The problem with witches


12 January 2024
Author Imogen Edwards-Jones talks about busting stereotypes in her new historical novel The Witch's Daughter

Mention the word ‘witch’ and most readers immediately conjure up the image of an elderly, hook-nosed hag, not dissimilar to the green-hued harridan who was hell-bent on the demise of dear Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. Either that, or they will think of the opening scenes of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Ancient, pustule-challenged crones gathered around a bubbling cauldron of what appears to be green (it’s always green) slime, chanting some barely discernible spell that no one understands until half the cast of characters are actually dead.

In fact, the problem with witches is that they suffer from appalling PR.

And, when it comes to their storylines, the pistachio-coloured sorceresses are mostly burnt, murdered, ducked, abused, buried alive, staked, stalked; invariably given short shrift. These days, they are a little bit more rehabilitated. There are teenage witches with magic moving noses, some angry girls with thunderbolts flying out of their hands and they are few really ‘hot’ ones with blow dries who will fraternise with werewolves, if their close-up is well-lit enough. But mostly they are still the older, wizened, jaded, some might say slightly menopausal ladies as depicted in John Updike’s The Witches of Eastwick.

But cast the die back to the turn of the last century and they took their occult and necromancy seriously. The Victorians had ghost clubs and societies that would investigate the paranormal. The College of Psychic Studies was founded in London in 1884, a year after the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn whose members where to include Algernon Blackwood, Aleister Crowley, Arthur Conan Doyle, and WB Yeats. There was Madame Blavatsky who founded the Theosophical Society in 1875, and there were gurus, there were healers, there was table tipping, Ouija boards (from the French word - Yes) then, of course, over on the frozen steppes of Russian there was Rasputin.

I first heard about the ‘witches,’ whom I write about in my novel, The Witches of St Petersburg and the new sequel to it, The Witch’s Daughter, in the winter of 1992, when my friend, the war correspondent, Nikolai Antonov, told me about the ‘Black Princesses’ as we sat around his kitchen table in Moscow drinking strong vodka and eating stronger pickles.

His eyes shone as he wove a magical tale about these two beautiful, young princesses, Militza and Anastasia, who arrived from Montenegro and married into the Russian Court, introduced Rasputin to the Tsarina and brought down an empire. “Power, magic, sex!” he laughed. We charged our glasses, and I promised him I’d write it as soon as I got home.

But they were hard women to track down. Where do you start? Being neither the victors, nor male, such ‘also-rans’ were usually consigned to the footnotes of history. They are mentioned in passing, friends of Rasputin, his champion, the reason He - the hierophant, the seducer, the scoundrel - arrived in Court.

Facts, as Hilary Mantel discussed in her brilliant Reith Lectures, ‘are strong, but they are not stable. Soon you find your sources are riddled with contradiction, and that even when the facts are agreed, their meaning often isn’t.”

The ‘Black Princesses’ were certainly disliked by the status quo. The sisters were referred to endlessly as The Black Peril, The Crows, The Cockroaches. It was suggested, due to their father’s impoverished court in Montenegro that they too were ‘below stairs’ and might have gently, or actually quite strongly, smelt of ‘goat.’

So, you’re left picking up the crumbs off the table.  Finding their faded image in corner of a photograph of the whole court, all dressed up, for yet another ball. There was diary entry here, a bit of gossip there. But the more I read, the more convinced I became of their crucial involvement in this extraordinary part of Russian history.

The story of succession.

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When writing historical fiction hindsight is both your enemy and your friend. You know where the story is going, but your characters obviously are living in that moment, unaware that their choices, their actions have consequences much further down the line.

And when it came to the tragedy of little Alexei – the painful tragedy that was the Russian story of succession, they were there, they influenced all the decisions.

They supplied the gurus, the drugs, the spells, the incantations, they were there in the bedchamber with the Tsarina, they were there at the parties and the balls. Confidantes, friends, allies and supporters of Alexandra who must have carried guilt of haemophilia, around with her like some toxic burden. Mother and murderer of her own son, there’s nothing to ease that sort of pain. Not even Rasputin.

But I do remember one telephone call from Nik some ten years later and just days, in fact, before he died, he’d just found out the most fantastic fact and he had to tell me right away.

“The reason they were called the Black Princesses,” he paused, for dramatic effect, static cracking down the line.  “It was not because they had black hair, or because they liked black magic, but because they had black eyes!”

And I have been haunted by their black eyes ever since. Their black eyes, their visions, their powers and what drove them. They were caught up in the revolution, as everyone was, but they were the ones who made it south and they survived on their wiles and their charm and, of course, their magic.

The Witch’s Daughter by Imogen Edwards-Jones is published by Head of Zeus  (£20)


If you write historical fiction, and are interested in truth vs stereotypes, check out this piece by author Thine Kold Holdt on writing accurately about Vikings