Vol. 17 No. 2 (February, 2007) pp.141-142
THE STRANGE CASE OF HELLISH NELL: THE STORY OF HELEN DUNCAN AND THE WITCH TRIAL OF WORLD WAR II, by Nina Shandler. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2006. 289pp. Hardcover. $25.00/£14.99. ISBN: 0306814382.
Reviewed by Kevin M. Wagner, Department of Political Science, Florida Atlantic University. Email: kwagne15 [at] fau.edu.
Nina Shandler presents a thoughtful and often entertaining look at an unusual chapter in World War II history. THE STRANGE CASE OF HELLISH NELL is a studied look at the efforts of British authorities to use the legal system to silence Helen Duncan, a purported psychic, who was demonstrating uncanny accuracy in revealing otherwise secret war information such as ship movements.
While this could have been written as a fairly dry look at the factual disposition of the case, Shandler paints a colorful picture, positioning her book more like an historical novel than an academic piece. The result is a pleasantly readable look into an historical oddity – a criminal witch trial occurring anachronistically amidst the epic events of the Second World War.
The book is presented in a series of descriptive chapters dramatically setting out the events leading up to and through the trial of Helen Duncan for witchcraft. The descriptions are vivid and paint a picture of real people caught up in a very human drama. The main players in the book are introduced in the beginning, and their motivations along with dispositions are explored through flashbacks and the largely omniscient observations of Shandler as she narrates the events.
What makes the story of Helen Duncan particularly interesting is the way the trial is juxtaposed against the backdrop of the war. Sahndler explores the absurdity of the events by beginning the book with a review of Winston Churchill’s own disbelief concerning the preoccupation of members of the government with the case while the war rages about Europe. The thematic contrast of the trial with the war continues, as Shandler regularly interrupts the story with notes concerning the state of the war. At one point, the Supreme Court is debating the difference between conjuration and witchcraft as Allied troops land in France. As an historical event, the witch trial seems likely to have been a footnote to far more important events. Yet understood in the context of the time, the trial was much more. Shandler notes that publicity about the trial in Britain briefly replaces war news, such as the advance of Soviet troops in the east.
Both the strength and weakness of the book is Shandler’s ability to blend the factual foundations of the events into a well-plotted narrative. The events are not so much chronicled as fancifully depicted based on available information. The book has numerous citations to support the account, but the narrative never delves deeply into the sources and seeks to focus the reader largely on the drama of the events rather than on the [*142] archives and other sources from which it is drawn. The footnotes are copious and frequent, but the citations seem more akin to sources of inspiration rather than data archives.
For a book positioned for popular appeal, it is very effective and makes for an easy and direct read. The chapters are fairly short, and Shandler does not dwell too long on any particular event. As a result, the book is a relatively light read that is often humorous and engaging. Shandler notes in her citations that scenes are “enriched” through the work of previous biographers, her own interviews, and visits to the actual places depicted in the book. This allows Shandler to attribute thoughts, attitudes and motivations to the various players which makes for a more complete story. Nonetheless, it also makes for a less factually grounded one as well. It may be frustrating for a more academic audience seeking a drier and less constructed view of the events. While everything is rigorously sourced, the characters demonstrate attitudes and dispositions that often seem more colorful and imaginative than substantive.
However, once placed within the context of an historical narrative, the book presents a genuine and often evocative examination of the manipulation of the legal system for national, and sometimes personal, interests. Helen Duncan was charged under the Witchcraft Act of 1735, as that was the most direct legal means to silence her. Shandler observed through her characters that there was simply no proof to support spying, deceit or even fraud. The charge of witchcraft is notable because it is unusual, but the use of law and courts to silence citizens during times of war is a common historic truth.
At no point does this book devolve into a commentary on the legal system. Yet, Shandler’s narrative serves to reinforce a more basic concern about human nature and the law. The story of Helen Duncan is a cautionary tale about paranoia and the lengths a government can and will go to defend secrets in times of stress and war.
The book should have some contemporary appeal outside the history class. As Shandler presents it, the events surrounding Duncan’s trial speak to some of the same conflicts and concerns about basic rights and legal processes that still exist today. As a result, I would recommend this book as a supplement to jurisprudence or law and society classes as a means to engage students on the role of law and courts, especially during times of war. While not a strong theoretical contribution to the study of law and courts, the book stands as a thoughtful addition to works focusing on a descriptive retelling of the historical relevance of courts within society.
© Copyright 2007 by the author, Kevin M. Wagner.
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The Strange Case of Hellish Nell: The True Story of Helen Duncan and the Witch Trial of the World War II