Monday, July 26, 2010

Daughters of the Witching Hill

Only then did I dare look around the chamber to see the wonders hidden there. A candle in a lamp of red glass hung from the shadowy beams. There was a great table covered in embroidered cloth and above it a cross with a tortured man's body nailed to it....Then Gran turned me round to face the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen: a statue of a lady with flowing hair and tender eyes, her arms outstretched as if to embrace me.
 "That's Our Lady," Gran whispered. "The Queen of Heaven."
Stood upon a crescent moon, the lady was, her lovely head crowned in a circle of stars. Rays of sun adorned her blue-painted gown.
~from Daughters of the Witching Hill by Mary Sharatt
Above are the impressions of young Alizon Device as she is about to witness her first and only Mass. Alizon, who will eventually be dragged to her trial like one of the virgin martyrs of old, and is awed by the beauty of the altar and the statue of the Virgin Mary that once adorned the parish church.  For the Mass, the priesthood, statues, saints, relics and pilgrimages have all been proscribed in the England of Mary Sharatt's novel Daughters of the Witching Hill.

Sharatt's masterpiece is not so much about witchcraft (there is very little genuine witchcraft in the story) but about what happens to people when their religion is taken away from them. As Protestantism is forced upon the English people during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, anything that smacks of  "popish superstition" is forbidden. The people of Pendle Forest, however, become more superstitious, not less, as the new religion fills them with constant fear of the devil and damnation without the consolations that the Old Faith afforded.

While persons of means were often able to secretly live a Catholic life in spite of the restrictions, hiding priests in their attics and paying the recusant fines, the poor had a hard time of it. Gone are pageantry of saints' days and feast days, the splendor of the liturgy and the beauty of the churches, all of which brightened the toil and drudgery of daily life. While the needy were once seen as particularly loved by God and deserving of alms, under the new religion the poor are viewed as being accursed and lazy. Almsgiving no longer has the same merit, and so the beggars increase.

The story centers on the family of old Bess Southerns, who live in a ruined tower in the woods. The entire clan is what Longfellow Deeds would refer to as "pixillated" in the fullest sense of the world. The forest which surrounds the tower is like something from a medieval tale,  replete with fairies and strange animals that manifest themselves from time to time. Bess has a gift of healing; she is a "blesser" who heals sick people and animals through both her herbal remedies and her prayers. Her prayers are mostly the old Latin prayers she remembers from her Catholic girlhood. The local monastery had long been disbanded by Henry VIII. So as the villagers once went to the monks for blessings and aid, they now go to Bess, who supplies their needs as best as she can, filling their hunger for the supernatural that is being starved by the reformed liturgy. In return, the villagers give her food and work, staving off starvation which constantly haunts her family.

Bess knows that she is playing with fire, since she risks being labeled both a papist and a witch, popery being considered worse than witchcraft to the Protestant authorities. Nevertheless, she cannot say no to people who come to her in various states of crisis, begging for her blessing. Based upon a true characters and events, the novel is magnificently crafted to convey the sense of wonder, enchantment, and fear that fill Pendle Forest and its environs. One is not always certain that what the characters see and experience is due to their "gifts" or merely coincidental, and they are not always certain themselves. What is most satisfying is to see and hear the life of simple country folk, whose words and actions would have been long forgotten had it not been for the records of a famous witchcraft trial. Those records and other archives formed part of Mary Sharatt's impeccable research, research which has no agenda but seeking the truth of those sad lost lives. At the heart of the story is the longing for the mystery of the infinite, the loss of which the human psyche cannot survive without sustaining severe damage.

(*Note: Daughters of the Witching Hill was sent to me by the publisher in exchange for my honest opinion.) Share


Enbrethiliel said...


This sounds like an amazing book!

The loss of the Catholic faith and everything that went with it was more devastating than secular-minded people care to contemplate. There is a great hunger for the supernatural that the Church can fill--as no watered-down form of Christianity can--even if She cannot always find enough literal bread to feed the physically starving and sick. To have lost all of that in a single generation would indeed have been psychologically damaging.

I will keep an eye out for this book, Elena. Thank you for the review!

Julianne Douglas said...

Beautiful review of a beautiful book! I read it months ago and images and scenes still haunt me. A brilliant portrait of the passing of an age.

elena maria vidal said...

Yes, E., the story had so many parallels with our own time.

Julianne, I discovered the book on your blog! Thanks for the recommendation! I really trust your judgment!

Lisa Graas said...

I am definitely buying this book. It's perfect for my daughter who loves fantasy literature, but who is also very faithful. She will love it!

elena maria vidal said...

It's great read, a masterpiece of historical fiction, based upon a true and tragic story. Please do read it yourself, first, Lisa, just to make certain it's appropriate for her. What is good for some people is poison for others.