I seem to have read quite a few historical novels about witch trials over the last few years – The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown, The Familiars by Stacey Halls and Widdershins by Helen Steadman, to name just three. Jill Dawson’s latest novel, The Bewitching, is another and it tells the story of the Witches of Warboys. I had never read anything about this particular case until now, yet it’s apparently one of the best-known of the 16th century witch trials and is thought to have strongly influenced the Witchcraft Act of 1604. In her author’s note, Jill Dawson states that many of the details described in the novel appeared in a pamphlet published at the time, although she has shortened the time frame and invented some of the characters and incidents.
Most of the novel is narrated by Martha, a servant in the household of the Throckmortons, a wealthy family who live in the village of Warboys in Cambridgeshire. Abandoned at birth by her mother and raised by a nun, Martha has been in the service of the Throckmortons for many years now and has watched her master, Robert Throckmorton, rise in the world to his current position of Squire of Warboys Manor. When, one by one, the squire’s five young daughters begin to suffer from sudden attacks of shaking and twitching, Martha is as distressed as if they were her own children. No one knows what is causing these fits, but one daughter after another accuses a neighbour, Alice Samuel, of bewitching them.
To the reader, it seems obvious from the beginning that Alice is innocent – and Martha also feels uneasy about the girls’ accusations, but knows that as a servant her opinion is unlikely to be wanted or welcomed. Although it’s clear that Alice is not a witch, what is less clear is why five previously healthy children should all suddenly be struck with the same affliction and why they should all choose to blame a woman who has done nothing to harm them. There’s a sense of mystery running throughout the whole novel which I found quite unsettling, because even if nobody has actually been ‘bewitched’, there’s definitely something sinister going on at Warboys Manor.
We don’t see very much of Alice’s point of view until later in the book, when she is forced to stand trial at Huntingdon Assizes in 1593 and her daughter, Nessie, and husband, John, also find themselves accused. By this time three ‘scholars of divinity’ have arrived from Cambridge University armed with a handbook on witch-hunting, the Malleus Maleficarum, and further accusations against the Samuels have been made by the powerful Cromwell family. In this atmosphere of superstition, misogyny and fear, poor Alice doesn’t stand a chance.
I found The Bewitching very slow at first, but it became more absorbing later on – and there were even one or two twists, which hadn’t occurred to me but probably should have done! The time period is beautifully evoked, with the language carefully chosen to suit the era and sometimes taken straight from the historical accounts (Alice wears a ‘black thrumbed cap’ and the girls don’t just ‘have fits’ – they are always described as being ‘in their fits’). It’s an eerie and unusual novel and although it didn’t always succeed in holding my attention, I enjoyed it overall. I’ll have to look for Jill Dawson’s earlier books now; she’s written so many and I don’t know how I’ve never come across any of them before!
Thanks to Sceptre for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.
This is book 38/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.