Kit’s Crit: The Familiars (Stacey Halls)

The Familiars is in many ways a modern gothic romance set against the backdrop of the Lancashire witch trials. It tells of seventeen-year-old Fleetwood Shuttleworth’s plight to provide an heir for Gawthorpe Hall after three unsuccessful pregnancies. She enlists the help of a mysterious local wise woman – Alice Grey – who later becomes one of the accused victims. After a string of dangerous adventures, however, things reach a satisfactory conclusion.

Unlike other recent books on the Pendle Witches, Stacey Halls chooses a minor, overlooked historical character as her focal point. Alice Grey is a midwife who may or may not be associated with a familiar in the guise of a red fox, though any magic we see her perform is practical herbalism rather than supernatural spell-casting. Yet we experience Alice through the eyes of Fleetwood Shuttleworth, a privileged narrator far removed from the violence and poverty of the accused witches, who only rushes to help the midwife for personal gain. Halls’ description of the Well Tower in Lancaster Castle is the closet we get to understanding the harrowing ordeal that these real prisoners went through. But having read some of the early reviews, such sanitizing of historical unpleasantness may be necessary for the modern squeamish reader.

The Familiars is an enjoyable story based on the few facts known about the events of 1612. I particularly liked the thoughtful observation that bearbaiting in London was popular because the bloodthirsty townsfolk did not get a chance to hunt!

Halls’ historical research is sound, the setting well-crafted, and the characters consistent with the gothic romance genre. This novel will appeal to readers who want to taste what living through a witch hunt may have been like, but without any graphic information.

Kit’s Crit: Wicked Enchantments (Froome)

What if the Lancashire Witches were actually guilty of practicing magic?  Joyce Froome’s book, Wicked Enchantments: a history of the Pendle Witches & their magic (Lancaster: Carnegie,2010) explores this possibility from the prespective of the two teenagers involved, James and Alizon Device.

Froome

Froome’s website describes her methodology.  She uses “quotations from a wealth of original sources, such as trial records and books of magic,” alongside “photographs of magical artifacts.”

This unique compilation – based on the sound scholarly research of an assistant curator at the Museum of Witchcraft in Cornwall –  focuses on the seventeenth-century rituals and spells that the poor cunning folk of Pendle may have used to eek out a living: love potions, healing tonics, protection charms, curses, good-luck talismans, fertility magic, and fortune-telling paraphernalia.  In addition to multiple illustrations, there are also photographs of a modern family recreating many of the ancient rituals.

The only negative comment I have is that the binding of my book fell apart from frequent reading!  But aside from this, Wicked Enchantments  is a fascinating, well-documented, alternative portrayal of the Device family.  Their spells are clearly explained.  And I fully concur with Froome’s conclusion that centuries later “there were still cunning folk around Pendle Hill . . . . Magic had survived both demonisation and ridicule” (310).     

Wicked Enchantments could have become a dry, intellectual, historical examination, were it not for the clever organization, and Froome’s subtle humor shining through the pages.

I love her opening warning: “You are strongly advised NOT to attempt any of the spells described in this book – particularly the one that involves removing a tooth from a live wolf” (iv).  Reader beware!

More information is available at Joyce Froome’s website: http://www.joycefroome.com/wicked_enchantments.htm

Kit’s Crit: HEIR TO A PROPHECY (Mercedes Rochelle)

Any one fascinated by Shakespeare’s Macbeth will love the question behind Mercedes Rochelle’s debut book: How do the sons of Banquo come to rule Scotland?  The three weird sisters tell Macbeth’s companion that “Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none” – a promise that sets in motion the deadly events of the famous play.

Heir To A Prophecy (Hampshire: Top Hat Books, 2014) follows a fragmented trail through Scottish history –  tracing the line from Banquo’s son Fleance to King James Ist of England – with a similar mix of fact, fiction, and supernatural interference as found in the original tale.  We know that Banquo is murdered on Macbeth’s orders, but that his son Fleance escapes.  In Rochelle’s version he goes into exile in Wales at the court of Gruffydd ap Llewelyn, where he woos and impregnates the king’s daughter, Nesta.
Nesta bears an illegitimate son called Walter, who enlists in Harold Goodwineson’s service and ends up fighting at Dunsinane and Hastings.  Along the way he befriends Prince Malcolm, King Duncan’s heir to the Scottish throne.  Years later, Walter settles in Malcolm’s court and is rewarded for his services, becoming the first Steward of Scotland.  This legitimizes his position, and prepares the way for future descendants of the royal house of Stuart.

Rochelle’s portrayal of the three witches is particularly interesting.  They appear at various points in her story to advance their original prophecy, but rather than being the weird old hags of Shakespeare’s era they are associated with the Norns of Scandinavian mythology – fates who control mankind’s destiny.  But aside from this nod to the bard, Rochell wisely does not attempt to imitate one of the great literary masterpieces with a sophisticated, high-brow response.  Instead she writes a plain, rollicking tale that should have broad appeal for those readers who like a fast-paced romp through history.

This novel is nicely edited and presented.  The setting, however, is too broad a time-period to examine and explore the various situations in any great depth.  Heir[s] To A Prophecy could well have been a whole series, with each book focusing on one central character – Fleance, Walter, and so on!

Kit’s Crit: THE KING’S WITCH (Cecilia Holland)

Cecelia Holland’s The King’s Witch (New York: Berkley, 2011) is a historical novel set during the Third Crusade to take Jerusalem, around 1191.  Edythe – a young Jewish woman pretending to be Christian – is dispatched by Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine to inform on her children, Richard the Lionheart and his sister Johanna.  Edythe has inherited a little folk-healing skill from her physician father, and using her knowledge of herbs and potions she manages to save the king’s life when he contracts a dangerous fever, a feat than earns her the nickname of witch.  Fortunately, this is the era before the Burning Times swept across Europe.

King Richard embarks on his holy campaign to atone for the homosexuality he believes makes him a monster in the eyes of God.  On the same journey, Edythe begins her own religious pilgrimage to discover and reclaim her Jewish heritage.  She develops a bond with another outsider, the king’s bastard relative called Rouquin, who tells her that Richard’s crusade “isn’t about God” but rather “about power.”  This ironically proves true at the end – with the suggestion that the strongest power on earth is love.

Although a lot of political background informs the start of the novel, Holland’s crisp style cuts cleanly through to the center of this original, inventive tale.  It is well-researched and nicely executed, especially the early medicinal knowledge which includes a particularly harrowing head-trauma surgery.  The King’s Witch can be classified as both a romance and a fiction.  And while the relationship between Edythe and Rouquin is not entirely convincing, the action scenes and excellent details prove sufficient to make this a satisfying historical novel.

Kit’s Crit: The Witch of Eye (Mari Griffith)

The Witch of Eye

Mari Griffith

witch-of-eye

Set in the mid-Fifteenth Century, The Witch of Eye is a historical fiction based on the true story of Margery Jourdemayne, a wise woman from Eye Next Westminster who eventually burned at the stake.  The infamous Witch of Eye acts on behalf of the Duchess of Gloucester, Eleanor Cobham, who is desperate to give Duke Humphrey a son.  Into these known facts Mari Griffith skillfully weaves an invented love story between a dairymaid called Jenna Harding, and Margery Jourdemayne’s yeoman farmer husband, William.

Griffith draws a convincing scene of life in medieval England and her attention to detail is very impressive.  She portrays that ambiguous time when people of all ranks looked to supernatural forces to help them achieve their desires, sometimes even assisted by members of the clergy.  Jenna Harding is the most modern – and appealing – character who is drawn into dangerous circumstances over which she has little control.  Fortunately, things work out well for her in the end.

I enjoyed this well-paced book.  Highly recommended if you like a touch of romance in your historical fiction!

Kit’s Crit: The House of the Spirits (Isabel Allende)

Allende Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits is my first encounter with Latin American magical realism (New York: Random, 2005).  This epic saga follows three generations of a Chilean family – headed by the determined patriarch Esteban Truebas – as they experience joy, tragedy, struggle, rebellion, and political turmoil, in a world where the supernatural mingles alongside reality.

The House of the Spirits contains magic, ghosts, poison, and demonic possession, and it functions as an allegory of the South American world where Allende grew up.  It is a novel designed to “reclaim the past” and “overcome the terrors” of Chilean history (433).

Allende successfully employs symbolism, mysticism, and nationalism in a vivid drama of political turmoil and feminist rebellion.  And while the novel itself does not rank as great literature, it is an excellent example of lush storytelling and descriptive writing – a tale that resonates with the poetic musicality of the Latino language.

I would recommend The House of the Spirits to those readers seeking a unique, well-crafted, multi-cultural experience. 

 

Kit’s Crit: The Daylight Gate (Jeanette Winterson)

Winterson

Starting from the assumption that Jacobean Lancashire was a rebel Catholic stronghold in a Protestant country, Jeanette Winterson’s version of the most famous English witch trials is quite unlike any other.  The Daylight Gate is a novella – not the hefty Victorian saga first told by Harrison Ainsworth – and it often strays away from the recorded historical facts.  Indeed, this book examines witchcraft and Catholicism as “matters treasonable and diabolical” in an impressionistic, modernist manner, which culminates in a broody tale where events appear blurred by the mists of time.

 Winterson takes a lot of poetic license with the facts as they are recorded in the trial documents, inventing new players, and placing famous people of that era in implausible situations.  Her Alice Nutter – the central character she admits is not true to the actual historical figure – is lured into witchcraft, knows William Shakespeare and the magician John Dee, appears younger than the matron who was actually executed, and is bisexual. Yet at the same time Justice Roger Nowell, who led the puritanical crusade against the local cunning folk, gets painted in an unexpectedly sympathetic light.

However, Winterson’s rough characters and brutal situations are credible for that time, area, and circumstance.  And she deftly strips away the romanticism found in some of the earlier novels based on these same events.  I particularly admire her intelligent justification for the motives and causes behind the three remaining puzzles: Why was a gentlewoman of Mistress Nutter’s rank convicted alongside the common poor?  Why did nine-year-old Jennet Device betray her entire family?  And why did some of the accused willingly confess to diabolical crimes?  Winterson has obviously considered these questions and reached her own conclusions about the excitement, hysteria, and sexual opportunities that open up during a witch hunt.  And while she does not dwell on the misogynist drive that fuelled men like Nowell, she does address the other power imbalances associated with gender, wealth, and rank.

I appreciate Winterson’s sparse, poetic technique that functions like a series of flashbacks to a dangerous, incomprehensible era that was ripe with suspicion and superstition – a place where poor women did what was necessary to survive.  Because they had no control over the real world they “must get what power they can in theirs,” though this is not a feel-good fairy tale where everyone lives happily ever after.

If you like intensity, and are open to magical realism, The Daylight Gate is an interesting introduction to the Pendle Witches.  But it is ultimately more of a literary horror story than a traditional historical fiction.