Daughters of the Witching Hill by Mary Sharratt
In a time when the old ways of Catholicism were banned in England, Bess Southerns wants nothing to do with the dour new Puritan ways. The things that comfort her heart are the Catholic rites and rituals. When a spirit named Tibbs comes to her and promises her a future as a cunning woman, it is the old Latin prayers of Catholicism that Bess mutters to bring healing to those hurting around her.
Bess’s daughter, Liza, also has a spirit, but she denounces him before long; she is not, though, above living off of the payments from Bess’s healing work. The women know that what Bess is doing could be dangerous, both for the aspects of magic and those of Catholicism, but everyone in their village seems to accept Bess as a force of good. Besides, as poor as they are, they have little other choice. However, the religious and political climate is growing ever more precarious with the ascension to the throne of James I, a man who is obsessed with the occult.
“Daughters of the Witching Hill” is a fantastic read. I was thoroughly immersed in the world of rural 16th century England. The pattern of dialogue was somewhat archaic and at times a bit difficult, but once I got into the story, it only added to the sense of time and place. I bought in so completely to the world that Sharratt was showing me, that I could help stopping and comparing the lives of these women in Pendle Forest to that of the men and women of London and Queen Elizabeth’s court in the same general time period. I was astounded by the differences time and time again, and yet it all rang true.
One of the most interesting things about “Daughters of the Witching Hill” is that Sharratt does not assume that all who were accused of practicing witchcraft and magic were innocent. Whether or not the modern reader wants to believe in the efficacy of Bess’s potions and murmurings, she certainly believes that she is doing a form of magic, as do the people around her. I appreciated that Sharratt wrote this story in, what seemed to me, ambiguous enough of a way that it wasn’t really clear whether Bess’s mutterings worked any change on her patients, or whether there were other less supernatural forces at work. I could still accept the outcomes without having to suspend my disbelief and was still able to keep this novel squarely in the realm of historical fiction without having to venture into fantasy.
For a book about accused witches, there was so much more here! Politics, religion, history, power struggles, the lives of everyday people – and women in particular. I highly recommend this book.