Little-Known Sci-Fi Fact: Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid's Tale was inspired by a witch... who may have been her ancestor

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Oct 25, 2017

Margaret Atwood is the author of The Handmaid’s Tale, a novel set in a world run by a Christian totalitarian government, where women are considered subservient to men. It seems that the basis of novel isn’t a dystopian future. It’s history.

Specifically, Atwood drew upon 17th century Massachusetts, where the American colony was ruled by Puritans—people who followed a strict Christian faith, where men where considered superior to women…and women were viewed as “instruments of Satan.” 

Atwood dedicated her book to Mary Webster, a Massachusetts woman who was accused of witchcraft in 1685. And according to The Week, Webster may have been Atwood’s ancestor. Atwood said:

"Some days, my grandmother would say we were related to her and on other days, she would deny the whole thing because it wasn't very respectable. I was actually trying to write a novel about her, but, unfortunately, I didn't know enough about the late 17th century to be able to do it. But I did write a long, narrative poem called Half-Hanged Mary, because she only got half hanged."

There’s a reason Atwood calls her “Half-Hanged Mary”: Webster was accused of witchcraft when Philip Smith, a pillar of the church, fell ill. At the same time, horses refused to walk past Webster’s home. Unless she was beaten. Then horses would walk past her house. (What incredible logic.)

Webster was eventually hung for her accused witchery.  But although she was hung, she didn’t die from the noose. In an image sure to give you nightmares, she was left swinging all night. She was cut down in the morning, and she lived another 11 years.

There is no record of Webster having had children, but records in that era were spotty, so it's difficult to determine if Webster really is Atwood's great-great-etc grandma. But it's clear she served as an inspiration:

Atwood told The Walk, “The Handmaid's Tale is dedicated to Mary Webster because she is an example of a female person wrongly accused. But she is slightly a symbol of hope because they didn't actually manage to kill her. She made it through."

Slight hope after much suffering. It's the closest thing to a happy ending for both Mary Webster and Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale.

(Via Ravishly)