Years ago, way back in 2010, Sandy of You’ve Gotta Read This, a now-defunct blog which I miss terribly, sent me Mary Sharratt’s Daughters of the Witching Hill. I, somehow, lost this book in the overflowing rows and rows of books on my much abused shelves. I finally got around to reading the book, however, and it is fantastic. In her review of this amazing novel, Sandy says that “at the hands of Sharratt’s creativity and delightful story-telling, a piece of history has been re-animated and converted to a page-turner of a book. One that enlightens and entertains.” And I completely agree.
Based on the 1612 Pendle Witch-hunt as detailed in Thomas Potts’ The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster along with other research, Daughters of the Witching Hill follows Bess Southerns, a poor widow with a gift for healing, and her family as they struggle to survive a land which wants to annihilate their forbidden Catholic faith as well as their otherworldly abilities.
This moving novel embodies magical realism. Instead of treating the witch-hunt as a smokescreen for killing off women who don’t conform to societal expectations and the men who “allowed” it, Sharratt’s work embraces the concept of witchcraft. The primary group of women accused of witchcraft do in fact possess magical abilities. The devil lies in the details though as the women and the novel make a very definite distinction between witch (one who works evil) and cunning woman (one who heals and blesses) and neither of those definitions conform at all to the vision of the witch held by society at large and the Witchfinders determined to smoke out and hang anyone associated with witchcraft.
The characters Sharratt focuses on are compelling in their complex and flawed natures. She delves into their psyches with precision and sincerity, aligning no one person as the bastion of good or of evil. Even Bess and her granddaughter Alizon, the narrators and focal points of the novel, are damaged and damaging as well as honorable and generous as they both harm and heal the people around them. Alice Nutter, a rich woman with no otherworldly abilities, fascinates readers as a devout Catholic hiding priests in her house in an age where Catholicism was illegal and punishable by the most brutal of deaths. Even Nowell, the Witchfinder at the center of our tragedy, is given enough backstory to make his fanaticism understandable. And the list goes on as we follow Bess and her family through three generations.
If you, like me, have been sitting on this one for years, I suggest you pick it up immediately.