“…double, double, toil and trouble…”
Stories about witches today are relegated to Disney movies or science fiction horror, and Arthur Miller famously fictionalized the New England trials of Puritan cleansing in The Crucible. Easy to forget the historical truth of ignorance and jealousy that led to the persecution of innocent women.
In Daughters of the Witching Hill, Mary Sharratt gives a history lesson based in England’s Elizabethan era that promises to rival any modern tale of witchery. The story is well-documented with historical reference, and reveals the sordid and grim lives of those who lived off the land, at the mercy of unscrupulous lords.
Bess Southerns, known as Demdike – a word that later became synonymous with witch – leads the story, as an illegitimate daughter of a lord, with a gift for healing with herbs. The incantations that she uses to secure the herbs’ powers are actually prayers in Latin, learned during the reign of Mary and forbidden by the new Queen Elizabeth, who brought back the hatred of the papists. As Bess grows into old age, her granddaughter Alizon resists learning her craft, yet finds herself in a time when physical disabilities and problems with health are blamed on the power to curse and bless. King James has written a book on “Daemonologie,” a witch-hunter’s manual, and men seeking power and fortune welcome the opportunity to identify covens of witches to secure their own place and fortune with the king.
The story is based on the true history of Pendle Forest in England in the 1600’s; the misfortunes of the characters are real. Sharratt takes you into the lives of the families, while teaching about the simple life of peasants, and the privileged life of the few. Her language is framed in an understandable cadence, and will sweep you painlessly into that time and place.
The ending is inevitable, but the clear explanations of human frailty, family betrayal, and arrogant power are still lessons to be remembered. Better than any movie or fictionalized tale, Sharratt’s creates a novel of strong women with courage, who are only exonerated later in history as their stories prevail.