Historian Witches and Scientist Vampires: Can We Be Deborah Harkness When We Grow Up?

Historian-witches, vampire-scientists, and a world where you can get a tenure-track job at an Ivy and fancy fellowships at Oxford just because you work hard and have great hair?

You guessed it: we’re talking A Discovery of Witches. Please excuse our numerous exclamation points!

A Discovery of Witches is the first book in Deb Harkness’s All Souls Trilogy. Harkness is herself a historian of magic and science in 16th–18th century Europe and a tenured professor at the University of Southern California. She has published two (!!) academic books and numerous articles. Her craft informs her fictional writing. Indeed, the sequel to Discovery, titled Shadow of Night, takes place in 17th-century London, and she is particularly well-suited to send her characters traipsing through the streets of the Elizabethan city.

The books have now been adapted into a television series. The first eight episodes premiered in the UK in the fall of 2018, came to Americans via the subscription-based Sundance Now and Shudder (which offers a free 7-day trial!) in January, and are scheduled to air on AMC and BBC America in April 2019.

The story follows Diana Bishop (played by Teresa Palmer), an American historian of 17th-century alchemy. She’s apparently the smartest historian in the world, as evidenced by her numerous publications, her record as the youngest person ever granted tenure at Yale (barf emoji), and her research fellowship allowing her to spend a year at the Bodleian Library at Oxford.

(Lauren: WHO EVEN GETS TO DO THIS. NO. SERIOUSLY. WHO?)

By the way, she is also a witch. In fact, she’s a descendant of Bridget Bishop, one of the Salem women hanged in 1692 for witchcraft.

While doing research one day in the Bodleian, she asks the archivist for a particular manuscript—Ashmole 782—also known as the “Book of Life.” It’s old and full of weird alchemical illustrations of babies floating in glass jars and such. It’s also been missing for hundreds of years, but Diana doesn’t know that.

Just a lady historian, doin’ her thing! (©SkyOne)

(Averill: This is definitely what I look like in archives. I do like that Diana is frequently portrayed wearing comfy sweaters and yoga pants in the show. This is true historian-ing.

Lauren: Indeed. I’m still trying to figure out if I can get away with wearing yoga pants with Rothys shoes to teach in. Thoughts? In both books and show, her fashion is slightly frumpy and I think she even sports the occasional lady historian scarf (™). Nailed it!)

When Diana opens Ashmole 782 and starts taking notes, she unleashes the book’s and her own unruly and unparalleled magical powers, as well as her mysterious family history, and, by the end of chapter one, a magnetic and animalistic lust/love with Matthew Clairmont, a 1500-year-old sexy Gallic vampire scientist who is ALSO a tenured professor at Oxford. (Later they get dual appointments at Yale! LOL!)

Matthew, played by Matthew Goode, who was also in Downton Abbey. (Wikimedia Commons)
(Averill: #NotMyMatthew
Lauren: More for meeeee!)

Harkness thus introduces a universe to us readers and viewers in which there are four self-segregated races: humans, daemons, witches, and vampires. The 400-year-old Covenant, the governing body of creatures, has a rule of “no miscegenation allowed.” Diana and scientist-vampire Matthew, because of their immediate chemistry (see what we did there?!), blow all kinds of shit up when they pledge their eternal and undying love for one another and “mate.” Steamy vamp-witch sexytimes commence!

It also turns out that Diana is the most powerful witch to be born in about a thousand years. Because her blood and magic made the Book of Life appear in the Bodleian (remember, it had been missing for centuries), the first book and season of the show depict her being hunted by several baddie creature factions who all want her to give them the book and who will stop at nothing to succeed.

Diana and Matthew complicate all these matters with their sexy forbidden conjugality, and have to go on the run. Through time! Back to late-16th-century England! Because how else will she finish her next article on Elizabethan alchemy?

Averill: Obviously one of the most important parts of the story (to us) is the realistic chronicling of the historian’s research process: visiting awesome archives, typing and cataloging notes and observations—

Lauren: Discovering a source which hasn’t been seen by human (or daemon, witch, or vampire?) eyes for 400 years.

Averill: Forget the witches: we’re obsessed with an epic, never-before-studied archival discovery!

Academic blazer love. (©SkyOne)

Lauren: Why does this never happen to us? OK, seriously, I am obsessed with this show and have watched all eight episodes multiple times now. I like it even better than the books. When it first came to Shudder and Sundance Now in January, I watched the whole thing over two nights and then decided to re-read the books because it had been a few years. The show brings the storyline to life so vividly, with both a lot of additions and exclusions that I think are really valuable and intriguing.

Averill: Don’t get me wrong: Discovery is a book (and TV show) you can’t put down, and is everything the Twilight series left unfulfilled (aka there’s a real sex scene). My favorite thing about the show is not being in Diana’s head. In the book she is constantly exercising (rowing, jogging, doing yoga with her hot vamp boyfriend), which is not an endearing quality in anyone, and constantly reminds us that she’s special and successful because she’s brilliant, and magic has nothing to do with it. In the show she is beautiful and still exercising a lot, but the fourth wall makes her more relatable. Still, even though book-Diana is sometimes annoying, the book is probably the reason that I, as a first-year PhD student, dreamed of being a professor. Do I blame/thank Deb Harkness for sparking that in me? Yes I do. And now that I’m actually a professor, I cringe at the book and show’s tableau of historian-ing. Brilliance has little to do with getting a job in our beleaguered market. Brilliance has little to do with the internal politics and hoops required to getting tenure, early or on time. Magic, actually, might have more to do with these events. Where are Diana’s tedious service requirements? Where are her stacks of undergrad essays in need of grading or her thousand emails from graduate students who want feedback on drafts? Where is her anguish about not doing work when she’s taking long weekends in France with Matthew or hanging out in 16th-century London?

Lauren: Is this how real doctors feel when they watch Grey’s Anatomy? I totally agree. I started reading the books during my PhD program too—because it was about a lady historian, duh. But why do *I* never meet a hot vampire in the Bodleian? Listen, next time I’m at the Schlesinger, I’m going to call up a magical birth control primary source bewitched by Margaret Sanger and…all the hot vampires will probably run away, won’t they? Womp, womp.

Averill: LOL, “real” doctors. Whatever do you mean by that? 😉 Obviously Harkness/the show runners didn’t think the intricacies of being in our frustrating profession would be interesting to millions of readers/viewers. But by the time you grow up and actually try to be a historian, the enchantment of Diana Bishop’s story fades away to a lot of heartbreak. And then there’s the bizarre feminism gloss that went into the book.

Lauren: Yes, the feminism here needs unpacking. One thing that I like a LOT better about the show is the more equal-seeming relationship between Matthew and Diana. Matthew is a 1500-year-old vampire and, as such, he’s supposed to be controlling, patriarchal, occasionally misogynistic. But in the books, things get too weird and dissonant for me. Diana proclaims many times over the course of the written series that she’s a “feminist,” but she puts up with him stalking her and saying rude things, and there’s one sex scene in Book 2 that could start to verge on non-consensual. In the show—at least in this first season—this isn’t part of the plot. Diana stands up for herself and Matthew seems to respect her more. Definitely a more modern, realistic couple.

Diana Bishop (Teresa Palmer) and Matthew Clairmont (Matthew Goode) in A Discovery of Witches Episode 1.03 (SkyOne)

Averill: It’s also weird that her feminism seems to be tied explicitly to her choice to be single and career-focused (which she, of course, throws away like Belle for a chance to live in a gloomy castle with a violent predator). It’s a peculiar way of thinking about what feminism is and means. Granted, social justice activism just can’t fit in with Diana’s transatlantic researcher/fitness goddess/witch life, but there are some opportunities Harkness missed in the book (which are addressed a bit more satisfactorily in the show) to define what feminism can mean in this sort of fantasy world.

Lauren: I thought the show does a much better job of being careful to illustrate diversity within the creature species. Agatha, one of the daemons, is a Black woman (played by the excellent Tanya Moodie) and her son Nathaniel (Daniel Ezra) is in a relationship with Sophie Norman, a white woman (Aisling Loftus). The show frequently comments on race being just as much a part of the creature-verse as it is with humans. This, for me, made the story more real and emotional.

(©Sky UK Limited)

Averill: Yes! The book just replaces the racial divides in our world with creature racial divides. The show portrays those systems existing in tandem. That gives the world a bit more depth. This ties back, I think, into the “feminist” updates to the show. It’s not enough to just say “I’m a feminist”—you have to show it. A more diverse cast and characters is a step in the right direction.1 It’s a subtle but effective way of scrubbing away at the whitewashed world, whether academic, or creature, or our own.

Lauren: I’m looking forward to seeing what they do with these threads about feminism, race, and sexuality in future seasons.

Pivoting a bit — what’s your favorite scene? Mine is when she’s in the Bodleian and calls up the witchwind! Basically, she makes a tornado in the library reading room as she grows angry at the creatures threatening her and demanding she hand over the magic book. I love that Matthew runs to her through the streets of Oxford — not to save her like a damsel in distress, but to help ground her enormous power. Honestly, I thought this was kind of a real moment between partners, never even mind the magic piece.

Lauren: Me, academia, and my partner soothing my panic attacks? TOO REAL. (©SkyOne)

Averill: Romance <blargh> I laughed out loud when Matthew said “Walk slowly. DO NOT RUN!” when he sniffs her sweater and his predatory nature is triggered and he wants to eat her.2 First: gross. Don’t sniff anyone’s dirty clothes, man. Second, it reminded me of the Twilight movie scenes where Robert Pattinson made that ridiculous face whenever he was angry/introspective.

Lauren: Oh God, yeah that was a laughable moment. At least in this vampire universe, no one is sparkling???

Averill:

Lauren: Everyone, we hope you check out A Discovery of Witches. Do you love the book and TV series like we do? How do we all feel about that jumpsuit Diana wears in Episode 4? Would you rather be witch, daemon, or vampire? And finally, how can we convince Deborah Harkness to chair our next conference panel? As always, tell us what you think in the comments!

Notes

  1. Though they could have taken this further… imagine the subtext and deeper insights on this world we would have been exposed to if Matthew was played by Idris Elba! <swoon> Return to text.
  2. WINK WINK Return to text.

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