Sumptuous, luxurious, stunning from cover to cover.  I’m talking about the design of Stacey Hall’s The Familiars. Cover, endpapers, spine!

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Truly glorious.  Very hard to resist if you love a beautiful book … but can you judge this book by its cover?  The short answer, yes! (The long answer follows.)

1612 James I is on the throne.  James who hated Catholics and witches.  Lancashire was full of the former, and the infamous Pendle witch trials would make you think it was full of the latter too.  But was it?

I have always felt that many (if not all) of the women who were tried and executed as witches back in the day were what we now call herbalists.  Not Satanists.  And yet, some of the Pendle Witches confessed their guilt to murder by satanic means.    Can we believe their confessions, not knowing how they were extracted?  Can we believe the evidence given to the court by the only witness – a 10-year old girl, who for who knows what reason, was happy to testify against and send her whole family to the gallows. Twelve women were put on trial at the Lancashire Assizes in 1612: one died in prison, 10 were executed, only one was found innocent.

Her name was Alice Grey.  As it’s not clear from the records how her innocence was established, Stacey Halls imagines how it might have happened.  Given that Alice Grey was poor and was not allowed to speak in her own defence at the trial, she would have had to have support from a more influential member of society. In Halls’s novel, that would be Fleetwood Shuttleworth, the 17-year old lady of the manor, Gawthorpe Hall in Padiham. 17-years old, pregnant for the fourth time, having suffered 3 miscarriages.  Absolutely desperate to carry this baby to term, but at the beginning of the novel, in a pitiful state, physically and mentally.  A chance encounter with Alice, a wise woman and mid-wife, leads her to employ Alice to help with the pregnancy.

That relationship becomes something other than employer/employee.  It becomes a friendship – something that neither Alice nor Fleetwood have ever known before.  and that’s important.  We know that Alice’s lfe would have been harsh but Fleetwood’s would have been a life of privilege.  Wouldn’t it?  Well, I have to say that I was shocked by some of the detail here.  Bad enough that the girl was only 17 and into her fourth pregnancy. But what happened prior to that stunned me.  I asked Halls about it at her recent event in Edinburgh.  “It’s all true”, she said.  I’m still shaking my head.

“When I began writing the novel, I was convinced that Fleetwood had the best deal,” said Halls.  “When I completed it, I was no longer sure.”

Neither is she sure of the women’s guilt and that doubt and ambiguity is cleverly woven into her text. Some of the accused claimed to have familiars and familiar-like animals popup throughout.  In particular, that fox.  it’s almost as if it’s stalking Fleetwood at times.  Are these familiars or friends?  Fleetwood too has an animal associate in the form of her huge mastiff.

If you’ve ever been to Pendle, you cannot ignore the atmosphere (particularly on a misty day).  In the only plot element I found a little implausible, Fleetwood sets out, in defiance of her husband’s orders, to prove Alice’s innocence.  For a girl with no freedom, she suddenly has an awful lot of leash. But this gives Hall the opportunity to take Fleetwood (and the reader) through the landscape and convey the eeriness of the place. As a local, she knows it well.

The real creepiness in the novel is reserved for the form of Jennet Devize, the 10-year old witness mentioned above.  Housed with the magistrate, Roger Nowell, following the arrest of her family, she creeps around observing.  She is a malign influence, up to no good, even if you can’t pin anything specific down on her.   Even so, Halls wasn’t prepared to condemn her.  “We have no idea what caused her to wish such harm on her own family”, she said.

I haven’t mentioned the men yet, have I?  Well, given that the influential men of Fleetwood’s milieu were all driven by political ambition (wanting to get into the witch-hating King’s good books), and the lowlifes of Alice’s acquaintance by the need for their next drink, you wouldn’t think they’d have anything in common.  But they were threatened by the wise women whose remedies did help, in contrast to the standard bloodletting treatment of the day.  The women were taking control and gaining influence.  This had to be stopped.  Given those motivations, there are hardly likely to be any sympathetic men in these pages but I’ll make one exception.  Thomas Potts, the clerk who wrote recorded the Lancashire Witch Trials, seems a decent chap. As for Fleetwood’s husband, yeesh!

But her mother.  Yeesher!

The Familiars is as rich in content as its cover is in beauty.  Historical accuracy balanced with imagination.  Exposition never weighing the book down.  Tremendous characterisation and absorbing storytelling combined with appreciative nods to Du Maurier’s Rebecca.  I tell you, you don’t have to be a Lancashire Lass to enjoy this one.

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