Title: The Familiars
Author: Stacey Halls
Published:February 19th 2019 by MIRA
Genre: Historical Fiction, Paranormal Witches
Goodreads Rating: 3.98
“Young Fleetwood Shuttleworth, a noblewoman, is with child again. None of her previous pregnancies have borne fruit, and her husband, Richard, is anxious for an heir. Then Fleetwood discovers a hidden doctor’s letter that carries a dire prediction: she will not survive another birth. By chance she meets a midwife named Alice Grey, who promises to help her deliver a healthy baby. But Alice soon stands accused of witchcraft.
Is there more to Alice than meets the eye? Fleetwood must risk everything to prove her innocence. As the two women’s lives become intertwined, the Witch Trials of 1612 loom. Time is running out; both their lives are at stake. Only they know the truth. Only they can save each other.”
Witch trials during the 1600’s have always fascinated me. Being from the US I’m much more familiar with the Salem witch trials versus the Lancashire witch trials, which this book covers and took place in 1612. However, regardless of where these trials took place, I think the hysteria and prejucide displayed throughout this book accurately portrays the difficulties so many women faced in centuries past.
This book is a work of fiction but all of the content including most of the people included in the book are based on actual persons involved in the trials. Thomas Potts, who recorded the proceedings as he was the clerk to the court, showcased the full proceedings in his account The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster. Because this account, the Lancashire witch trials are some of the most famous and best recorded witch trials. Of the 12 people accused of being witches (not all women), one died while waiting for trial, eleven were hang after being convicted of witchcraft, and one was acquitted; though no one is quite sure how or why.
Stacey Hall’s story follows the one person who was found not-guilty of being a witch, Alice Gray. While the story is ultimately about her trial, it is told through the perspective of Fleetwood Shuttleworth. Both women are drastically different and while one is gentry and one is of peasant heritage both women face untold amounts oppression, simply for being born a women.
“I wouldn’t wish a girl’s life on anyone.’’ -Fleetwood Shuttleworth
For those who don’t know what a familiar is, a familiar is believed to be supernatural entities that would assist witches in their magic. According to the records of the time, they would appear in numerous guises, often as an animal, but also at times as a human or humanoid figure, and were described as “clearly defined, three-dimensional… forms, vivid with colour and animated with movement and sound.” Philip Pullman’s trilogy His Dark Materials, is a prime example of other story tellers through the years that have pulled on legends of familiars. Pullman’s story is more directed at children is a bit more whimsical in natures, Hall’s story is much darker.
Originally when I picked up this book, I thought ‘we’ll have some witches, a little bit of magic, and a good story hopefully’, but I would not call this story whimsical or cute in any manner of speaking. The main themes displayed through Hall’s storytelling are dark to say the least. It sometimes amazes me how the role of women in society really didn’t change much for 400-500 years, I mean women couldn’t even get a credit card until the 1980’s without having a father, husband, or male to sign for them, aka say they could have one. Hall does a great job of illustrating the impacts, struggles, and role that women had in society during the early 1600’s and quite honestly most were at the mercy of men to provide for them. There is a line in the book where Fleetwood’s husband Richard basically yells at her and states something to the effect of, ‘I have indulged you too much and have let you basically do as you will without reprimanding you for not following my orders’. That’s obviously not a verbatim quote, I as couldn’t locate the page I wanted when I was writing this, but he treats her both as a child and object. The audacity of that comment stuck with me and honestly makes me thankful to be alive in the time period I am alive in. To think that most men 500 years ago thought nothing more of women than as cattle, is appalling and Hall really a great job of imparting that notion into the story line.
The theme of motherhood, infertility and the impact it can have on a relationship is also central to the story. It goes back to the cattle comment, of where a women’s worth solely relied upon her ability to produce heirs. The view or thought that any women could be intelligent, have opinions, or remotely do anything else besides having babies was unthinkable to the men at the time. I’m no historian but personally I feel that most ‘witches’ that were hung or convicted were simply intelligent women, potentially unbalancing the scales or challenging the status quo, and men said they had to go.
The last bit of both the story line and what historians believe to be the cause of some of these witch trials was the conflict between neighbors. It’s you’re typical Hatfields vs. McCoy scenario. Of the 12 accused Pendle witches, who were later tried during the Lancashire witch trials, two families made up half of the accused. Many of the allegations resulted from accusations that members of two of the family made against each other. Maybe something happened between them? Maybe they were both competing in the same line of work, potentially healing? Maybe they just hated each other? We don’t know, but what we do know is that the judges at the time were probably looking to gain favor with the king and felt they could do that by indulging in his obsession with convicting witches in the north. It’s also estimated that only about 500 deaths resulted from witches trials in Europe between the 15th -17th century, and the Lancashire witch trials accounted for 2% of that number.
The story was extremely different than what I was expecting but I enjoyed it immensely. It took me about 50 pages to really get into the story but once there I was hooked. Not only is this a great historical novel that covers a huge event in European history but it also covers topics such as bigotry, prejudices against women, and the perverse courts of the seventeenth century. I highly recommend this book, get it HERE!