The Wonderful Discovery of Elizabeth Sawyer

Written by Jonathan Vischer
Review by Katherine Mezzacappa

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.