I was asked to review the new book from Frances Timbers, The Magical Adventures of Mary Parish: The Occult World of Seventeenth-Century London for another publication. Given the space provided, I couldn’t cover the book to the extent that I’d wish, so I want to continue that discussion here.
To bring everyone up to speed, Mary Parish was a seventeenth-century cunning woman engaged in the usual activities of that profession – detecting thieves, healing maladies, and hunting treasure. Despite her talent at her vocation, Parish would have sunk into obscurity save for her meeting a former (and future) member of Parliament and the disreputable scion of a noble line – Goodwin Wharton. Wharton became her patron, then her friend, and then her lover. According to Mary, this was a fruitful union, yielding over a hundred pregnancies, although Goodwin would only meet one of his children.
Their partnership, both professional and personal, was based upon a series of spiritual encounters with ghosts, fairies, demons, and angels. Parish served as a medium, and Wharton rarely witnessed anything without her present, save for a series of divine visions that happened later in his career. He was a careful chronicler nonetheless, writing over half a million words on his spiritual encounters that he could pass on to his first-born – and likely imaginary – son, Peregrine.
As you can tell, this situation poses some problems for anyone who wants to write about Mary Parish’s life. Almost everything we know about her is filtered through the writings of Goodwin Wharton. Given that Mary seems to have been fabricating and exaggerating to some extent, and that Wharton might not have been the most objective observer of the situation, we have serious problems for any biographer. The first attempt was made by J. Kent Clark in his biography Goodwin Wharton, and next, over thirty years later, is Timbers’ book.
It’s difficult to be able for me to talk about this book, for a few different reasons. First, I feel it’s unfair because I have not read Wharton’s length treatises on the topic. Second, there’s a great deal that I agree with in the presentation of this book. The troubling aspects of her approach are the nuanced ones, and part of that might come from my perspectives on dealing with people who are not entirely on the up-and-up. Mary Parish certainly wasn’t. Even an account written by the man who loved her couldn’t make her appear that way.
Timbers and I both agree that Mary Parish’s story, which is questionable not just for its supernatural arguments but also for its frequent oscillations between great fortune and misfortune, may be treated as narrative. The bulk of the book, however, does not take this approach, instead concentrating upon the historical basis and context for the incidents she discusses. This approach can be insightful, but if not combined with reminders that it is based on a second-hand narrative or extensive footnotes, it can lead the reader to conclude that much of it is validated, when in fact we have no one’s word but Mary’s that much of it occurred.
This is particularly a shame because I feel there’s a great book lurking here that does deal with the narrative of Mary Parish – an intelligent, independent, and resourceful woman living at a time when such women had to find creative ways to work within a patriarchal system. Mary’s tale of her life, with its powerful men, mysterious magic, and numerous phantasmal pregnancies, seems to take many concerns of Elizabethan women, especially those of the lower classes, and exaggerates them to what would be a parody if not for the pathos lurking behind them. That’s a book that I am unequipped to write, but I would love to read.
I would also argue against Timbers’ key assertion – which is also partially held by Clark – that this arrangement was a beneficial one because it gave Wharton a positive worldview and led to his reconciliation with his father. I think it is quite likely that genuine affection did spring up between Mary and Goodwin. Nonetheless, I find it hard to argue that a belief system that kept Goodwin impoverished and isolated from society, spending weeks waiting in the middle of nowhere for the Queen of Fairies, or commissioning a ship to sail out based on technologies promised by angels who failed to deliver in the middle of the ocean, was not a serious detriment to his physical, financial, and emotional health. I do think it did have its good aspects, but these should be noted along with the problematic ones.
Overall, I think Timbers’ book does provide some interesting and thoughtful insights into Parish’s life and times. One key piece of information, for example, is that multiple simultaneous pregnancies were not beyond the bounds of seventeenth-century medical thought. Nonetheless, I would encourage anyone who wishes to read it to start with Clark’s book, which concentrates more on the substance of the diary, before beginning The Magical Adventures.