Johannes Wilhelm Meinhold (1797-1851) was a Pomeranian Lutheran pastor who achieved a certain degree of notoriety with his 1838 novel Maria Schweidler, die Bernsteinhexe. When published it was claimed to be an historical document, the record of a witchcraft trial during the Thirty Years War. It was in fact one of the great 19th century literary hoaxes, being an original novel by Meinhold cast in the form of a 17th century chronicle. Meinhold’s intention, in part at least, was to satirise the pretentions of the critic-historians of his own day. His particular targets were biblical critics such as David Strauss who cast doubt on the authenticity of Scripture. He hoped to discredit them by showing just how easily and completely they could be deceived. The fact that these scholars were in fact taken in by the hoax served to prove Meinhold’s point but not surprisingly it caused them a great deal of annoyance when Meinhold rather gleefully revealed the hoax.
This would have been no more than an interesting literary footnote had the novel not been translated into English by Lucie, Lady Duff Gordon. Lady Duff Gordon’s translation, given the title The Amber Witch, proved to be immensely popular in Britain.
The story takes place on the Baltic island of Usedom during the 1630s. Maria Schweidler, the daughter of a Lutheran pastor, is accused of witchcraft. She is the victim of a conspiracy by the local sheriff, who has designs on her honour. She is also the victim of the malice of a real witch. The story is narrated by Mary’s father. Mary is arrested and imprisoned, threatened with torture, and her fate is sealed by the treachery of the villagers who are too afraid to give evidence on her behalf.
The devastation caused by the Thirty Years War provides the historical backdrop and it also creates the kind of desperate situation in which people are tempted to do rather unwise things, and both Mary and her father certainly show rather dubious judgment in their efforts to escape from starvation and grinding poverty.
While the book was indeed a hoax Meinhold had done his research rather thoroughly, making use of transcripts of actual 17th century trials for witchcraft and basing his tale to a certain extent on real people (and making use of actual historical incidents such as the arrival of the great Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus on Usedom). Meinhold also displayed considerable skill in capturing the flavour of 17th century writing.
It’s a little surprising that the hoax succeeded, given that the author is clearly poking fun at the rather foolish and superstitious narrator.
The setting (utilised quite effectively by Meinhold) and the historical background add considerable interest.
The story itself is rather melodramatic, although in quite an enjoyable way. This melodramatic aspect should surely have provided another clue that this was a novel rather than an historical chronicle.
The Amber Witch gets off to a slow start but the story picks up steam once the accusations of witchcraft are made. Mary’s kind-hearted nature is one of the reasons she gets into trouble, especially when she unwisely tries to cure animals that have been bewitched (or thought to have been bewitched). Her father’s slightly eccentric behaviour and his odd blend of avarice and charity do not help.
This short novel is included in E. F. Bleiler’s excellent anthology (published by Dover in 1970), Five Victorian Ghost Novels (along with Mrs Riddell’s The Uninhabited House and Charles Willing Beale’s The Ghost of Guir House). The Dover edition includes illustrations by Philip Burne-Jones which originally appeared in the 1895 edition.
The Amber Witch is of considerable historical interest, being an early example of the novel disguised as historical document (a form Meinhold claimed to have invented), and it is quite entertaining in its own eccentric and melodramatic way. Worth a look.