by Stacey Halls
‘ “The light and the darkness are equal forces – partners, if you will – then there is a moment, very quick and quiet, where you can see the day giving in to the night. That’s when I know.” ‘ [Alice Gray]
We know about witches, don’t we – fictional characters like Hermione Granger or Belladonna LeStrange, or even Molly Weasley, good and bad, who play such an important part in the literary canon of the past twenty years?
But do we know about the real ‘witches’ – the thousands of women, most of them innocent of any crime, hanged or burnt to death by male-dominated mediaeval justice in the name of a male-dominated religion? In a practice which extended into the nineteenth century (at least), and far beyond the period we think of as the ignorant Middle Ages, women were singled out for no better reason than men feared their wisdom and knowledge. A birthmark, a squint or nothing more than the practice of recommending willow bark for the treatment of a headache could lead ultimately to the gallows.
‘The stone flags rushed to welcome me as their old mistress, and I was grateful for their embrace as my world came crashing down, and my body with it.’
This is a topic which Stacey Halls tackles in her recent novel The Familiars. Set in 1612 during the reign of James VI and I – a known ‘expert’ in witchcraft **, and at the time of the Pendle witch trials, it takes as its protagonist Fleetwood Shuttleworth, a seventeen-year-old girl who has lost three babies. Fearful of her fourth pregnancy ending the same way, she engages as midwife Alice Gray, whom she meets by accident in the woods near her home. While Fleetwood is married to Richard, a member of the lesser nobility, and thus wealthy, Alice is poor. She has learned herbal lore and midwifery from her mother, two skills based on science but, in a superstitious age, feared as devilry by many.
The Familiars takes us into this awful world, a world of fear and neighbourly suspicion and betrayal. Despite their different station in life, Fleetwood and Alice have much in common. Both are victims of the society in which they live, where wives are the property of their husbands and have but one function, to reproduce. If unmarried, they must find work where they can, or starve. If intelligent and knowledgeable, they attract attention.
Fleetwood discovers that Richard has a mistress – not an uncommon thing in either that age or this – and this knowledge leads her to question his feelings for her. Is he hedging his bets in case her fourth pregnancy also ends in tragedy? In a sense, Richard is a victim of his society too, ambitious but tied to custom, sympathetic yet subject to the constraints of his status and of the Protestant religion. ‘Heretics’ during King James’s reign are feared and persecuted as much as wise women!
It is almost inevitable that suspicion falls on Alice and she is betrayed with false and malicious evidence. Fleetwood fears her baby will die – and probably she herself too – if she is deprived of Alice’s attention. But how can she, a ‘mere’ woman, save her friend? Even if allowed to speak at the trial, will anyone listen to her?
Stacey Halls creates atmosphere in a quasi-Gothic way through her descriptions of dark mansions and woods, and by focussing on Fleetwood’s fears, for her unborn child, herself and her friend. An unsympathetic mother, an unbending local magistrate, a giant but devoted dog and various sinister innkeepers add extra touches of Ann Radcliffe-like mystery.
‘Neighbours denouncing neighbours – it was the most reliable trait of humanity, and was how the dungeon was filled in the first place.’
The Familiars is based on real-life characters *** and events. The author brings them alive again but treats them in a way that keeps the reader in suspense throughout. For anyone who knows the history of the Pendle witch trials, the resolution will not come as a total surprise, yet the novel does not conclude without a few unexpected revelations.
Stacey Halls for me is another ‘new’ writer, one I hope to hear more from in the near future. The Familiars is one of the most enjoyable novels I have read in a while.
** King James’s book Daemonologie, some might say, surely vies with the Authorized Version of the Bible as the most important work of the age.
*** Fleetwood and Richard Shuttleworth, and Alice Gray were real people, as were many of the other persons mentioned in the story.