Kit’s Crit: Daughters of the Witching Hill (Mary Sharratt)

Sarratt

It is impossible to know what really happened before and during the Pendle Witch Trials of 1612 when the only extant document is the blatantly biased trial record, written by a clerk called Thomas Potts to gain favor with King James 1st.  Mary Sharratt, however, makes an excellent attempt at fleshing out a plausible tale around the two central characters — a local cunning woman known as Mother Demdike (Bess Southerns), and her pretty teenage granddaughter (Alizon Device).  Sharratt’s cunning folk are Catholic herbalists and fortune-tellers, doing whatever they can to survive in remote, harsh Lancashire.

Daughters of the Witching Hill (Mariner Books, 2011) is more a historical fiction than a thriller.  It offers a sympathetic portrayal of marginalized females battling against the patriarchy.  Sharratt has a good grasp of the local superstitions, traditions, religious conflict, and public ignorance of the period, and the Demdike clan emerge as a group of strong women, bonded by circumstance and sustained with love.  Most interesting is Sharratt’s invented seventeenth-century Lancashire dialect: “I bide with my daughter, Liza of the squint-eye, and with my granddaughter, Alizon . . . .”

 As is necessary in any saga as complex as the Lancashire Witches, Sharratt takes some “fictional liberties” by combining several real people into one composite character, and changing some of the repetitive historical names for the sake of clarity.  She also suggests that Demdike taught another rival cunning woman her craft (Mother Chattox); that Mistress Alice Nutter was a secret practicing Catholic; and that Justice Roger Nowell derived some personal (perhaps sexual) satisfaction from his dealing with the so-called witches.  These are all credible assumptions.

Less likely, is her portrayal of Demdike’s daughter Elizabeth Device (known locally as “Squinting Lizzie”).  In Daughters of the Witching Hill Lizzie has no interest in her mother’s magic.  She appears as a chaste lonely widow who follows the new religion because she is infatuated with a Church Warden called Richard Baldwin.  He impregnates her with a third child, Jennet Device.  Yet while this provides a romantic interlude in the harrowing proceedings, I strongly suspect the Demdike home was called Malkin Tower because malkin meant “sluttish woman” (OED) and  Squinting Lizzie may well have been one of the local prostitutes!

Sharratt, however, has every right to fill in the gaps of this ambiguous story with her own interpretation, and her sympathetic version of events certainly makes an intriguing read.  A highly-recommended novel.

Kit’s Crit: Illuminations (Mary Sharratt)

Sharratt

Mary Sharratt’s Illuminations (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012) tells the story of Hildegard von Bingen, the famous German Benedictine Abbess who lived from 1098-1179.  Hildegard’s genuine mystical prophecies earned her the name, the Sibyl of the Rhine. 

Given to the church at the tender age of 8, Hildegard was entombed in a tiny room with a radical anchorite called Jutta von Sponheim, and here she grew into a great thinker who had a strong impact on the early Catholic Church.  She also became a gifted composer and artist, and was able to heal the local population with herbal medicines and gemstones.  Her God was a feminine version of love.

Hildegard began experiencing visions at the age of 3, and eventually began recording them in a brilliantly illuminated manuscript.  But were these images sent from God or from Satan?  Fortunately she was able to convince those around her that her mysticism was a holy gift.  And as she lay dying her sister nuns claimed to see two streams of light in the sky crossing over her room – a sign they interpreted as a heavenly blessing.

Illuminations is an absorbing story about a fascinating woman who bravely took on the medieval patriarchy to create a safe community for religious women.  The book is well-written, filling the gaps in history with plausible suggestions that help explain why certain characters acted as they did.  Although Sharratt is aware that if Hildegard had lived at a later time in Puritan England she might well have been accused of witchcraft (http://marysharratt.blogspot.com/2012/07/of-witches-and-saints-mother-demdike.html), Illuminations maintains a firm focus on the mystic’s religious calling, and does not undermine her venerable status within the church.  A very good read!