Author and historical consultant on witchcraft and magic

Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch, by Rivka Galchen

Nov 28, 2023 | Blog

Written from the viewpoint of Katharina Kepler, “seventy-some” years old and accused of witchcraft in seventeenth-century Germany, Rivka Galchen’s 2021 novel is a surprise because it’s often very funny. That’s because Katharina is a spiky, blunt narrator, endearingly unimpressed by her neighbours and with an unerring ability to say the wrong thing at the wrong time. Repeatedly the reader is shown how she wandered innocently into the role of “witch”. Part of her problem is a good one: a refusal to accept injustice and persecution and to apologise for the success of her son, the astronomer and mathematician Johannes Kepler, which has made her neighbours jealous. Part of it is not so good: a wilful stubbornness, a justifiable but unhelpful sense of her own superiority and an inability to suffer fools.

But as Galchen’s story demonstrates, ultimately none of these things matter. The people of Leonberg are looking for a scapegoat and once the glazier’s wife starts the witchcraft accusations, the townspeople pile on. It could have been Katharina, but equally it could have been her neighbour Simon, fleeing from rumours of homosexuality, or the Jewish peddler, or the Lutherans or the Catholics or the atheists or anyone. The real history of Katharina and Johannes Kepler allows Galchen to dramatise the processes of scapegoating in one case, but the book continually shows how inspecific its targets can be.

Galchen brilliantly frames her tragedy of persecution with enticing comedy, but she also lures the reader in with the precision and piquancy of her writing. The book is studded with testimonies from accusers, each one distinct and believable as a character, each with a haunting turn of phrase. We hear from Simon as well as Katharina and the book takes us on a journey through seventeenth-century science and folklore. Galchen’s historical research underpins her narrative, but it’s worn lightly. Katharina’s son-in-law the pastor is not just a representative cleric and her son Johannes is not just a representative scientist, but a complex character with flaws and dreams. His touching family life offers Katharina some respite from her legal troubles.

It’s Johannes, of course, whose “mother is a witch”, and the novel implies that it is his heretical thinking and social climbing that has infuriated Katharina’s enemies. But Galchen never assigns blame to the victims of the witch hunt. They are not perfect, but no-one is. The accusers too receive some sympathy, but are squarely held to account for their spite and stupidity. The novel’s tragedy lies partly in the inexplicable nature of their hate. Its vicious assault on Katharina doesn’t end how you’d think, but it doesn’t end happily either – because nothing so bad ever could.

Recent Blog Posts

Cecily, by Annie Garthwaite

The claim that Cecily is “Wolf Hall for the 2020s” is a big one. The best and rarest thing about Hilary Mantel’s novels telling the story of Thomas Cromwell and his world was their immersive detail. Mantel combined the precision of meticulous research with the...

What She’s Having: Stories of Women and Food, by Dear Damsels

Themed anthologies can feel like a gamble for the reader. Some recycle random literary bric-a-brac – old, quirky or famous, perhaps, although reading like a scrapbook of clippings. But the Dear Damsels collective have a wiser approach, looking forward to new writing...

“One Meggs a Baker” – a male “witch”

On page 6 of his The Discovery of Witches (1647) the young English witchfinder Matthew Hopkins sneeringly recounts an anecdote about a Norfolk baker named Meggs. He’s using this man as an illustration of the behaviour of some of the people drawn into the 1645-7 witch...

Birdcage Walk, by Helen Dunmore

Birdcage Walk is set in Bristol, England during the French Revolution. Then as now, Bristol was home to lively debate about the rights and wrongs of political life. In the 1780s-1790s there was a particular focus on the rights of women to hold property, access...

Fall of a Sparrow, by Sam Benady and Mary Chiappe

Historical fiction is a varied genre. There are novels in which characters from the 1600s twitter gratingly in twenty-first century cliches. There are novels that monologue worthily through true-but-dull facts and where every sentence needs a footnote. And then there...

“Elizabeth Clarke, witch” – or was she?

On 21st March 1645, a tailor from the Essex, UK village of Manningtree gave a statement to his local Justice of the Peace, Sir Harbottle Grimston of Bradfield Hall, accusing their neighbour Elizabeth Clarke of witchcraft. The tailor, John Rivet, likely walked the...

Marion’s Latest Book

The Witches of St. Osyth: Persecution, Murder and Betrayal in Elizabethan England

The Witches of St. Osyth: Persecution, Murder and Betrayal in Elizabethan England

Books
(Cambridge University Press, 2022)
Read More

Contact Marion

via her agents for information on her availability for historical consulting and writing opportunities