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’s seen an England that is torn between Catholicism’s old rituals and practices and the new and more austere Protestant religion. The two religions are not able to achieve a peaceful coexistence.
Amidst religious intolerance and suspicion, Bess meets her familiar spirit and comes into her powers as a “cunning woman” – meaning she uses the 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 subject of witches has long been a topic of interest for me, and one that has deepened as I have left the notion of women with green skin behind, and embraced the idea that the term has been as means to persecute women. Those who are independent, problematic and well-spoken, as well as women who are more vulnerable targets within their communities could be controlled through fear of being labeled a witch. Saying all this to say that I expected that I would enjoy reading Mary Sharratt’s latest novel—witch stories are familiar to me. However, I will say, I was totally unprepared for just how deeply ensconced I would immediately be in Daughters of the Witching Hill.
Reading historical fiction can be a powerful learning experience. It is so satisfying to read a novel that is so well researched but at the same time functions in the way that the best novels do, namely having the reader on the edge of their seats. Religious and social history were woven seamlessly into the story, and the details of life of the villagers in 17th century England led based on their social class was crystal clear.
More than any other book I’ve 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 even 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. I cared immensely about 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.