Bess Southerns can remember a time when the old religion was practiced, when she was young and beautiful, food was more plentiful and everyone was just a little bit more prosperous. As an older woman she has seen England torn between Catholicism’s practices and rituals of the old, and the new and more austere Protestant religion – which doesn’t suffer belief in the old religion lightly. Amidst religious intolerance and suspicion, Bess not only meets her familiar spirit but also comes into her powers as a “cunning woman” – using knowledge and incantations of the old ways along with traditional herbs and cures, she quickly becomes a respected healer of both people and animals in spite of her poverty and humble beginnings. It’s when Bess teaches her daughter, granddaughter and best friend her skill that the life they had managed to build begins to fall apart.
The notion of witches and past practices of torturing innocent people for supposedly practicing witchcraft has always been a thing of interest for me, so I expected that I would enjoy reading Mary Sharratt’s latest novel. Witch stories are familiar to me. However, I was totally unprepared for just how deeply ensconced I would immediately become in Daughters of the Witching Hill.
Reading historical fiction can be a powerful learning experience when you are reading a novel that has done it right, and I definitely got that feeling here. Religious and social history were woven seamlessly into the story and crystal clear were the details of life that villagers in 17th century England led based on their social class. More than from any other book I have read in recent memory, I learned about how poverty operated at this time in the different villages. Seeing Bess and her daughter set out to do a full day of back-breaking work in return for a modest meal, if they were lucky, but more often than not a crust of bread, really brought me into the story. Sharratt made their circumstances tangible and dealt with the realities of how they lived, addressed the issues of their cleanliness, and examined how they were perceived by other more well to do inhabitants of their community.
Sharratt creates a palpable relationship with her audience, and her words are to be savored. I enjoyed reading what she had written just as much as I did engaging with the characters. There were many paths of thought that this book encouraged me to explore – the religious freedom that I often fail to think about on a day-to-day basis chief among them. I am also very grateful that for the most part we no longer live in a world where we can be accused of witchcraft just because someone who spoke to us last should get a cold, or have a stroke or heart attack. Back in the time of The Pendle Witches, bad timing and another person’s ill health could land you in a lot of hot water or cost you your life.
If you enjoy reading historical fiction, are interested in the history of witchcraft, or love stories with well-written and strong female characters, then I can’t recommend Daughters of the Witching Hill highly enough. I was into this book in a big way from the moment I picked it up, and I was both absorbed in the day-to-day life of the characters and anxious to see what would happen next, and just how their story would end. The dilemmas that these Pendle Witches and friends faced in order to survive and the hard decisions and acts of betrayal they considered against friends and family were riveting and this thoughtfully rendered take is not to be missed. Highly Recommended.