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.

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

The King’s Witch by Tracy Borman

This is the first novel by historian Tracy Borman, although she has previously written several non-fiction books, none of which I have read. The King’s Witch is set in England in the early 17th century, during the reign of James I (who was also James VI of Scotland), and from the title I was expecting something similar to The Witchfinder’s Sister or Widdershins – a story of witch trials and burnings, and of innocent women persecuted because of a gift for healing. Well, The King’s Witch does cover those topics, but there is much more to the book than that and I wasn’t surprised to learn that this is the first in a trilogy and another two novels will be needed to finish the storylines begun in this one.

Our heroine – the ‘witch’ of the title – is Frances Gorges, a young noblewoman whom we first meet in 1603 at the bedside of Elizabeth I, helping her mother to nurse the dying queen through her final days. Frances knows how to use herbs to treat illness and provide comfort, but when Elizabeth is succeeded by James, her skills are no longer appreciated. The new king is determined to stamp out witchcraft in his kingdom and women like Frances could become a target. It is decided that she will be safer away from court, so she is sent home to the peace and quiet of Longford, her family’s manor house in Wiltshire.

It’s not long, however, before Frances is summoned back to court where her ambitious uncle, the Earl of Northampton, has secured her a position as maid to the king’s daughter, the young Princess Elizabeth. But court has become a very dangerous place and Frances almost immediately finds herself in conflict with the king’s Lord Privy Seal, Robert Cecil, who is hoping to please the king by hunting down a witch. It’s not just women healers who are under suspicion, though; James also sees Catholics as possible conspirators – and he is right, because a secret plot is taking shape that could bring his reign to an early end.

As I’ve said, the title of this book is slightly misleading. Frances’s knowledge of the properties of herbs and plants and the danger this puts her in with Cecil is certainly an important part of the story, but this is not really a book about witches and witchcraft. I would describe it more as a book about a young woman trying to make her way in a world full of treachery, lies and conspiracies. Most of the second half of the novel is devoted to one of these conspiracies – the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 – and Frances’s own involvement in it. This is what I will remember about this book rather than the witch-hunting aspect, which doesn’t really come to anything.

Although I enjoyed the book overall, the pacing seemed to be a problem for me. The story gets off to a slow start and I felt that I’d been reading for a long time with very little happening; somewhere around the middle of the book when the Gunpowder Plot begins to take shape, I started to find it much more compelling. There is also a romance for Frances with the lawyer Thomas Wintour and I thought this was handled well, especially as Frances – and the reader – begins to have doubts as to whether he can or cannot be trusted.

Frances Gorges was a real historical figure, but she and her family are not characters I have come across before in historical fiction. It seems that very little factual information is available about Frances – I could only find a few basic details online – although more is known about her parents, Thomas Gorges and Helena Snakenborg. The lack of information on Frances must have given Tracy Borman the freedom to use her imagination in building a story around her, without being too restricted by historical fact.

By the end of the novel, there is a lot going on in Frances’s life and I will be interested to see how her story continues in the next two books in the trilogy.

Thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 7/20 for my 20 Books of Summer challenge.

The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown

The Witchfinder’s Sister is Beth Underdown’s first novel. I was drawn to it first by the title and the cover, but the subject – the English witch trials of the 1640s – appealed to me too.

The title character is 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 over a period of several years in the middle of the 17th century. At the beginning of the novel, following the death of her husband in London, Alice is returning to Manningtree, Essex, where her brother still lives. The two have not been on good terms ever since Alice married the son of a servant, Bridget, whom Matthew blames for the childhood accident which has left his face scarred. Now, though, she hopes they can put the past behind them and move on.

Moving into her brother’s lodgings at the Thorn Inn, Alice is relieved to find that he is willing to let her stay with him – but she quickly discovers that the years have changed Matthew and that he is not the same man she left behind. She hears disturbing rumours about him in the town, linking him with accusations of witchcraft against local women, and when she discovers that he is making lists and collecting evidence, Alice must decide whether or not to intervene.

The novel gets off to a slow start as characters are introduced and background information is provided, with lots of flashbacks to earlier events in Alice’s and Matthew’s lives, but after a few chapters the pace begins to pick up. Not knowing much about the real Matthew Hopkins, I found Underdown’s portrayal of him very intriguing. The lack of known facts relating to his early days gives her the freedom to create a convincing backstory for him, and I appreciated the way she delves into his personal history, revealing family secrets and trying to show how incidents from his childhood may have helped to shape the man he will become. Only seeing him through Alice’s eyes – the novel is written in the first person – makes it difficult to penetrate below the surface and really understand him, but that just makes him all the more chilling and unnerving.

I thought Alice was a less interesting character, maybe because her main role as narrator is to tell the story of Matthew and the women accused of witchcraft rather than taking an active part in events herself. I found her slightly bland – although I did have some sympathy as she was forced to stand by and watch as her brother carried out his terrible deeds, not knowing what she could say or do to help his victims. It would have been nice to have had the opportunity to get to know some of the so-called witches in more depth; most of them were little more than names on the page, and I think if I had been able to care about their fates on an emotional level that would have added an extra layer to the novel. Having said that, I was fascinated by the descriptions of Hopkins’ methods of identifying witches, particularly the one referred to as ‘watching’ – I had heard about that before, but hadn’t fully appreciated the discomfort and torment involved in it.

The book ends in a way that is slightly difficult to believe, but I liked it and thought it added a good twist! Based on this novel, I think Beth Underdown can look forward to a successful writing career; there were things that I liked about it and others that I didn’t like as much, but on the whole I enjoyed it and would certainly be interested in reading more by this author.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Historical Musings #19: The Halloween edition

Historical Musings October is here and has brought with it (in my part of the UK at least) a change in the weather, longer, darker nights and a distinctly autumnal feel. With Halloween just a few weeks away, I thought it would be fun to give this month’s Historical Musings post a seasonal theme! I would love to hear about any historical novels you’ve read which deal with any of the following subjects:

  • Witches and witchcraft
  • Magic (black or white)
  • Ghosts and hauntings
  • Vampires/zombies/werewolves/monsters or other supernatural beings of any kind

My suggestions:

The Vanishing Witch Karen Maitland is one of the first authors to come to mind when I think about this type of historical fiction. The Vanishing Witch is set during the time of the Peasants’ Revolt and features both ghosts and witchcraft; at the beginning of each chapter is a spell, a piece of folklore or a superstition, which I thought was a nice touch! The Raven’s Head, set in the early 13th century, is a darker novel with a strong supernatural element. I haven’t read her other books yet, but am about to start her new one, The Plague Charmer.

Although I didn’t particularly enjoy it, Katherine Howe’s The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane (also published as The Lost Book of Salem) deals with the Salem witch trials. It’s a dual time-frame novel but is set at least partly in the past so I’m including it here.

For those readers who are interested in witches and witchcraft but prefer a gentler read, I can recommend The White Witch by Elizabeth Goudge and Thornyhold by Mary Stewart. The first is set during the English Civil War while the latter is set in the 1940s (but published in 1988, which is why I’m classing it as historical here). There’s also Susan Fletcher’s Corrag (also published as Witch Light), a beautifully written novel about the Glencoe Massacre of 1692; the main character and her mother have both been accused of witchcraft due to their knowledge of herbs and healing.

Vlad the Last Confession C.C. Humphreys has written a novel called Vlad: The Last Confession, which tells the story of Vlad the Impaler, the fifteenth century Prince of Wallachia who is thought to have provided at least part of the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. This is not actually a vampire novel, but because of the Dracula connection and the dark atmosphere I’m including it here anyway.

There are also two ghostly novels by John Harwood that come to mind: The Séance, a gothic mystery set in Victorian England, and The Ghost Writer, which includes four genuinely chilling short ghost stories supposedly written by a fictitious author in the 1890s.

Finally, there’s Deborah Harkness’s All Souls Trilogy, in which our hero and heroine are a vampire and a witch. The first book, A Discovery of Witches, is set in the present day but in the second, Shadow of Night, we travel back in time to 16th century Europe. I’m not sure about the third book as I haven’t read it yet.

Have you read any of the books I’ve mentioned here? Can you think of any other historical fiction novels with a ghostly/witchy/magical feel?

Elizabeth Goudge Day: The White Witch

The White Witch A year ago I read The Child from the Sea as part of Lory of The Emerald City Book Review’s birthday celebrations for Elizabeth Goudge. This year, Lory is hosting another day devoted to the same author and this seemed like a good time to read my second book by Goudge. There were plenty to choose from – some historical and some contemporary, some for adults and some for children – but I decided on The White Witch. I loved The Child from the Sea, which was set in the seventeenth century and told the story of Lucy Walters, a mistress of Charles II, so as The White Witch is set in the same period the chances were good that I would love this book too – and I did.

The English Civil War forms the historical backdrop to the story, but the focus of the novel is on the inhabitants of a small Oxfordshire village and the ways in which their lives are touched by the greater changes taking place in the country as a whole. The ‘white witch’ of the title is Froniga, a healer and herbalist who has family ties with both the Puritan household of Robert Haslewood, the village squire, and with the band of Romany gypsies who camp nearby. Caught between both of these worlds while fully belonging to neither, Froniga is the character around whom all the others revolve.

Froniga is a fascinating character, but there were others whose stories interested me too, particularly Francis Leyland, the secretive stranger who offers to paint a portrait of Haslewood’s two young children, and the mysterious Yoben, who is in love with Froniga. There’s a ‘black witch’ too – and a parson who tries to save her soul – and a vengeful gypsy woman who causes trouble wherever she goes. Whether Parliamentarian or Royalist, Puritan or Catholic, nobleman or gypsy, in the hands of Elizabeth Goudge each of these characters becomes a well-rounded, believable human being – a person we can sympathise with even if we don’t necessarily agree with their views or their choices.

In this novel, the conflicts that take place in an individual’s heart or soul are as important as those which take place on the battlefield, though we do get to see some military action as several of our characters become involved in the major battles and events of the Civil War. But what I loved most about this book were the details of daily village life in the seventeenth century, the beautiful descriptions of the English countryside, and the undercurrents of magic, mystery and mythology which run throughout the story.

The White Witch, although never boring, has a slow pace and – as it was originally published in 1958 – it is written in a style which may not appeal to readers who prefer more modern historical novels and as with The Child from the Sea, there are strong religious and spiritual elements. I love Goudge’s writing style, though; it’s warm and gentle and comforting. I’m looking forward to working through the rest of her novels…and would like to thank Lory for introducing me to her work!