I grew up almost in the shadow of Pendle Hill, so stories of the seventeenth-century witch-hunt are familiar and haunting. I remember pinching my mother's copy of Robert Neill's "Mist over Pendle" to read by torchlight under the bedclothes, and later finding Harrison Ainsworth's rather Gothic "Lancashire Witches" interesting but ultimately unsatisfactory.
There have been other novels and re-tellings of this extraordinary story and I was a little nervous on opening this latest one - would it be Burning Times propaganda or a reductionist view of the events? In fact, I enjoyed the book immensely and found it difficult to put down. Mary Sharratt shows us familiar events in a new light, telling the story in the voice of Bess Southerns (aka Demdike), the oldest and perhaps most interesting of all the characters. She brings Bess to vibrant, loving, occasionally challenging life, with an authentic voice.
I will confess that I once thought of writing this story myself, but was very young at the time and simply had no real understanding of that vanished world of the 17th century - so different from and yet so tantalisingly familiar to us. The issues of that time and place come vividly to life in the novel, well-researched and fascinating. Lancashire was seen as a hotbed of Catholicism and adherents of this "old religion" included many influential families. To many Protestants, Catholicism was dangerously superstitious and almost synonymous with paganism or witchcraft.
Mary Sharratt also deals with some of the more difficult ideas of the time - witch marks, familiar spirits and the like - with grace and never asks me to suspend disbelief further than I'm able to. She also highlights the shocking poverty and extreme hunger to which so many were now being driven; the lengths to which some people had to go just to secure a meal - particularly since many of the Protestants of the day, believing themselves already to be saved and bound for heaven, saw no point in almsgiving. That was for the bad old days when credulous Catholics attempted to redeem themselves from Purgatory or worse by charitable acts. For all the cruelty that Catholicism has committed through the ages, it was often a kinder religion for the poor.
This makes it sound as though the poor were sad, starving victims of the times, but the author doesn't fall into that trap, instead portraying our heroines as strong, likeable women who were prepared to do whatever was necessary to ensure their own survival and that of their families. You find yourself rooting for them all the way.
A great read on many levels - good historical fiction, excellent strong female characters and an ending that - despite the fact that I knew roughly what happened - had me close to tears. What more could I ask?
I will be looking out for more of Mary Sharratt's books.