The Familiars by Stacey Halls – Book Review

A witch-hunt in Northern England in 1612 led to the accusation and imprisonment of twelve women. One of the women died in custody, ten were found guilty of witchcraft and hanged. Only one was acquitted. The Familiars explores some of the burning questions around this notorious piece of history: why would women willingly admit to witchcraft if the penalty was death? Considering the lack of evidence, and that the main informant was a child, why was only one woman, Alice Gray, found not guilty? The book is a well-researched work of fiction based on these historic events. Halls was inspired after visiting Gawthorpe Hall in Lancashire and based some of the characters, including the main characters Fleetwood Shuttleworth and her husband Richard, on real people who lived at Gawthorpe during the trials.

The Familiars by Stacey Halls

The Familiars is told from the seventeen-year-old noblewoman Fleetwood Shuttleworth’s point of view. Pregnant for the fourth time and suffering from severe pregnancy-induced nausea, Fleetwood has yet to birth a living heir to her husband, Richard. When she finds a letter from a physician addressed to Richard, she learns she’s unlikely to survive this pregnancy. She believes the only person who can save her and her unborn child is midwife and wise woman Alice Gray. But when Alice is caught up in the fanatic witch hunt, Fleetwood is the only one who can save her from certain death…

The book offers fascinating insights into the lives of people during the early 1600s in northern England. The author’s research is effortlessly incorporated into the story through interesting details about the clothing, architecture, and social dynamics of the time. Halls’ sympathy lies with her female characters and issues around the social situations and injustices women faced during this time are explored. Fleetwood is the main driver of a storyline that at times is slow to move towards a conclusion. She’s an interesting and well-written character driven by her determination while still a product of her time and class. The story is ultimately about the power of female friendship as Fleetwood rushes against time and odds to save Alice’s (and her own and her unborn child’s) lives.

 “[The Pendle witch trail] was an unusual trial in that it was documented in an official publication, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster, by the clerk of the court, Thomas Potts… The story began with an altercation between one of the accused, Alizon Device, and a pedlar, John Law. Alizon, either travelling or begging on the road to Trawden Forest, passed John Law and asked him for some pins… He refused and Alizon cursed him. It was a short while after this that John Law suffered a stroke, for which he blamed Alizon and her powers. When this incident was brought before Justice Nowell, Alizon confessed that she had told the Devil to lame John Law… James Demdike confessed that Alizon had also cursed a local child some time before and Elizabeth [Demdike], although more reserved in making accusations, confessed her mother [Old Demdike] had a mark on her body, supposedly where the Devil had sucked her blood, which left her mad. On further questioning both Old Demdike and Chattox [two of the accused women] confessed to selling their souls.”

Why would women confess to witchcraft if the penalty was death?
Excerpt from Historic UK: The Pendle Witches

I love a book with a twist of magic and this was one of the main attractions of The Familiars for me. This and a grim curiosity about the seventeenth century witch hunts. Questions around the role of magic, and the familiar spirits the witches are said to possess, are never resolved in the book. This was a trifle unsatisfactory but, I suppose, as with the Pendle witch trials, the author left some questions unanswered and open to speculation. The book was a quick and easy read with simple yet effective prose and wonderful details colouring Fleetwood’s world. This will be an enjoyable read for history enthusiasts and readers who relate to strong female characters rising above their situations to overcome the odds.

Sources: Historic UK: The Pendle Witches

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Have you read The Familiars? Let me know what you thought in the comments below.

Happy reading,

Chantelle

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