I'm certainly glad I did. WITCHING HILL turned out to be one of the most mesmerizing books I've read all year.
Sharratt's novel dramatizes the story of the Pendle witches, a group of women and men tried and condemned for sorcery in 1612 in Lancashire, England. The trial is well documented in contemporary accounts strongly biased against the accused. Sharratt's achievement lay in bringing to life the maligned, dehumanized figures of the accused sorcerers without turning the novel into a glorification of witchcraft. She successfully recreates the early modern mindset that embraced the supernatural unquestioningly, yet portrays events and circumstances in such a way that the modern reader can easily discern the natural, probable causes that triggered them. Against a backdrop of poverty and intolerance, she sketches a touching portrait of three generations of women whose love opens them to a world of wonder and sustains them through the horrors of betrayal and unjust death.
Elizabeth Southerns, a poor beggar woman known by the nickname Demdike, narrates the first half of the book. Widowed, Demdike struggles to support her family on pittances paid for day labor. Her life changes the evening a beautiful youth, Tibb, enters it. With the angelic demon's help, Demdike becomes a "blesser" capable of curing sick livestock, healing ill children, and helping the barren conceive. Ever fearful of being named a witch, she never meddles with curses and only uses her powers for good -- except for the few times she allows her loyalty towards her childhood friend, Chattox, draw her into dangerous waters, with ultimately tragic results.
Demdike's daughter Eliza treads her mother's path for a time, but once her husband dies -- cursed by Chattox, Eliza believes -- she rejects the cunning craft and adopts the Protestant faith. Eliza's daughter Alizon, who narrates the second half of the novel, desires nothing more than to be a normal girl with a normal family. She resists her own nascent powers as long as she can, though she feels guilty spurning the aging Demdike, who wishes to train her as a healer. But when a peddler Alizon encounters suffers a stroke as she rebukes him for his rudeness, he accuses her of cursing him. This event snowballs into a veritable witch hunt that sweeps Alizon's family and friends into prison and through a sham trial whose outcome is a foregone conclusion.
Sharratt's characterizations are marvelously rich. Demdike, a joyful, generous soul who loves the simple pleasures of life and sorely misses the Catholic feasts and village festivals of her youth, completely belies the stereotype of the dour, evil sorceress. She fully believes in the presence and action of her familiar spirit, the handsome Tibb, although she tricks herself into believing that consorting with him is not as dangerous as it might seem. Alizon's desire for normalcy adds particular poignancy to her friendship with Nancy, a daughter of the lower gentry, and to the suffering she endures when subjected to the taunts and scorn of the village children. Alizon regards the cunning craft with equal parts fear and disdain; she witnesses its power at work in her family, yet senses that natural causes might contribute to its successes and failures. The novel brims with skillfully developed secondary characters, from the jealous and downtrodden Chattox to Alizon's wily half-wit brother Jamie to Alice Nutter, the Catholic noblewoman who shelters outlawed priests and continues to aid Demdike's family despite the danger the relationship poses to her own. Weaving intricate relationships between characters from all levels of local society, the novel explores the wearing effects envy, fear, and poverty have on the bonds of friendship and gratitude.
Most interesting to me is the link Sharratt posits between cunning craft and Catholicism. The novel takes place during the Elizabethan and Jamesian eras, when the old faith has been outlawed and Protestantism has stripped life of the comforts and consolations of Catholic feasts and practices. Many of Demdike's blessings derive from Latin prayers and both she and Alizon remain as true as they can to the old faith. Yet I never felt that Sharratt equated Catholicism with witchcraft; rather, she showed, in a very convincing fashion, how remnants of the old faith, forced underground and severed from the corrective counterbalances of clergy and doctrine, could be corrupted as they were passed down or misinterpreted by those who had no direct experience of them. The novel made very real the cultural and affective void that imposed Protestantism must have made in the lives of significant segments of society, a void that witchcraft was readily seen to fill.
It was a joy to read a novel that succeeded on so many levels, from the richness of the characterization to the beauty of the language to the authenticity of the era it evoked. I heartily recommend DAUGHTERS OF THE WITCHING HILL as a well-written and thought-provoking look at the effects of the Reformation on the lives of the lower classes and have added it without hesitation to my list of favorite historical novels.
Mary has graciously offered to send a copy of WITCHING HILL to one of Writing the Renaissance's readers. If you would like to enter the drawing, please comment with your e-mail address below before 11 pm PST on Sunday, May 30. I will draw one entrant at random and forward the winner's name to Mary's publicist. Good luck!
If you would like to learn more about Mary Sharratt and her other novels, please visit her website.