Sunday, January 01, 2012

Book 72: Daughters of the Witching Hill

Daughters of the Witching Hill by Mary Sharratt

This novel wasn't quite what I expected - when the back cover said that the women in this community would eventually be persecuted as witches, I expected the women to be healers who were maliciously attacked.  The women, however, actually believed that they used magic and witchcraft, though they believed they used it for good.  The story is based on true events which took place in 1612 in England, and while the actual belief in familiars and magic threw me off a bit, Sharratt still tells a tale of persecution grounded in historical realities.

There are two main characters, Bess Southerns and her granddaughter, Alizon, and both narrate different parts of the book.  Of the two, I preferred Bess, an old woman caught between two worlds.  She grew up in a Catholic world, and is now a member of a Protestant community.  Along with Catholicism, many of her childhood traditions have been declared evil and superstitious, so that the world around her seems much more drab and unhappy to her than it once was.  She has always had a gift with herbs, but as an older woman struggling to support her family, she also discovers that she has a familiar, so she begins to draw on this familiar to help her heal members of the community.  Bess and her best friend have a falling out due to some misfortunes, and while Bess never believes the worst of her, the rest of her family quickly develops a rivalry with this other woman.

However, in the end it isn't witchcraft or this rivalry that causes the women's downfall.  As usual it is pure greed: one of Bess's friends and customers is a rich landowner and a secret Catholic, which makes her a target for ambitious men.  These men don't care what the cost in life is as long as they can further themselves.  Additionally, Bess is the illegitimate child of a landowner - this hasn't helped her much in life, but it is why she is allowed to live where she does without paying rent.  By accusing her and her family of witchcraft, the land will return back to her half-brother's control.  In the afterword, Sharratt discusses the sources she used for this novel, and the fact that the women in this case really believed they were using magical powers.  She notes that Catholicism left room more belief in magic than Protestantism did, and that many of the incantations the woman described herself as using were actually Catholic prayers.  Certainly, Bess believes she uses her powers only for good, though she sees the ability to turn them into dark forces.  While this wasn't quite what I was expecting, it was educational.  Still, the style takes some getting used to, so I would only recommend this to someone with an interest in the topic.

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