A Discovery of Witches
"A wonderfully imaginative grown-up fantasy with all the magic of Harry Potter and Twilight."
In a sparkling debut, A Discovery of Witches became the "it" book of early 2011, bringing Deborah Harkness into the spotlight and galvanizing fans around the world. In this tale of passion and obsession, Diana Bishop, a young scholar and the descendant of witches, discovers a long-lost and enchanted alchemical manuscript deep in Oxford's Bodleian Library. Its reappearance summons a fantastical underworld, which she navigates with her leading man, vampire geneticist Matthew Clairmont. Harkness has created a universe to rival those of Anne Rice, Diana Gabaldon, and Elizabeth Kostova, and she adds a scholar's depth to this riveting story of magic and suspense.
A Discovery of Witches
by Deborah Harkness
The leather–bound volume was nothing remarkable. To an ordinary historian, it would have looked no different from hundreds of other manuscripts in Oxford’s Bodleian Library, ancient and worn. But I knew there was something odd about it from the moment I collected it.
Duke Humfrey’s Reading Room was deserted on this late–September afternoon, and requests for library materials were filled quickly now that the summer crush of visiting scholars was over and the madness of the fall term had not yet begun. Even so, I was surprised when Sean stopped me at the call desk.
“Dr. Bishop, your manuscripts are up,” he whispered, voice tinged with a touch of mischief. The front of his argyle sweater was streaked with the rusty traces of old leather bindings, and he brushed at it self–consciously. A lock of sandy hair tumbled over his forehead when he did.
“Thanks,” I said, flashing him a grateful smile. I was flagrantly disregarding the rules limiting the number of books a scholar could call in a single day. Sean, who’d shared many a drink with me in the pink–stuccoed pub across the street in our graduate–student days, had been filling my requests without complaint for more than a week. “And stop calling me Dr. Bishop. I always think you’re talking to someone else.”
He grinned back and slid the manuscripts—all containing fine examples of alchemical illustrations from the Bodleian’s collections—over his battered oak desk, each one tucked into a protective gray cardboard box. “Oh, there’s one more.” Sean disappeared into the cage for a moment and returned with a thick, quarto–size manuscript bound simply in mottled calfskin. He laid it on top of the pile and stooped to inspect it. The thin gold rims of his glasses sparked in the dim light provided by the old bronze reading lamp that was attached to a shelf. “This one’s not been called up for a while. I’ll make a note that it needs to be boxed after you return it.”
“Do you want me to remind you?”
“No. Already made a note here.” Sean tapped his head with his fingertips.
“Your mind must be better organized than mine.” My smile widened.
Sean looked at me shyly and tugged on the call slip, but it remained where it was, lodged between the cover and the first pages. “This one doesn’t want to let go,” he commented.
Muffled voices chattered in my ear, intruding on the familiar hush of the room.
“Did you hear that?” I looked around, puzzled by the strange sounds.
“What?” Sean replied, looking up from the manuscript.
Traces of gilt shone along its edges and caught my eye. But those faded touches of gold could not account for a faint, iridescent shimmer that seemed to be escaping from between the pages. I
“Nothing.” I hastily drew the manuscript toward me, my skin prickling when it made contact with the leather. Sean’s fingers were still holding the call slip, and now it slid easily out of the binding’s grasp. I hoisted the volumes into my arms and tucked them under my chin, assailed by a whiff of the uncanny that drove away the library’s familiar smell of pencil shavings and floor wax.
“Diana? Are you okay?” Sean asked with a concerned frown.
“Fine. Just a bit tired,” I replied, lowering the books away from my nose.
I walked quickly through the original, fifteenth–century part of the library, past the rows of Elizabethan reading desks with their three ascending bookshelves and scarred writing surfaces. Between them, Gothic windows directed the reader’s attention up to the coffered ceilings, where bright paint and gilding picked out the details of the university’s crest of three crowns and open book and where its motto, “God is my illumination,” was proclaimed repeatedly from on high.
Another American academic, Gillian Chamberlain, was my sole companion in the library on this Friday night. A classicist who taught at Bryn Mawr, Gillian spent her time poring over scraps of papyrus sandwiched between sheets of glass. I sped past her, trying to avoid eye contact, but the creaking of the old floor gave me away.
My skin tingled as it always did when another witch looked at me.
“Diana?” she called from the gloom. I smothered a sigh and stopped.
“Hi, Gillian.” Unaccountably possessive of my hoard of manuscripts, I remained as far from the
witch as possible and angled my body so they weren’t in her line of sight.
“What are you doing for Mabon?” Gillian was always stopping by my desk to ask me to spend time with my “sisters” while I was in town. With the Wiccan celebrations of the autumn equinox just days away, she was redoubling her efforts to bring me into the Oxford coven.
“Working,” I said promptly.
“There are some very nice witches here, you know,” Gillian said with prim disapproval. “You really should join us on Monday.”
“Thanks. I’ll think about it,” I said, already moving in the direction of the Selden End, the airy seventeenth–century addition that ran perpendicular to main axis of Duke Humfrey’s. “I’m working on a conference paper, though, so don’t count on it.” My aunt Sarah had always warned me it wasn’t possible for one witch to lie to another, but that hadn’t stopped me from trying.
Gillian made a sympathetic noise, but her eyes followed me.
Back at my familiar seat facing the arched, leaded windows, I resisted the temptation to dump the manuscripts on the table and wipe my hands. Instead, mindful of their age, I lowered the stack carefully.
The manuscript that had appeared to tug on its call slip lay on top of the pile. Stamped in gilt on the spine was a coat of arms belonging to Elias Ashmole, a seventeenth–century book collector and alchemist whose books and papers had come to the Bodleian from the Ashmolean Museum in the nineteenth century, along with the number 782. I reached out, touching the brown leather.
A mild shock made me withdraw my fingers quickly, but not quickly enough. The tingling traveled up my arms, lifting my skin into tiny goose pimples, then spread across my shoulders, tensing the muscles in my back and neck. These sensations quickly receded, but they left behind a hollow feeling of unmet desire. Shaken, I stepped away from the library table.
Even at a safe distance, this manuscript was challenging me— threatening the walls I’d erected to separate my career as a scholar from my birthright as the last of the Bishop witches.
Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness. Copyright © 2011 by Deborah Harkness.
Diana is an appealing heroine, determined, accomplished, and yet aware of her own weaknesses. In what ways, if any, does Diana reflect your own experience or personality?
There are some similarities—Diana is also a historian of science, also interested in the history of alchemy, and shares some of my passions (including television cooking programs, tea, and rowing). Really, all the characters have some element of me in them. I think that's how authors create imaginary people who nevertheless feel real. The rest of Diana's character comes from a combination of qualities I admire in others, wish fulfillment, and my completion of the following statement: "Wouldn't it be great if a heroine in a book was…"
How did you become interested in the intersection of alchemy, magic, and science? Historically, what do you see as the relationship between science and religion or mysticism?
In college, I had a wonderful professor who taught a class on these subjects. To kick off the class, he asked us, "How do you know what you think you know?" I've spent the last quarter century trying to answer that question. Because the world is a mysterious place and our relationship to it is not always clear, people have often turned to science, faith, and magic for answers. They help people find responses to the questions of Who am I and why am I here?
You've written two well-received scholarly books. What inspired you to write a novel?
It's pretty hard not to notice the popular preoccupation with witches, vampires, and things that go bump in the night. But we aren't the first to be fascinated with these creatures. Today, we often imagine them into fantastic otherworlds, but the people I study believed that such magical beings were living alongside them in this world. So I started thinking, if there are vampires and witches, what do they do for a living—and what strange stories do humans tell to explain away the evidence of their presence? A Discovery of Witches began with the answers to those questions as I essentially reimagined our modern world through the eyes of medieval and Renaissance people.
On page 72, Matthew observes that Diana sees her work as a historian as similar to that of a detective. Is this how you approach your own research? Is a novelist also a type of detective?
I definitely see my historical work as a process of detection. Historians fit pieces of evidence together and hope that they eventually form a coherent picture. Often, a historian's most compelling questions—and the most difficult to answer—concern personal motivations and why something happened the way it did. These are questions we have in common with detectives. Fiction is more like alchemy, though. You take a little of this, a little of that, combine it, and hope that something wonderful occurs so that your creation is greater than the sum of its individual parts. Novelists, like the alchemists of old, know that true creation takes time and patience, and that it's likely you will have many disasters and failures before you achieve success.
What prompted you to include both first-person and omniscient narration? What does each method of storytelling contribute to the book?
Early in the process of writing the book I realized that vampires must be secretive and protective creatures. For Matthew, this means he has both a strong instinct to hide from Diana's questions and a need to protect her from threats. The only way to show that dynamic in Matthew (without making the reader very impatient with him) was to take Diana out of the picture temporarily and show him interacting with others who knew him in other ways. Since Diana is the first-person narrator, this caused some problems that omniscient narration solved. I think the combination of the two narratives works surprisingly well and gives the reader the immediacy of Diana's experience along with some answers to their questions about Matthew.
Elias Ashmole and Ashmole 782 are taken from real life. Who was Elias Ashmole? Why did you base your novel on this particular manuscript?
Elias Ashmole was a seventeenth-century English antiquarian and scholar. He gave major bequests to Oxford University, including the collection of books and objects that provided the foundation for the Ashmolean Museum (which is still in operation today). Ashmole's books and manuscripts were first kept at the museum and then moved to the university's Bodleian Library in the nineteenth century. The Ashmole manuscripts include numerous rare alchemical texts. One of the manuscripts, Ashmole 782, is currently missing. As a scholar, I've done a lot of research in the Ashmole alchemical manuscripts and always wondered what Ashmole 782 might contain.
There are many references in the novel to literary works and authors throughout history; for example, pages 148 – 149 include an exchange of quotes about the passage of time from writers Ben Jonson and John Milton. Do the references and quotes you've incorporated have any personal significance for you?
These are two authors I admire and enjoy, but the passages had no special meaning for me until I wrote A Discovery of Witches. A good romance needs a combination of tension and common ground, however, and I wanted books and literature to provide that for Diana and Matthew. A little homework in the literature of Diana's period of specialization provided the perfect sentiments for that scene.
What was your inspiration for the concept of the Congregation and its trinity of daemons, witches, and vampires?
Both came from my desire to imagine extraordinary creatures into our modern world. I reviewed ancient and medieval ideas about the organization and creation of the universe and was struck by how many of them use organizing principles based on the numbers 3, 4, and 7. Four species of creatures—daemon, human, vampire, and witch—were soon central to the novel. But I was still troubled by the problem of how humans could be surrounded by such beings and not know it. The Congregation was useful in resolving that issue because it's an organization dedicated to preserving and protecting daemons, vampires, and witches from the majority of the population—which is human.
From the publication of Bram Stoker's Dracula in the nineteenth century to the current Twilight series, vampires have always fascinated the reading public. What is the appeal of the occult novel? What kind of freedom from the ordinary does it provide, both for readers and writers?
Vampires are relative newcomers among the supernatural creatures who have fascinated readers. The word "vampire" wasn't even used in English-speaking countries until the early eighteenth century. Before that, readers were far more interested in ghosts, devils, witches, daemons (and demons), and exotic hybrid creatures like dragons and the basilisk. The appeal of all these creatures—and vampires, too—is that they help to explain the inexplicable. Readers and writers are given the opportunity to suspend belief and wonder How do I know there aren't witches? and even more important What if there are?
When writing a novel that involves the supernatural, it's necessary to create a framework for that invented world, a set of rules to maintain consistency and credibility. How difficult is it to establish that kind of structure and to faithfully work within it?
As a historian of science, I study the changing ideas that past generations have had about the world and how it works. Throughout history, most educated people believed in a theory of creation that was essentially alchemical; for example: some combination of opposing elements resulted in new life if subjected to the right celestial and terrestrial influences. This was entirely logical, given their understanding of the world and how it worked. A number of ancient and medieval worldviews helped me create the logic and structure of the world of A Discovery of Witches. Once those were in place, I found them very helpful in imagining what could (and could not) happen in it.
Diana and Matthew's story ends on a mysterious note. What do you see as the next step in their adventure?
Diana and Matthew have known each other only for forty days. That's not much time to get to know someone and fall in love. Besides, falling in love is rather easy compared with staying in love and growing into a relationship. The next step of their adventure will begin just where their last step left off—and the adventure will involve all kinds of new discoveries about themselves, each other, and the creatures who share their world.