05 May, 2010

Daughters of the Witching Hill, by Mary Sharratt. Book review

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2010, ISBN 978-0-547-06967-8, 327 pages. Review copy kindly provided by publisher.

Set in the Pendle district of east Lancashire in 1582-1612, Daughters of the Witching Hill tells the story of Elizabeth (Bess) Southerns (nickname, Old Mother Demdike), her daughter Elizabeth (Liza) Device and granddaughter Alizon Device, and the other men and women accused of witchcraft at the Pendle witch trials of 1612. All the main characters are historical figures. Some of the secondary characters have been re-named or are composites of historical figures, as explained in the Afterword.

Bess Southerns is a poor widow aged 50 with a grown-up son and daughter, living in poverty in the crumbling Malkin Tower near Pendle Hill. Without a trade or land to farm, Bess and her family eke out a precarious existence, living hand-to-mouth from begging or casual labouring work and never know where their next meal is coming from. Then Bess meets her familiar spirit, Tibb, who appears to her sometimes as a handsome youth and sometimes as a dog or a hare, and discovers that she has supernatural powers to heal the sick and see the future. Bess quickly gains a reputation as a ‘cunning woman’, and her family’s fortunes take a sharp turn for the better. Her daughter Liza marries a farmhand with a steady job, and Bess’s charms and herbal cures bring in a useful income. But Bess’s oldest friend, another poor widow named Anne Whittle (nickname Chattox), is in dire need of Bess’s powers to protect her daughter from sexual assault by their landlord’s brutal son. Reluctantly, Bess teaches Anne and her daughter to work dark magic to rid themselves of him, and soon the two families become enemies and rivals. Bess’s lovely granddaughter Alizon has inherited the power and shows promise to become as powerful as Bess herself – but when a pedlar is crippled after an argument with Alizon, the old feud gives the zealous local magistrate the perfect opportunity to make his name as a witch-finder and to destroy Bess and her family for ever.

The Pendle witch trial of 1612 was a real event, recorded in detail and published a year later by court clerk Thomas Potts. James I/VI* had recently published a book on witchcraft called Daemonologie, and hunting witches offered a promising avenue for advancement to ambitious officials. On top of this, anti-Catholic hysteria had gained ground after the Spanish Armada of 1588 and especially after the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, and Catholicism became partly conflated with witchcraft. In the novel, Bess remembers the pre-Reformation Church with its saints and feast days and the abbeys with their charity to the poor, and many of her charms and ‘spells’ are Latin prayers. However, the novel makes clear that Bess’s supernatural powers are not purely Catholic rituals, and her familiar spirit is clearly not a Catholic saint. Bess and Alizon believe explicitly in elves, fairies, familiar spirits, and the power of their own magic to kill or cure, and so, perforce, must the reader.

Daughters of the Witching Hill is narrated in first person, by Bess for the first half of the book and by Alizon for the second half. Written from their point of view, it gives a sympathetic portrait of the accused witches and, by extension, a decidedly unsympathetic view of the prosecuting magistrate Roger Nowell and those of the local gentry who abused their positions of privilege. For me, the most compelling feature of the book was the detail of the women’s lives, as they scrape a precarious living and try to hold their families together in the face of hardship and suspicion. If you want to imagine how hard life was for those clinging to the margins of society in early seventeenth-century England, this is the book for you. The injustice and unfairness of it all – the grinding poverty that reduces a beautiful young woman to a hag in a few years, the law that does nothing to protect the poor, the complete absence of any way in which Bess and her family can improve their situation, the appalling conditions of their imprisonment (one of the accused died in prison, and no wonder), and the apparently foregone conclusion of the trial – provoke sympathy and indignation in equal measure.

The price for the amount of detail is a long book and a slow pace. The narrative covers thirty years, and at times it feels like it. Although the social history is moving, I found the characters’ individual stories less compelling, perhaps because it was weighed down by the bleak descriptions of their lives. For example, the feud between the Demdike and Chattox families never really came alive for me, and I would have liked to explore the change in the relationship between Bess and Anne from close friends to bitter enemies in more depth. This may be because I’m familiar with the story of the Pendle witches, so I already knew what happened to everyone before reading the novel; another reader encountering the story for the first time may react differently.

Both Bess and Alizon experience supernatural visions and dreams that are used to foreshadow events – e.g. Bess’s prediction that Alizon will lead the procession on Assumption Day, poignantly fulfilled – and to provide glimpses of happenings in the outside world when both narrators are incarcerated in a lightless dungeon in Lancaster Castle. The mystical angle also allows the ending to be less desolate than the actual outcome might suggest (Google for Pendle Witches if you want to know what happened).

A detailed map sets out the locations of the various houses and farms in the story for readers unfamiliar with the local area, and a helpful Afterword outlines the historical background and suggests some books for further reading.

Sympathetic, slow-paced retelling of the sad story of the Pendle witches.

*He was James I of England and James VI of Scotland, hence the somewhat clumsy notation


Misfit said...

I did like this, but it didn't rock my world either. I seem to be the only one :/

Carla said...

Misfit - I wouldn't say it rocked my world, so you're not the only one. It struck me like a social history, in a way - the way the world worked is so manifestly unfair that I can't help but be moved, but it seemed to have less emotional impact than I'd have expected for such a tragic tale. Maybe because of the slow pace, maybe because I already knew the story.

Bernita said...

I already know the story as well, so it probably wouldn't work for me.

Meghan said...

Pacing in a story is so important. And it's sooo hard to do from a first-person perspective. I might pass on this one...

Carla said...

Bernita, Meghan - you might react differently, who's to say? It's a sympathetic take on the witches, at least.

teabird said...

I think I'd like it because I'm always interested in the stories of women who live on the edge - pacing wouldn't bother me - I don't have to read it in one sitting! It'll go on my wishlist - thank you for the review!

Rick said...

I think I'll also stick to the social history.

What struck me from reading the Wikipedia bit on the Pendle Witches is that they themselves believed they were performing witchcraft, some of them doing it as a trade. (Saith Wikipedia.) Which had to complicate any legal defense.

Entirely off topic, but hung parliament, huh? That should have some entertainment values, for certain values of 'entertainment.'

Carla said...

Teabird - hello and welcome! I'm glad you think the book seems to be one you would like, and I hope you found the review useful. If/when you read the book, I'll be interested to hear your thoughts on it.

Rick - the novel makes a distinction between 'cunning craft' (roughly, magic for good purposes) and witchcraft (evil). Bess considers herself a 'cunning woman' rather than a witch. It reminds me of the modern distinction drawn by Wiccans. The distinction was probably lost on the magistrates, though.

Re off-topic - much of the rest of the world calls it a coalition and regards it as entirely normal. It will be interesting to see what the politicians make of it. I hope not for Chinese-curse values of 'interesting'.