to do because, bodily speaking, Agnes could be me. She could be any of us. Same scalp shaved and tethered; same vulva stripped and shorn; same freckles pricked and the same blood drawn as a result.
As readers will discover, Agnes is forced to spend the interrogation scene of my story unclothed, which would indeed have been the case for the psycho-sexual punishment of witchpricking (with, unbelievably, the perpetrators really paid by the hour - financially incentivized to make the torture last). Hideous as that context is, when it comes to contemporary parallels perhaps that takes us to a challenging yet necessary place. As Agnes is forced to shed her Reformation dress, we are forced to shed any illusions that her fate could never befall us.
Agnes is the only woman in the story, pitted against the King and a mass of men who kidnapped and abused her. Yet, her connection to Queen Anne, the midwives, and, by the end, all women altogether is the most vivid for the reader. It is clear that this idea of a ‘sisterhood’ spans across space and time. What does sisterhood mean to you?
It's interesting because it has taken this question for me to realise that Agnes is technically the 'only woman' in the story, so strong is my sense of her connection to both the women around her at all levels of the social strata and to those of us alive today. I imagine that would be intensely intimidating and a subject of subconscious envy to men like James, who as we witness in the story can only understand other people as a threat. If I ever have the chance to write a longer piece about Agnes, there will be even more to explore in terms of the light and shade involved in sororal networks: for instance, the dark yet undeniable fact that witches were so often accused by fellow women and in turn tortured to the point of implicating others in their 'crimes'. Therefore:
There is a reason why, in my story's final paragraph, I imagine Agnes describing sisterhood 'even where no other commonalities bind us', and I hope 'the steely flash of sisterhood forged in vengeance' also makes clear that my sense of it is rooted in strength, not sweetness.
Whether and however we choose to exercise it, or not, women have within us what Agnes calls a 'magical only to those who misunderstand' connection to birth and implicitly death. That ability literally resides within us, so to my mind it makes sense that womanhood is imbued with unique intergenerational power. Maybe that is what frightens weak men like James so much.
And I think the hatred of women we've been discussing is, at its shrivelled, pathetic little core, more of a fear. A literal misogyny. Readers interested in researching Scotland's witch panics will know that this period coincides pretty much perfectly with the volatile religious upheaval of the Reformation, as well as the encroaching Union of the Crowns, to which we see James's ambitions already turning in the story. On the surface, that presents as power, but actually I believe it is his precarity - the uncertainty and ultimate vulnerability of his political position - that compels him to invent an enemy in the form of witches, whom he can then contrive a show of triumphing against. Ironically, that idea gives me hope today as we see such ugly, violent reinvigorations of sexist oppression around the world: not truly breathing in new life but merely the agonal gasps of a dying patriarchy. It all reminds me of a fantastic line from Harlots, the tv series inspired by Hallie Rubenhold's research into Georgian sex workers. 'It's not men's power we're at the mercy of. It's their weakness.'
With the current rise of 'Witcherature' and a new wave of feminist literature, your story is one of many that seeks to give a voice to the persecuted and the demonised women of the past. What is it about witches that begets these themes of women’s emancipation that are still so relevant today? Writing can feel like such a solitary occupation, it's fascinating to lift one's head from the page and discover that so many of us having been following different paths to the same place - especially given what I've just said about sisterhood! I've been moved and inspired by much of the witchlit out there, particularly Jenni Fagan's Hex, Kirsty Logan's Now She Is Witch and most recently Katherine J. Chen's Joan (which I'm recommending to everyone). I read once, somewhere, that bewitching themes tend to resurge when real life pressures on women increase, which makes sense to me having come of cultural age in the era of Sabrina, Buffy and the Halliwell sisters of Charmed when to attain the standard of ostensibly 'having it all' a woman really would need superpowers. Reflecting on today, I'm struck by the fact that women are stuck in what feel like highly prescribed roles, made worse by being gaslit into believing this is what 'liberation' looks like.
We're drilled into thinking that, to be of worth, we must be of value to the economy at all times (yet without ever disrupting the fiscal status quo in ways that might actually build a better system). Under the guise of good health - and setting aside the ableist assumption that is what we should all aim for - we are expected to demonstrate constant sexual enthusiasm, yet strictly for and with only one cis man. As the supposed markers of responsible citizenship, we are asked to submit uncomplainingly to our bodies becoming public property through policy-driven management of contraception, conception, birth and beyond - are men asked about their sex lives when visiting their GP with a chest infection? - yet support in areas like mental health that could more radically transform our wellbeing is woefully lacking. In my story, readers will note that Agnes mentally experiments several times with the idea that she could really be a witch, and I think that duality is present in many women's minds when we think about witchcraft. We know, and we fear, that we could be likewise accused, with work like The Handmaid's Tale showing how little it would take. And yet, as Agnes puts it, if 'I was what they say I am', how different might my life be? I am incensed by the paradox (illustrated in Dr Jessica Taylor's Why Women Are Blamed For Everything) that women are somehow, simultaneously, given all the responsibility with none of the power:
Are there any scents, tastes, colours, places, songs, media etc. that make you think of 'Agnes' or that you drew from in the process of writing? I love this question because I always create a playlist to match the atmosphere of whatever I'm writing!
The first song that comes to mind is "Which Witch" by Florence + the Machine (How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful). I listened to this regularly whilst writing my upcoming novel The Rowan Tree too, which is also inspired by real life and examines the public accusation of witchcraft made against Dr Kathleen Raine by Gavin Maxwell here in Scotland as late as 1968. When the beat drops, it hits like a strike of sudden recrimination, yet Florence's elegiac vocals feel poignantly defiant, as I imagine both Agnes and Kathleen were in the face of the injustice they suffered.
The next song on my Golden Hours playlist is "Well Below the Valley". I first heard it sung in the film The Magdalene Sisters, a brilliant, blistering portrayal of the women in Ireland incarcerated in Magdalene laundries (again, astonishingly late into the 20th century). It also appeared in Daisy May Cooper's The Witchfinder, sung a cappella in a very eerie way. Be warned, the story within the song is exceedingly dark, but the way it gathers pace musically evokes for me what Agnes calls the 'communal stupidity' of James's 'lackies' and 'sycophants': gathering (our original prompt for this anthology) in groupthink that rapidly threatens anyone and everyone on the outside.
Finally, for a more uplifting conclusion, the third song is "Dance of the Druids" by Bear McCreary, which I believe was written for the first series of Outlander. It accompanies an iconic early scene in which 1940s 'white witches' greet the Highland sunrise at a circle of standing stones - not the subtlest portrayal of our pagan heritage, but visually beautiful. This time as the music builds, it is accompanied by the ethereal notes of Raya Yarbrough's singing, which feels much more in keeping with the sisterhood Agnes calls for in my story's conclusion.