Tuesday, July 13, 2010

On the Library Table - Daughters of the Witching Hill

Daughters of the Witching Hill is a remarkable fictional treatment of the Pendle witch trials by Mary Sharratt, a novel based on the true story of a small group of women and men tried, convicted and executed as witches in the post-Reformation Britain of the early seventeenth century.

The reigning monarch of the time ( James I) was convinced that Britain was a hotbed of witchcraft and satanic conspiracies and had just published a witchunter's manual called Daemonologie. Those wishing to advance themelves at court could do no better than promote their monarch's ideas and hunt down witches, and Roger Nowell, high sheriff and magistrate of Lancashire was a very ambitious man indeed.

Jamesian Britain is a dreary comfortless place, and the lives of many of its people are lives of hardship and quiet despair. Bess Southerns is an impoverished widow living with her daughter and granddaughter in an old stone tower in Pendle Forest. Known locally as Mother Demdike, Bess is a practicing cunning woman who earns her meager daily bread (and that of her family) through small mundane magics - she is a blesser with the power to cure human and animal illnesses, help barren women conceive children, find lost or stolen items and similar taskings.

Raised in the old Catholic faith, Bess does no curses or dark magics. She uses her talents for good, and her craft is rooted in the folk magics and prayer charms of her Catholic childhood. She also draws on an older power, that of the earth itself as represented in the Queen of Elfhame. That power is personified in the presence of Tibb, her shapeshifting spirit helper or familiar - he serves Bess on instructions from someone he lovingly calls "my Lady". By contrast, Bess's destitute childhood friend Anne Whittle (Mother Chattox), turns to dark magics in desperation, and her actions draw the unwelcome attentions of local authorities to the little community of Lancashire wise women and men. The results are tragic.

Bess's daughter Eliza follows her mother's craft, but turns away from it when her husband dies, believing that her spouse's death was orchestrated by Mother Chattox. Granddaughter Alizon possesses the ability to become a powerful healer, but she is conflicted and foregoes formal training, hoping for a more ordinary, prosperous and balanced existence. When Alizon rebukes a traveling peddler for his uncouth conduct without thinking and he suffers a stroke on the spot, she is reported to the local magistrate/sheriff as a witch. Alizon, six other women and two men are tried and convicted of witchcraft and sentenced to hang for their crimes. The elderly Mother Demdike does not fall prey to the hangman's noose but perishes in prison - the last words of the book are memorable, and they belong to her. 

Roger Nowell ordered his men to bring down Malkin Tower stone by stone till only the foundation remained. Yet he could never banish me and mine from these parts. This is our home. Ours. We will endure, woven into the land itself, its weft and warp, like the very stones and the streams that cut across the moors.

Mary Sharratt has done a wonderful thing in bringing the Pendle witches back to life after their long sojourn in relative historical obscurity. For all the bleak trappings of lives lived in dire poverty under the yoke of post-Reformation culture, her characters blaze with vitality, power, deep reverence and passion for life. They shine with a light that is bright, true, and at times, utterly joyous; their voices are clear and eloquent. She has recreated the era of the Pendle witches with a sure hand, illustrating poignantly the desolate social landscape forged by the banishing of most ritual forms in Britain and the rise of a spare Protestant spirituality to power. Vibrant, authentic and beautifully written, this novel works on every conceivable level - it is a wonder and a delight to read.

To learn more, please feel free to visit Mary Sharratt at her website.


the wild magnolia said...

I just checked this out from the library. So, I didn't read your post. I'll go back and read it later. :)

Wishing you a wonderful day.

Victoria said...

I'm reading this now, Cate. I'm about three quarters of the way through it. It is an amazing book, and I'm so glad you posted a picture of it on your sidebar; that prompted me to buy it at our local book store.

Mary Sharratt said...

Thank you so much, Katherine, for the beautiful review, and thank you everyone for your kind comments!