The Familiars by Stacey Halls

After enjoying Stacey Halls’ The Foundling earlier this year, I decided to read her previous book, The Familiars. It didn’t sound as original as The FoundlingThe Familiars is about the Pendle Witch Trials and I’ve read quite a few other books about witches – but I hoped it would still be interesting.

The novel is set in 1612, in Lancashire in the northwest of England, and is narrated by Fleetwood Shuttleworth, mistress of Gawthorpe Hall. Fleetwood is seventeen years old, in love with her husband, Richard, and pregnant with his child; this should be a happy time for her, but instead Fleetwood is filled with dread. This is her fourth pregnancy and all of her previous three have ended in a miscarriage – and, more worrying still, she has discovered that Richard has been hiding a letter from a doctor warning that if his wife became pregnant again neither she nor the baby would survive.

A chance meeting in the woods one day with Alice Gray, a young midwife, gives Fleetwood new hope. Alice seems to know a lot about herbs and remedies and what is needed to bring about a healthy birth, so Fleetwood asks her to join the household at Gawthorpe Hall until the child is born. Just having Alice around makes her feel better and she is sure that this time she will give birth to the son and heir Richard so desperately wants. 1612, however, is a dangerous time for women who are seen as ‘different’ in any way, and when a group of suspected witches are arrested Alice is one of those accused. Fleetwood vows to do whatever she can to help her friend, but will she be able to save her before it’s too late?

I think The Foundling is the better of Stacey Halls’ two novels, but I did still enjoy this one. As I’ve said, I’ve read other books on similar subjects – for example, Beth Underdown’s The Witchfinder’s Sister, Katherine Howe’s The Lost Book of Salem and Helen Steadman’s Widdershins – but this is the first one I’ve read specifically focusing on the Pendle Witch Trials. I was interested to learn that most of the characters in the book are based on real people, including Fleetwood Shuttleworth herself, the ‘witches’ and the men responsible for arresting them and arranging the trials. In her author’s note at the end, Stacey Halls explains which parts of the story stick to the historical facts and which are fictional.

Although the witches are obviously an important element of the novel, we don’t see as much of them as I had expected. Because the story is written entirely from Fleetwood’s perspective, a lot of the action – including the so-called acts of witchcraft, the arrest of the witches and the trials – takes place elsewhere and Fleetwood hears about these things from other people rather than witnessing them for herself. That’s one of the limitations of a first person narrative, I suppose, and it wasn’t really a problem as I found Fleetwood’s personal story quite engaging anyway. I liked her from the beginning and could really feel her fear and anxiety over her pregnancy and her frustration at not being able to do more to help Alice and the other witches.

I’ll be looking out for any future novels from Stacey Halls, but if you have any other books to recommend on the Pendle witches, please let me know which ones.

14 thoughts on “The Familiars by Stacey Halls

  1. setinthepast says:

    I haven’t read The Foundling yet, but I read this one as soon as it came out, because Gawthorpe Hall’s only about 1/2 hour from here. The two best-known novels about the Witches of Pendle are William Harrison Ainsworth’s The Lancashire Witches, which is historically inaccurate but got the Victorians (it was published in the 1840s) completely obsessed with the story, and Mist Over Pendle by Robert Neill,

  2. whatcathyreadnext says:

    I read The Familiars a while back and had rather the same feelings about it as you, having also read Helen Steadman’s Widdershins and its follow-up, Sunwise. I have a copy of The Foundling on my bookshelf which I’m keen to read, especially now you’ve said you think it’s the better of the two novels.

  3. Jess @ Jessticulates says:

    Glad to hear you enjoyed this one, it’s waiting for me on my shelf! I went to university in Lancaster so the story of the Pendle Witch Trials is quite close to me, so it’s about time I read this. 🙂

  4. Alyson Woodhouse says:

    I put the Foundling on my reading list after your review of it back in January, so I think I will read that one first if you think it is a slightly better novel. If I like it though, I will probably end up reading the Familiars also.

  5. elainethomp says:

    Glad you liked it. From the first page the writing put me off so I didn’t even finish the sample. I was quite disappointed, as I’d been hoping for much better.

    I have read Robert Neill’s book, which over here had a different title, and enjoyed it.

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