“‘You were meant to be more than a common beggar, our Bess. You could be a blesser. Next time you see a sick cow, bless it. Say three Ave Marias and sprinkle some water on the beast. Folks will pay you for such things’ […] What nonsense. The Church Warden would have me whipped and fined for saying the Ave Maria – and that was but mild chastisement. Catholics were still hanged in these parts”
**Real events that happened 400 years ago can’t have spoilers but I won’t spoil anything non-factual**
Daughters of the Witching Hill is a historical fiction (no surprises there) based on the real events of the Pendle Witch Trials. In the trials ten women and two men were accused of witchcraft and witchcraft-related crimes. Ten people were hanged and one died before the trial began.
Elizabeth ‘Bess’ Southerns, seemingly pegged as the ringleader of the group died in prison before the trials began. Bess is the main protagonist in Sharratt’s novel. The narrative is in first person, flicking from Elizabeth to her granddaughter Alizon part way through. In documents relating to the trial, Bess admits to using magick to heal and bless, with the help of a spirit called Tibb. Much of the ‘witchcraft’ Bess describes in her confessions (which were most likely forced, though supported by her youngest granddaughter Jennet’s testimonies) is reflective of pre-reformation Catholic rituals. These are used in Sharratt’s text often, with prayers and chants taken from the time. The characters often recite prayers not dissimilar to the main modern Catholic prayers – the Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be.
Sharratt has quite clearly researched her subject well. The book paints a very clear image of both the setting and plot. In terms of history I believe it is very accurate, although I am definitely no expert. I will say that the dialogue can seem forcibly Northern at times, but she finds the balance between her characters sounding contemporary to their time period and understandable to a modern audience. I was surprised to learn that Sharratt is actually American, as I often find that I can pick up on this in texts based in Britain; but I suppose no one really knows for sure how anyone would have spoken in 1612.
In terms of plot, this is based on fact so a quick Google of the Pendle Witches would basically tell you how the story ends. Saying that, though, the narrative is interesting and not as predictable as you’d imagine. Sharratt’s ‘witches’ are sympathetic but real and by no means helpless or innocent. She shows them healing and cursing, even if not intentionally (or not actually doing anything). As you’d expect from a book about self-confessed ‘cunning folk’, there’s a lot of magick. I found that this is handled well – as Sharratt has taken much of her magick from Catholicism it fits well with the setting. It never borders on the ridiculous, nor is it fully taken as fact; even those practicing it worry that it won’t work. There’s a lot of herbalism and what would now be considered natural remedies, mixed with prayer and chanting – hardly out-of-this-world or even particularly mind blowing really. This fits the overall tone of the novel well, too. It isn’t a happy nor sad book; there is a decidedly matter of fact feel to the whole thing. Even at the very end when ** Real life event but spoiler in terms of place in the book** Alizon (our only surviving narrator at this point) is facing the noose, she is shockingly accepting of her fate and turns to her belief in the spiritual and her Christian faith as I suppose many must do.
Overall, the book is a well-researched and interesting telling of the Pendle Witch trials and speculation of the events leading up to them. If you read this book I would definitely recommend reading the author’s notes at the end – this is one of those books where the thoughts of the author compliment the text itself.
See you soon,
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