Synopsis: Bess Southerns, an improverished widow living in Pendle Forest, is haunted by visions and gains a reputation as a cunning woman. Drawing on the Catholic folk magic of her youth, Bess heals the sick and foretells the future. As she ages, she instructs her granddaughter, Alizon, in her craft, as well as her best friend, who ultimately turns to dark magic. When a peddlar suffers a stroke after exchanging harsh words with Alizon, a local magistrate, eager to make his name as a witch finder, plays neighbors and family membes against one another until suspicion and paranoia reach frenzied heights.
My thoughts: I was very excited to get the chance to review Mary Sharratt's newest novel DAUGHTERS OF THE WITCHING HILL. There has been a plethora of excellent historical fiction lately and DAUGHTERS OF THE WITCHING HILL belongs at the top of the list. It was certainly refreshing to read a book that had nothing really to do with The Tudors! Before I read the novel, I had never heard of the Pendle Witches, although I had heard of King James VI (I of England)'s book on Demonology. Sharratt brings the story of Bess Southern and the Pendle witches vividly to life. The story that she tells is so gripping that I stayed up half the night reading it. I couldn't bear to put it down. The book is about so many things, not just the fine line between good and evil, but also about friendship and family, loyalty, hypocrisy, ambition and most importantly intolerance. Not just against the witches but against anyone who practices the old religion Catholicism, as well as the intolerance against the people who look and act differently from the norm. Bess's daughter Liza has a wandering eye and her grandson Jamie is developmentally disabled. Both suffer cruelly for being different. Liza is also illegitmate, and like Hester Prynne, Bess is made to suffer for her sin of adultery.
The novel also captures the hardship and the struggle of the poor, which we don't find too often in historical fiction. Too often the lives of those who aren't Lords are forgotten or not considered interesting. Bess and her family struggle daily just to find enough to eat. The role of the poor and what is owed to them is another theme. Bess talks about how under the old religion, the poor were taken care of but under the new, their poverty is treated as their punishment from God. What struck me the most about the novel is women and power. Until Bess is fifty and her spirit guide appears to her, leading her to become a cunning woman, she has no power. But once she cures Matthew Holden, and people look to her for her blessings and charms, it gives her a measure of power. And women with power in the 16th and 17th century (heck in any century) is frightening to others, particularly men. The saddest part of the whole book is watching people turn on each other out of fear and greed.
The novel is narrated by Bess and her granddaughter Alizon. While Bess is a mesmerizing narrator, Alizon grabs your heart with her attraction and yet her fear of the power that lies within her. I wanted Alizon to realize her powers but at the same time I understood her wanting to be 'normal.' While reading this book, I was reminded of one of my favorite historical fiction authors, Anya Seton. Sharratt has the same ability to capture the voice of another time, to make the reader feel as if they are immersed in the world of the Pendle Forest and its people. I was entranced by her depictions of Tibb, Ball, the Queen of Elthame, and the Catholic folk magic.
I can't recommend this book enough. I defy anyone not to fall under the spell of the DAUGHTERS OF THE WITCHING HILL.
Mary Sharratt will be guest blogging this week on Wednesday.