The Blue Firedrake
by Thomas Wright
Hardcover, 296 pages
Published by Simpkin & Marshall, London, 1892
The narrative of ‘The Blue Firedrake’ revolves around the nefarious actions of Elinor Shaw, an historical figure, being the last woman in England to be burned alive for the practice of witchcraft. Her tale is dramatized by Wright as the memoir of the fictional Nathan Souldrop, a vain and self-important young gentleman who is hopelessly smitten by Shaw’s daughter, Thana.
As a story ‘The Blue Firedrake’ is somewhat wanting by our 21st century standards, being more of a moralistic parable, although Wright is not without some dramatist’s talent. He warns in his prologue that “in a story of this kind, as may be expected, certain portions are necessarily of a somewhat creepy nature”, and he does in fact include several scenes that are reminiscent of other early tales of terror, with perhaps Edgar Allen Poe being a too-flattering analogy. The scene when the fiery eyes of the witch Elinor Shaw appear in the darkness at the foot of Nathan’s bed, prompting him to discharge the pistol he has taken to keeping at his side at all times, is one such instance.
But ‘The Blue Firedrake’ is, I think, more important as an artifact of contemporary folklore. Wright mentions in his preface that he “endeavoured to illustrate the popular superstitions of Northamptonshire in or about 1700”. That he himself was writing from a perspective some 180 years after the fact is made less significant by the 125+ years separating us, the modern readers, from him. Like other folklorists, Wright has assembled both oral and written traditions from his own era that have their foundations in prior generations. What ensues then is a tale that purports to depict “the principal traditional incidents of [Elinor Shaw’s] life, and all the authenticated ones”, but reads like a compendium of Victorian superstitions regarding witchcraft, from the mischievous to the murderous.
I intend to delve further into the fascinating details of Elinor Shaw’s life (since Nathan Souldrop’s is by comparison rather insipid), both as represented by Wright in his book, as well as through whatever primary research I can find. When I have compiled my findings I will of course share them here. Check back soon.