Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Review: Lancashire Witches

I was very grateful to receive a copy of Mary Sharratt's "Daughters of the Witching Hill" recently.  I had only heard mention of one the the characters in Mary's book - only briefly - and was not aware of the full story.  So this was a delightful read.

The book opens with one Bess Southerns - Old Demdike - telling her story of how she became a "cunning woman" and goes on to detail her life in the Pendle Forest.  She tells of her first meeting with her "familiar" and how local folk consulted her for cures and blessings.  Little by little her family and close friends are drawn into her circle - some share in her gifts - others fear them.

The second part of the story is told by Alizon Device, Bess' granddaughter.  Here there is more about Alizon, her brother James - a "simple" lad with an agenda of his own - and her half-sister Jennet.  Without giving too much away, the family eventually implodes and when the local magistrate finally catches up with then, none of their cunning can save them from their ultimate fate.

"Daughters of the Witching Hill" is set in the latter years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and the early years of the reign of King James I (or VI of Scotland).  The dominant religion of the time is that of the Reformers or Protestants.  The Catholics are considered heretics and any attempt the maintain the "old religion" is dealt with quite harshly.  It is into the cross-current of religious dogma that Bess and her family are caught.  Many still remember and practice the "old religion" and disguise it in local folk remedies.  Times are harsh for the folk of Pendle Forest and any misfortune is seized upon as the work of those of "ill-repute".

But ultimately, like it's Salem counterpart, the small community is torn apart by the political aspirations of one, the greed of others, by revenge of another, and through spite and misunderstanding.

Although Mary herself admits to some slight modification in the names of her characters (to save unnecessary confusion), the story is quite true.

In addition to Mary's wonderful book, I would also recommend an older and slightly different version of events in "The Lancashire Witches" by William Harrision Ainsworth, Esq (Pub: 1849).