The Bewitching by Jill Dawson

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.

Top Ten Tuesday: 10 books about witches and witchcraft

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl, is a “Halloween/Creepy Freebie”. I seem to have read a lot of books about witches in the last few years, so I’ve chosen ten of them to list here.


1. Corrag by Susan Fletcher

Also published as Witch Light and The Highland Witch, this is a beautiful, moving story about a young girl accused of witchcraft and the part she played in one of the most tragic moments in Scotland’s history – the Glencoe Massacre of 1692. The writing style is unusual and it took me a while to get used to it, but I’m glad I persevered because this really is a lovely book.


2. Thornyhold by Mary Stewart

Not a scary book at all, but a gentle, comforting one. When Gilly’s cousin Geillis dies, leaving her a cottage in the countryside, Gilly finds that she has also inherited a black cat and a collection of magic spells. Could Geillis have been a witch? As with most of Stewart’s novels, there are some beautiful descriptions of nature, a likeable heroine and a touch of romance.


3. The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown

This novel is narrated by Alice Hopkins, a fictional sister of Matthew Hopkins, the self-styled Witchfinder General who was believed to be responsible for the deaths of hundreds of women in England during the 17th century. Alice’s story didn’t interest me much, but I found it fascinating to read about the methods Hopkins used to identify witches.


4. The Craftsman by Sharon Bolton

Sharon Bolton’s latest novel follows an investigation into the murder of three teenagers in a small Lancashire town near Pendle Hill, a place associated with witchcraft since the Pendle Witch Trials of the 17th century. As Florence Lovelady attempts to solve the crime she discovers a coven of modern day witches operating in the town. Could they be connected with the murders?


5. The Vanishing Witch by Karen Maitland

Set in the 1380s, this novel has everything I’ve come to expect from Karen Maitland: the dark atmosphere, the elements of the supernatural, and the twisting, turning plot. As well as hints of witchcraft, the story also features a ghost – and every chapter begins with a charm or a spell to protect oneself from witches.


6. Circe by Madeline Miller

A mythological witch next! I loved this beautifully written novel by Madeline Miller which fleshes out the character of Circe, the witch from Homer’s Odyssey. I was surprised to see how many different Greek myths Miller incorporates into Circe’s story.


7. Widdershins by Helen Steadman

Set in the 17th century, this novel describes the events leading up to the Newcastle Witch Trials of 1650 which resulted in the largest number of people in England’s history being executed for witchcraft in a single day. With half of the book following the witchfinder responsible for hunting down the so-called witches, and the other half following one of the accused women, we are given both sides of the story. The sequel is coming next year!


8. A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

This is the first book in the All Souls Trilogy which follows the adventures of witch Diana Bishop and vampire Matthew Clairmont. I wasn’t at all sure that this would be my sort of book, but I found that I loved the combination of romance, history, adventure and fantasy.


9. The White Witch by Elizabeth Goudge

Set during the English Civil War, the white witch of the title is Froniga, a healer and herbalist. Like Thornyhold above, this is a gentle, beautifully written ‘witch’ story, rather than a creepy one. Although there are themes of magic, mystery and mythology, it was the details of 17th century village life and the lovely descriptions of the countryside that I enjoyed the most.


10. The Lost Book of Salem by Katherine Howe

Also published as The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, the final novel on my list follows a 20th century history student as she attempts to track down a spell book belonging to Deliverance Dane, one of the women accused of witchcraft in the Salem Witch Trials of 1692.


Have you read any of these – or any other books about witches or witchcraft?

The Craftsman by Sharon Bolton

I love Sharon Bolton’s books; I don’t read contemporary crime very often these days, but she is an author I always look forward to reading. Her latest novel, The Craftsman, marks a move to a different publisher and is apparently the first in a trilogy.

The Craftsman opens in 1999 with Florence Lovelady, an Assistant Commissioner of Police, attending the funeral of Larry Glassbrook in the Lancashire town of Sabden. Larry has spent the last thirty years in prison – and it was Florence who helped to put him there. His crime? The murder of three teenagers, all buried alive in the graveyards of Sabden. After the funeral, Florence visits Larry’s house where she had been a lodger at the time of the crimes, and here she finds something which makes her begin to question what really happened all those years ago.

About half of the novel is set in 1969, taking us through the events leading up to the murders and the police investigation which follows. As a young female police constable, Florence is the target of prejudice and bullying – and her suggestions that witchcraft could be involved in the murders make her even less popular. But high above Sabden looms Pendle Hill, a place associated with witchcraft since the Pendle Witch Trials of the 17th century. Florence is sure they are dealing with no ordinary crime and no ordinary criminal…but how can she make her colleagues take her theories seriously?

Sharon Bolton’s novels are always dark and eerie, but this one even more so than usual. After all, what can be more terrifying than being buried alive? The setting – an area steeped in superstition and with a history of magic and witchcraft – adds to the atmosphere; it’s more than just a backdrop because a coven of witches and even Pendle Hill itself eventually begin to play an important role in the story.

I loved the way the novel was split between the 1960s and 1990s, showing the contrast in attitudes between the two. In 1969, Florence is a young woman fresh from university doing what many consider to be ‘a man’s job’. The men she works with belittle her achievements constantly, try to give her the less dangerous tasks to carry out, and resent her for thinking of things they hadn’t thought of themselves. And it’s not just the men – Florence observes that some of the worst sexism she encounters actually comes from other women. Florence is also a southerner, so even when she’s not at work, she still feels like an outsider amongst the people of Sabden, most of whom were born and bred in the North West of England. Following Florence’s ordeals as she tries to win the trust of her neighbours and the respect of her fellow police officers interested me almost as much as the mystery itself.

And there is a mystery to be solved here, although it doesn’t seem that way at first. We are told in the very first chapter that it was Larry Glassbrook who was found guilty of the murders, but even knowing that, there are still plenty of twists and turns to the plot and plenty of tension, building and building as we move towards the end of the book. The ending, when it comes is…unexpected, to say the least, and probably something readers will either love or hate. I would have preferred something more conventional – and it does make me wonder what direction things are going to take in the second book in the trilogy. Apart from that, though, I really enjoyed The Craftsman and will look forward to meeting Florence Lovelady again.

This is my sixth book read for the R.I.P. XIII challenge (category: mystery/horror).

Widdershins by Helen Steadman

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.

Corrag by Susan Fletcher

I first became aware of this book when Boof of The Book Whisperer said it was one of her favourites. I’ve been curious to see why she loved it so much and now that I’ve read it I agree that it’s a great book, although I didn’t think so at first.

In Corrag Susan Fletcher looks at one tragic moment in Scotland’s history – the Glencoe Massacre of 1692 in which thirty-eight members of the MacDonald clan were murdered by English soldiers and forty more died of exposure as they tried to escape. The story is narrated by Corrag, a young woman who has been branded a witch and sentenced to death for her involvement with the MacDonalds and the part she played in trying to prevent the massacre. As Corrag sits in her cell awaiting her death, she is visited by Charles Leslie, an Irish clergyman and Jacobite who is trying to find evidence to prove that the Protestant King William III was responsible for what happened at Glencoe.

Corrag tells Charles Leslie about her childhood in the north of England and the day her mother, who had also been accused of witchcraft, told her to ride into Scotland, where she believed she would be safe. With only her grey mare for company, Corrag rode “north and west” and made a new home for herself near the valley of Glencoe. Here she met the people of the MacDonald clan and experienced true friendship and love for the first time in her life. As Leslie listens to Corrag’s memories he begins to learn the truth about the Glencoe Massacre and at the same time is forced to change his own preconceived ideas about Corrag herself.

I wasn’t sure about this book when I first started reading. I actually put it down after the first chapter and decided it wasn’t for me. But then something made me pick it up a few days later and try again. Corrag’s narrative style is so unusual and original, it took me a few chapters to get used to it but after that I started to fall in love with the beautiful, lyrical writing. The writing style gives the book a very strong sense of time and place and I felt as if I was really listening to a voice from the past. Corrag is also very observant and appreciates the little details of life that most of us would never even notice. I loved seeing the beauty of the Highlands through her eyes as she rode through Scotland on her grey mare.

Each chapter of Corrag’s story is followed by a letter written by Charles Leslie to his wife at home in Ireland, telling her about his experiences in Scotland and how his opinions about Corrag are changing as he learns more about her life. Corrag of course has not done anything to deserve the accusations of witchcraft; she’s an innocent woman who loves the natural world and has a knowledge of herbalism and healing, like her mother before her and like many other innocent women who were burned at the stake. And yet no matter how hard things get for Corrag and how much cruelty she experiences at the hands of other people she remains a loving, kind-hearted person and never loses her faith in human nature.

Corrag is a beautiful, moving story and I’m so glad I didn’t give up on it.

Note: This book has also been published under the titles of Witch Light and The Highland Witch.

The Lost Book of Salem by Katherine Howe

Note: This book was also published under the title The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane.

This book got a lot of attention when it was first published a couple of years ago and I couldn’t wait to read it as I thought it sounded like something I would really enjoy. But after seeing quite a few negative reviews I wasn’t so sure and decided that maybe I wasn’t in such a hurry to read it after all. I finally picked it up in the library last month and thought I’d give it a try.

The Lost Book of Salem (I’m not sure why it was necessary to change the title) is a dual time-frame novel, with part of the story set during the Salem witch trials in the 17th century and the rest of the story taking place in 1991. The modern day storyline follows Connie Goodwin, a history graduate who is attempting to track down a spell book belonging to Deliverance Dane, one of the Salem women accused of witchcraft in 1692. Connie believes the book has been passed down through the generations and could still be in existence. Through a number of flashbacks we meet Deliverance Dane herself and some interesting questions begin to arise: could she really be a witch – and does magic really exist?

I wish I could say I had enjoyed this book, but I didn’t. I had trouble with Katherine Howe’s writing style, which was overly descriptive and made the story drag in places. I also found the plot too predictable – it was interesting enough to keep me turning the pages, but there were no real surprises.

As the main character, I found Connie very irritating. Considering she was a PhD student and supposedly an expert in colonial American history she was very slow to pick up on clues that were obvious even to me. She didn’t appear to have much knowledge of the period she was studying either – I’d have thought she would have known that ‘receipt’ used to mean ‘recipe’, for example, and she seemed to be mystified by the word ‘bottel’ before it finally dawned on her that it was just the phonetic spelling for ‘bottle’. Deliverance Dane was a more interesting character and I would have preferred to have spent longer in the 17th century, rather than just the brief interludes that we were given.

There were still a lot of things to like about this book, though. The historical sections were atmospheric and appeared to have been well-researched. And for anyone with an interest in the Salem witches, the book goes into a lot of detail about the trials and the events that lead up to them. So, although I was disappointed by it, I’m sure other people would enjoy it more than I did.