In Bell’s The Disenchantment (Pantheon, May), two 17th-century French noblewomen lovers get caught up in anti-witch hysteria.
What makes for a great historical novel?
I’m fascinated by historical fiction because there is such a gulf of experience between the present day and the past. To recreate history, the author is doing an act of translation or mediation—not just copying the material details of people’s lives, but reconstructing, as best we can, how they might have thought and felt, and making that legible to a modern reader.
Your main character, Marie Catherine, likes to tell stories to her children. As a writer, did this help you to enter her character?
I’m a fairly secretive writer and hate to even put words on a page where I think someone might be able to read over my shoulder, so the idea of having to make up a story as I go in front of an audience is terrible. The first passages that I really heard in Marie Catherine’s voice were more private ones about her relationship with her daughter and her memories of her own childhood. I wrote a number of these down before I had a clear idea of what the full plot of the book would be.
Do you think the real-life counterparts for the two main characters in your story were proto-feminists?
France has quite a long history of feminist writing—a philosophical debate that was often called the querelle des femmes at the time. A number of the historical figures who inspired the main characters of The Disenchantment were viewed as proto-feminists in their day, whether because they were outspoken critics of marriage and the control that men exercised over women’s lives, or because they defied convention in their personal lives. The act of writing, and especially of writing work in which women played a central role, was quite radical.
What do you think is behind anti-witch hysteria?
In many ways, the witch hunts weren’t so unlike the conspiracy theories we see circulating today: the specter of black magic created a framework on which to hang broader fears about social instability. There’s a long history of witch hunts in Europe, and in the case of the Affair of the Poisons [the scandal on which the novel is based], political anxieties—about the influence of women in the government, about the legitimacy of the French nobility, and more generally about the social changes that were occurring at the time—came to a head to create this paranoia about black magic and poisoning.