About the Book:
Fleetwood Shuttleworth is 17 years old, married, and pregnant for the fourth time. But as the mistress at Gawthorpe Hall, she still has no living child, and her husband Richard is anxious for an heir. When Fleetwood finds a letter she isn’t supposed to read from the doctor who delivered her third stillbirth, she is dealt the crushing blow that she will not survive another pregnancy.
Then she crosses paths by chance with Alice Gray, a young midwife. Alice promises to help her give birth to a healthy baby, and to prove the physician wrong.
As Alice is drawn into the witchcraft accusations that are sweeping the North-West, Fleetwood risks everything by trying to help her. But is there more to Alice than meets the eye?
Soon the two women’s lives will become inextricably bound together as the legendary trial at Lancaster approaches, and Fleetwood’s stomach continues to grow. Time is running out, and both their lives are at stake.
Only they know the truth. Only they can save each other.
‘“Fleetwood have you knowledge of familiar spirits?” I shook my head. “Then I will direct you to the book of Leviticus. In short, it’s the Devil in disguise. An instrument, if you will, to enlarge his kingdom…they can appear as anything: an animal, a child. It appears to her when she needs it to do her bidding. A familiar is the surest sign of a witch.”’
The legend of the Pendle witches is the most notorious witch trial of the 17th century. Just over three centuries saw witch trials held in England but fewer than 500 people were executed for this crime. This one series of trials in the summer of 1612 therefore accounts for 2% of all witches executed. – Historic UK
I have to say, I am fascinated by this period of English history. Generally, the 17th and 18th centuries are my favourite historical fiction eras, but the whole area of witches is of particular interest to me. The Familiars takes place over the year 1612, when King James I was on the throne.
‘He has driven them into the shadows. The king has muddled wise women with witchcraft.’
The term witch hunt has never been more accurately applied than in this case. Twelve people were arrested, the majority of these belonging to two disputing families who were supposedly using witchcraft against each other. The exception to this is Alice Gray, the young midwife who Fleetwood Shuttleworth employs in her hopes of finally birthing a live child and surviving to be its mother. Alice is caught up in the witch hunt as a ‘fall guy’, for want of a better expression. Fleetwood becomes very invested in saving Alice’s life, she believes in her innocence fully, but also resents the investigation process of the witch trials, which essentially rest on the finger pointing and testimony of a nine year old girl. The law differed in the instance of witch trials in that a child could testify in a case. Jennet Device was the youngest member of the accused Device family and sent several of her immediate family members to the noose. It’s rather incredible and extremely chilling to contemplate.
‘Jennet Device did not look away, and her gaze was full of judgement beyond her years. I knew it was ridiculous to be frightened by a child, but there was something very strange about her.
Because of this child, my friend was rotting in a place that light never reached, and was facing her death at the rope. Because of this child, so many others were in there with her. I could barely look at her.’
The Familiars is told in the voice of Fleetwood Shuttlewood, the mistress of Gawthorpe Hall, seventeen years old and pregnant for the fourth time. Pregnancy has not been kind to her in the past and this current one is no exception. Fleetwood is frightened, by past events that have seen her suffer two miscarriages and one still birth, and also by some correspondence she accidentally happens across written by a doctor which indicates she will die if she attempts to birth another child. Fleetwood develops an instant rapport with Alice and hires her as her midwife on the first day of meeting her. Alice assures Fleetwood that she can help her keep her baby alive and guide her successfully through its birth. Very quickly, Fleetwood begins to regard Alice as a friend. When Alice is suspected of witchcraft and a warrant is released for her arrest, Fleetwood goes to great lengths to protect her friend, and before long, this need to protect Alice becomes thickly connected with Fleetwood’s impressions of her own fate. She begins to believe that if Alice dies, then she and her child will too.
‘Even in life I had been the little ghost, and now I was consigned to death. I held my stomach, and imagined disappearing. It would come soon, no doubt, but it would not be gentle, like the light leaving the sky. It would be painful, and terrifying, and lonely, with no cool hand on my head, no amber eyes willing me calm. There would be a trial, and Alice would die, then I would die, both of us killed in an outbreak of misfortune.’
After Alice is arrested, Fleetwood risks both her reputation and her life, as well as that of her unborn child, to investigate Alice’s story, to piece together the truth of the accusations levelled against her. She is so sure that if she can save Alice, she will in turn save herself and her child. I really enjoyed her journey into Alice’s world, the contrasts between her own giving Fleetwood a whole new appreciation, not just for Alice, but for what the other Pendle witches had endured as their everyday life. From this, she was able to gain a measure of understanding on why Jennet had so readily pointed the finger at her family, as in doing so, she was allowed to live in luxury in the magistrate’s house. Who would give that up for what she came from? There was very little love lost between the members of these witch families and loyalty was thin on the ground.
‘“People are hanged for a lot less. Do you really think they know the Devil?”
I thought of Malkin Tower poking up from the moor-side like a finger from a grave. How the wind had howled there; how it would drive you mad. I thought of Alice’s home, open to the sky; the damp streaming down the walls; the child she knew as a daughter buried in the thick, wet soil. What was there for them in this life? In the shadows cast by their fire at night, perhaps they did see things they wanted to.
“If the Devil is poverty, and hunger, and grief, then yes, I think they know the Devil.”’
While The Familiars is a work of fiction, it is very much anchored in history. The characters were real people, the events as depicted within the novel unfolded in very much the same way in history. The author has created a fictional relationship between Fleetwood and Alice for the purposes of this story, but other than that, the story is closely aligned to the historical events. I loved experiencing this story from Fleetwood’s point of view, I feel this worked much better than if it had been from Alice’s perspective. The pairing of these two women, from such different walks of life, provided some fresh insight for both of them on the society that they lived in. Each had thought that the other had so much more freedom than what was actually the case. Alice was able to realise that Fleetwood’s privilege came with a heavy price and Fleetwood realised that women, no matter what their class, experienced universal restrictions when it came to having control over their own lives and a voice that would be heard in all forums.
‘“How many children do you want to have?”
I wrapped my arms around myself.
“Two,” I replied. “So that they will never be on their own like I was.”
“A boy and a girl?” she asked.
“Two boys. I wouldn’t wish a girl’s life on anyone.”’
This novel had me in its thrall from the first page until the last. It is steeped in atmosphere, with vivid gothic overtones, and the writing is just sublime. Fleetwood was such a strong and worthy character, she had her flaws, and at times she drove me crazy with the risks she took, but her heart was in the right place and she acted from a deep sense of morality that was distinctly lacking in other characters. For someone so young, she really was an old soul. As much as this novel was about the witch trials, it was also about Fleetwood, transitioning from a child bride into a woman of worth. I highly recommend this novel, it’s quite outstanding.
‘What little courage I had – the kernel of hope that had embedded inside me and had got me this far – vanished, like some minuscule object being pulled into a great, powerful river. I knew it the moment it went, and I knew too that it was gone for good.’
Thanks is extended to Allen and Unwin for providing me with a copy of The Familiars for review.
About the Author:
Stacey Halls grew up in Rossendale, Lancashire, as the daughter of market traders. She has always been fascinated by the Pendle witches. She studied journalism at the University of Central Lancashire and moved to London aged 21. She was media editor at the Bookseller and books editor at Stylist.co.uk, and has also written for Psychologies, the Independent and Fabulous magazine, where she now works as Deputy Chief Sub Editor. The Familiars is her first novel.
Published by Allen and Unwin (Bonnier – Zaffre)
Released 4th February 2019
PS: I am very much in love with this cover. My photo doesn’t reflect the foil embossing, but I really wanted to show you how the design incorporates the front and back covers. It’s just divine, with so many details pertaining to the story featured. Excellent cover design, ten out of ten to that design team!