7/18/11

Philip Burne-Jones, The Gallows Ghost



Illustration for The Amber Witch:The Most Interesting Trial for Witchcraft Yet Known by Johannes Wilhelm Meinhold.

The Amber Witch is a Gothic novel and literary hoax written in 1839 by Johannes Wilhelm Meinhold (1797–1851) and originally published in German as Maria Schweidler: Die Bernsteinhexe. In 1844 it was published in Britain as The Amber Witch in two English translations, one by E. A. Friedlander and another and more enduring one by Lucie, Lady Duff-Gordon. Lady Duff Gordon's translation was very popular with the Victorians and went through numerous editions, including a luxurious one in 1895 illustrated by Philip Burne-Jones. Meinhold's story was a favourite of Oscar Wilde when he was a boy, and in 1861 it was also made into an opera, The Amber Witch, composed by William Vincent Wallace. Wallace's opera has faded into obscurity, but the novel on which it was based has continued to be re-published, both on its own and in anthologies, into the 21st century.

Meinhold claimed to have discovered the manuscript of a 17th century minister, Abraham Schweidler (purportedly a pastor of Coserow and known for his fire and brimstone sermons) amongst the rubbish in the choir in the old Coserow Church. The manuscript contained the story of the pastor's daughter Mary, the "Amber Witch". Described as "the most interesting trial for witchcraft ever known", church leaders had apparently urged Meinhold publish the story for its didactic value. When it first appeared almost all of the German critics believed it to have been an authentic historical document.

The work then attracted critical notice, not only for the dramatic nature of the narrative, but also for the arguments as to which parts of it were original and which ones were Meinhold's own reconstructions written in imitation of the original 17th-century style – "a literary tempest in a teapot". The author's intention had been to set a deliberate "trap for the disciples of David Strauss and his school who pronounced the scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be a collection of legends from historical research assisted by internal evidence". In a direct challenge to these "modern documentary critics" Meinhold wrote in the preface to the novel:

"I have therefore attempted, not indeed to supply what is missing at the beginning and end, but to restore those leaves which have been torn out of the middle, imitating, as accurately as I was able, the language and manner of the old biographer, in order that the difference between the original narrative and my own interpolations might not be too evident. This I have done with much trouble, and after many ineffectual attempts; but I refrain from pointing out the particular passages which I have supplied, so as not to disturb the historical interest of the greater part of my readers. For modern criticism, which has now attained to a degree of acuteness never before equalled, such a confession would be entirely superfluous, as critics will easily distinguish the passages where Pastor Schweidler speaks from those written by Pastor Meinhold."

It is only in a later edition that the author admitted that the chronicle was entirely imaginary and provided the proof. Meinhold's admission that the story was a complete fabrication was at first rejected, but it soon became obvious that The Amber Witch was a hoax. As The Times wrote in the late 1840s:

"Meinhold did not spare them [Strauss and his disciples] when they fell into his snare and made merry with the historical knowledge and critical acumen that could not detect the contemporary romancer under the mask of two centuries ago, while they decide so positively as to the authorities of the most ancient writings in the world.

The translation by Lady Duff-Gordon was so well done that she was sometimes credited with authorship of the story and the existence of the German original denied, thus resulting in a double deception.

The story is set during the Thirty Years' War. The writer, the Rev. Abraham Schweidler, a good and simple minded man, almost loses his only child Maria to a plot by a rejected suitor (the Sheriff) accusing her of witchcraft aided by an evil and jealous woman of the neighborhood. After a formal trial and under the threat of the most dire torture Maria, wholly innocent of the preposterous crime, confesses. While on the way to the pyre she is rescued by a courageous young nobleman who loved her who reveals the evil plot against her. The forgery is done with great skill and detail using the language and expressions that would be common to the period it is set in.

Source 1
Source 2

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