I had a slightly skewed weekend last week – working on Saturday but a full social whirl on Sunday and a day’s holiday on Monday. Retail does tend to mean that any two days off together counts as a weekend and this had the bonus that I got to spend one of those days with friends, food and then a night out with Rob. Sunday lunch in Leeds with two of our sometime guest reviewers (Rob and Charlotte) was excellent and then Rob and I headed over to Manchester to see a concert by an impressive set of folk musicians based around the Lost Words. This was a wonderful and moving experience – already splendid words and illustrations set to excellent music and sung by haunting voices – so if you get a chance to see it, go! If not the CD should be available soon and the book should be on any child’s bookshelf… Monday was then a slightly more practical day – I finally got my trainers out and had a short run, made some soup and caught up with Bex (who I’m sure will be back reviewing soon) – but I did finish it off with an author event over at Waterstones in Leeds. This turned out to be a fascinating evening with Bridget Collins (author of The Binding) and debut author Stacey Halls. Luckily I had already read both books so my TBR pile is, hopefully, getting slowly smaller.
The title of the book, for me, comes not only from the idea of witch’s familiars (the devil taking the form of an animal such as a cat or toad) but also from the sad familiarity of women being punished for the terrible crime of not being men. This book is set firmly in 1612, the year of the Pendle Witch Trials, and largely in a large country house overlooking Pendle Hill itself. The focus is on Fleetwood Shuttleworth (such a C17th name it had to be real!) who is seventeen years old, passionately in love with her husband Richard, and desperate not to have yet another miscarriage. She is seventeen and this is her fourth pregnancy – which, perhaps, sums up the difficulties of life for a gentlewoman of the time. Fearful for the life of her child, and her own, Fleetwood meets a young woman who has experience as a midwife (then, as now, essential through pregnancy as well as at the birth) but is then propelled into the chain of events which lead to the famous witch trials. The midwife, Alice, is able to help Fleetwood – with herbal remedies, calm good advice and practical support – but is unable to escape being caught up in an actual witch-hunt – again, summing up the hardships of the life of a poor countrywoman of the time.
The historical facts of the trials are covered well – no mean feat given that the author had to fit the timeline of the trials into the timeline of a pregnancy – but it is the friendship between the two women which really draws you into the book. There is mutual respect and support between them, despite the differences in their fortunes they both have something to offer the other. Obviously neither women is perfect (that would be a very dull character) but what occurred to me is that it is the men in the book who show all the faults usually ascribed to women: Richard, the husband, is weak and moody and local magistrate Roger Nowell is malicious and manipulative. At some points in the story it seems that large amounts of power rest with a child so, although we see the struggle as it was at the time, we also realise that the situation is quite anarchic. Without giving too much away by the end of the novel even the King’s authority is threatened by women who find themselves empowered by female friendship.