Honoree Harkness: Finding the Magic in History

As a best-selling novelist and professor of history, Deborah Harkness ’86 draws on the world of ideas and books that she entered at Mount Holyoke, a world apart from the public schools she attended outside of Philadelphia.

“I went through a lot of my school career not feeling like I fit in, that I didn’t have a voice,” she says.

But when she got to Mount Holyoke, “Everyone was saying these incredible things and carrying these big stacks of books, and I thought ‘I’m in heaven’,” she recalls. “It made me feel like being smart and being thoughtful were good things.”

So Harkness was “awestruck and humbled” when she learned she would receive an honorary degree at MHC’s 177th commencement on Sunday, May 18, at the school that was so special for her.

A Renaissance studies major, Harkness teaches at the University of Southern California at Los Angeles, specializing in the history of science.

She is the author of two best-selling novels, A Discovery of Witches and Shadow of Night, and two nonfiction books, The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution and John Dee’s Conversations with Angels: Cabala, Alchemy, and the End of Nature.

The Book of Life, the final installment in her All Souls Trilogy, is due out July 15, with a local reading planned by the Odyssey Bookshop.

While studying the sixteenth century, Harkness realized that the way her subjects understood the world—through magic and religion—was no less valid than a modern scientific point of view. “I started to see magic as just another way of knowing things,” she says.

Interested also in popular culture’s fascination with the occult, she began to imagine the modern world with witches, demons, and vampires in it.

“I started to ask, ‘What if my research subjects were right and actually we’re wrong today in thinking of these creatures as fantasy?’ I started to imagine how that would look in the twenty-first century, what would they do for a living, how they would fit in,” she says.

Her books tell the saga of a historian of alchemy (and descendent of witches) Diana Bishop, and a geneticist (and vampire), Matthew Clairmont.

“Putting names and faces on complicated ideas has been wonderful. It helps develop what I think is important, which is empathy,”she says. “The message of the books is about tolerance and understanding.”

“In my classroom, I work a lot on developing historical empathy, developing a modern 18–21-year-old’s ability to look back at people in the past and not just judge them but to understand them,” Harkness told the Alumnae Quarterly. “I think that’s the work of a historian, to understand why a person did what they did at that particular moment in time.

—By Ronni Gordon