Mary Sharratt’s novel, DAUGHTERS OF THE WITCHING HILL, is about an infamous witch trial held in 1612, in Lancaster England, in which seven women and two men were hanged for witchcraft.
Early seventeenth-century England was still reeling from the religious upheavals of the previous century in which Catholic and Protestant martyrs had been burned at stake. Now, the Puritans were in the ascendancy, and they were not kind to people who either were closet catholics, or engaged in practices that could be viewed as pagan. This was especially true of the King, James I, who believed that witches were ubiquitous and needed to be routed out.
Thus this tragedy, which centers on three women from the same family who, to greater or lesser degrees, could have been regarded as witches.
The grandmother, known as “Mother Demdike” was a so-called “cunning woman” who mostly provided medical care to her neighbors. Occasionally, she was prevailed upon to cast spells and even curses. Though nominally Protestant, she was part of an ancient tradition that reached back into the past well beyond the Catholic Christianity of the century before.
Her daughter Liza, also had powers, but became disinclined to use them.
The grand-daughter, seventeen-year-old Alizon, was fearful of using her powers.
A dear friend of this family was a well-born closet Catholic, who preferred to go to her death claiming that she was a witch, rather than have her son punished for her secret adherence to the Old Faith.
None of these nuances mattered to the authorities, however. Especially an ambitious local sheriff, who wanted to make his name and fortune by putting to death witches. Just as the King had commanded.
What makes this novel so wonderful is the way in which Ms. Sharratt manages to get into the head of her seventeenth-century characters, making us feel as superstitious, fearful and hungry as they. Five stars.