The Familiars by Stacey Halls
Published: February 2019
Genre: historical fiction
Young Fleetwood Shuttleworth, a noblewoman, is with child again. None of her previous pregnancies have borne fruit, and her husband, Richard, is anxious for an heir. Then Fleetwood discovers a hidden doctor’s letter that carries a dire prediction: she will not survive another birth. By chance she meets a midwife named Alice Grey, who promises to help her deliver a healthy baby. But Alice soon stands accused of witchcraft.
Is there more to Alice than meets the eye? Fleetwood must risk everything to prove her innocence. As the two women’s lives become intertwined, the Witch Trials of 1612 loom. Time is running out; both their lives are at stake. Only they know the truth. Only they can save each other.
Fleetwood Shuttleworth is a young noblewoman living near Pendle Hill in 1612 and approaching her fourth pregnancy with trepidation. Her other pregnancies have failed and she’s terrified this one will be the death of her. She requires the midwifery services of Alice Grey, who is later accused of witchcraft along with a dozen other women in the Lancaster area. Desperate to prove her innocence, Fleetwood defies the men in her life and tries to piece together the puzzle of Alice’s unfortunate situation.
This solidly historical novel, with writing and atmosphere that feels like there’s a touch of magic, recounts the Pendle Witch Trials in northern England, taken from transcripts, letters, and notes of the time. Halls does an incredible job of making the reader question if Alice really was a witch––the eerie coincidences, Fleetwood’s moments of fear, and the misunderstandings of the townspeople are full of the uncanny and unsettling. Hundreds of years later our society is fascinated by witch trials and witch hunts––what really happened, what caused them, and why don’t we believe it now––and let’s just say Halls really nails it with this novel.
Poor, illiterate women were the scapegoats for any instances of misunderstanding or coincidences. These women were also relied upon (“wise women”) to serve their villages and towns with their knowledge of herbal medicines and remedies––far more than any doctor at the time, and far more successful. Whether people (particularly men) were offended or threatened by them for their poverty and illiteracy, or for their expertise in something one was not familiar with, or for the plain fact they were female and it offended one’s masculinity, these “wise women” were sought out and accused of witchcraft. In the case of the Pendle witches, they were poor, possible mentally abused and traumatized, and neighbors as well––perhaps there was a long familial rivalry and things just snapped––and immediately were the ones blamed for all bad luck in the Lancaster area.
In a way, Hall makes us examine just how much we’ve “grown” from these trials. We still have prejudices against the poor, mentally ill, and boundary-pushing women, all who are still at risk of being pushed down, silenced, and minimized. They’re not witches anymore, but they’re still “unwanted” members of society.
Politics aside, I was enamored with the writing, the power behind the story, and all that women were still able to do (in very roundabout ways) in order to stand with each other on the right side of justice. Excellent, atmospheric novel!
This qualifies as book 3 of 10 in my library books challenge.