I like to browse the ebook section of my library’s website from time to time, and I was delighted when, a few weeks ago, I found a newly published historical fiction novel set in the North East of England, which is where I am from. It’s not often I come across anything at all set in this part of the country, so of course I had to read it!
Widdershins, Helen Steadman’s debut novel, is inspired by a real historical event: the witch trials held in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1650 which resulted in either fifteen or sixteen people (including one man) being executed on the city’s Town Moor – the largest number of people in England’s history to be executed for witchcraft in a single day. Steadman takes this as a starting point to create fictional stories for two of the people involved in the trials – one is the Scottish witchfinder responsible for proving whether the witches are guilty or innocent and the other is one of the accused women. Their narratives alternate throughout the book, giving two very different sides of the same story.
The first thread of the novel follows John Sharpe as he grows up in Scotland believing that he was the cause of his mother’s death in childbirth. Dora, the midwife who delivered John into the world, had been unable to save his mother, and listening to his father vent his anger at both Dora and John himself, the boy has been instilled with a deep-rooted resentment and dislike of midwives, healers and women in general. Spending several years under the guardianship of his Uncle James, a pastor, only increases these feelings further and by the time John is an adult, his purpose in life seems clear: to hunt out, denounce and punish any woman he believes to be a witch.
Meanwhile, Jane Chandler is a young woman living in a rural village near Shotley Bridge, several miles away from Newcastle. From her mother Annie and the local ‘green woman’ Meg Wetherby, Jane is learning the healing properties of the herbs and plants which grow in the countryside and how to use them to prepare remedies and treatments to help the people of her village. In the seventeeth century, of course, activities such as these are misunderstood and viewed with suspicion – and when John Sharpe is summoned from Scotland with his special ‘witch-pricking’ device, Jane could find herself in terrible danger.
Both of the main characters in Widdershins have interesting stories to tell and although they seem quite separate at first, they do soon begin to converge. There is a certain sense of inevitability – with one character being a witchfinder and the other engaged in pursuits which could easily be construed as witchcraft, the outcome may seem obvious – but actually, unless you have read up on the trials beforehand, there are a few surprises in store!
John is a truly despicable person and any warmth I may have felt for him as a small frightened child at the beginning of the book quickly disappeared; his sections of the novel are often uncomfortable to read and although I would have preferred a more multi-faceted villain rather than one who was just purely evil, I admired the author’s attempts to get into the head of such an unpleasant individual and provide motivations to explain his actions. Jane, on the other hand, is much easier to like and to sympathise with as she faces one tragedy after another. She is also involved in a subplot following her romance with childhood friend and neighbour Tom Verger and this adds something extra to the story on top of the witchcraft aspect.
Helen Steadman scatters a small amount of dialect throughout both the Scotland and Newcastle chapters of the book, but not enough to cause readers any problems, and actually I would have liked more of it, to give more distinction between the novel’s two settings. I was disappointed that, even bearing in mind how different the landscape of the North East would have been in 1650, Steadman’s descriptions never really brought the area to life in a way that I felt I could recognise. A lot of the action takes place in and around Jane’s village in the Derwent Valley, but it could have been anywhere, and even when her adventures took her into Newcastle or Durham the sense of place wasn’t as strong as I would have expected.
I did enjoy this book, though; it made a nice complement to The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown which I read earlier this year. We should be able to look forward to more books from Helen Steadman; according to her website, she is working on a sequel to Widdershins, as well as two novels about the swordmakers of Shotley Bridge and lighthouse keeper’s daughter Grace Darling, a 19th century heroine.