Pendle Hill, the mysteriously beautiful Lancashire landmark we associate readily with witches and the notorious early-17th century trials that swept the north of England, is the setting for this atmospheric and poignant debut novel.
The title – The Familiars – was the name given to the familiar spirits (demonic shape-shifting animals) that were controlled by their diabolic mistresses. The heroine here is 17-year-old Fleetwood Shuttleworth, a real historical figure, as was her handsome husband, Richard.
Fleetwood – what a wonderful name! – was rich, the noble mistress of Gawthorpe, a luxurious and beautiful mansion in sight of Pendle Hill. Fleetwood married at 14, and after losing three babies is now pregnant for the fourth time. Her future as mistress of Gawthorpe depends on her producing an heir – it’s taken for granted that her first living child will be male.
As this beautifully-written tale opens, Fleetwood has just discovered a letter from her doctor to her husband, warning him that ‘if she finds herself once more in childbed, she will not survive it, and her earthly life will come to an end’. Shocked, Fleetwood (already pregnant) concludes that her husband expects; even wants; for her to die in childbirth.
From that moment her entire life is fixated on how to stay alive, and how to deliver a living baby, against all the odds. And when in the forest one day she meets Alice Graves, an eerie young girl with seemingly supernatural knowledge of plant remedies and herbal medicines, she is determined to make Alice her midwife. A fateful decision.
The atmosphere of terror and suspicion that shrouds Pendle Hill is powerfully conveyed by Halls. The Shuttleworth’s near-neighbour, former High Sheriff Roger Nowel (another historically true character) deliberately ferments tales of witchcraft in the area so he can curry favour with King James, a naively suspicious monarch who wrote his own treatise on witchcraft ‘Demonology’.
Nowel tells the Shuttleworths all about the numerous witches in the area, and their familiars, recounting dark stories of terror. He is determined to bring all the local ‘wise women’ to the assizes and the hangman’s noose.
Fleetwood’s midwife, Alice, unwittingly becomes part of the prey that Nowell hunts down. She’s arrested and imprisoned with ten other women in the ghastly dungeons under Lancaster Castle. Terrified of losing her baby, Fleetwood bravely plots to save the only women she thinks can protect them both.
The main theme of this book is of course the paralysing fear men had of women’s sexuality and fertility. Men could be unfaithful (as is Richard Shuttleworth) with near-impunity. Women existed solely to provide children.
These ancient witch-hunts have become allegories for the deep prejudices faced by women throughout history. Records show that for unknown reasons, Alice Gray was only one of the eleven witches tried at Pendle in 1612 who was aquitted. She escaped the rope, as did my own ancestor Sarah Goodie, tried as a witch at around the same time in Boston, Massachusetts.
These are stories steeped in mystery and terror. The Familiars shares their atmosphere of inexplicable events and stark fear. It’s a tremendous read.