Zaffre | 2019 (7 February) | 432p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is 1612 and Fleetwood Shuttleworth is mistress of Gawthorpe Hall in the northwest of England, about forty miles from Lancaster. It’s a long way from London and the whole area is viewed with suspicion by the paranoid, unhappy King James I, ever since the failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Some of the rebels fled north and James is not inclined to forgive the region. But Fleetwood has other problems to keep her occupied. She is just 17 years old and her marriage to Richard is already her second. She is heavily pregnant, having given birth to three stillborn babies. This is what life is like for eligible girl children. And Fleetwood is very afraid. She has discovered a doctor’s letter to her husband which states that if his wife should fall pregnant again, neither she nor the child would survive it.
But one day Fleetwood by chance comes across a young woman and midwife, Alice Grey. Fleetwood is drawn to her and hires her. Alice is knowledgeable about natural remedies and all remark on how much better Fleetwood is doing and her belly swells with a healthy child. And then men seeking favour with their King find it by discovering a local coven of suspected witches. Alice is among the accused. Fleetwood will stop at nothing, will risk everything, to save her friend whom she believes to be her only chance of salvation. But who will listen to a young, distraught and pregnant girl whose role in life is to support her husband and give him the heir he craves?
The Familiars is one of the most enthralling and enchanting historical novels I’ve read for some time. Its beautiful cover hints at wonders within and it is right. I fell for Fleetwood the moment I met her. She’s a remarkable figure, suiting her unusual name. She could hardly be more vulnerable or isolated, despite her love for her husband and their beautiful ‘modern’ home, and yet she is so resilient. But then she has so little to lose. She believes she’s a dead woman walking.
The title suggests that here is a story of witches and their familiars and, although they do play their part, the glory of the novel is in its portrayal of the fate of a well-to-do young woman who, while no more than a child, was married off, not once but twice, and lost her babies. Her terror feels so real. Her relationship with her husband is fascinating. There are elements of it that are shocking and yet we’re left in no doubt that none of this would be unusual.
Men are all powerful and this is shown in their persecution of these women. There’s no doubt at all that some of the accusers have their own motives for their cruel actions but the feeling is strong that women, particularly poor and illiterate women, have very little value – certainly less than a hunting dog or hawk. We are right behind Fleetwood as she fights for her friend’s life, just as we wince at the physical hardships she suffers in such an advanced state of pregnancy. The real suffering here, though, is experienced by the so-called Pendle witches. It’s barbaric. Stacey Halls doesn’t dwell on it but it’s very apparent.
The Familiars is such an atmospheric novel, which is rich in place. Fleetwood and Alice are just as at home outside in the woods as they are in Gawthorpe. Fleetwood is constantly on horseback, her enormous dog Puck running at the horse’s heels. The dining room, by contrast, is the male world where men meet to impress over wine and meat. There are beautiful descriptions of indoors and outdoors. It’s captivating. There’s sometimes an ephemeral feel to it. At other times, it feels modern and timeless.
I didn’t want to put The Familiars down once I picked it up and I read it in two glorious sittings, totally caught up in Fleetwood’s world and situation. She’s left an impression on me. I’ll miss her. And just look at that gorgeous cover!