Bookish Discussions

The Familiars aka My Dream Book:


I just knew I would love this.

It’s about witches, set in Lancashire, involving a fox, with greenery on the cover. It’s me to a T.

I just didn’t expect to love it *this* much.

Young Fleetwood Shuttleworth, a noblewoman, is with child again. None of her previous pregnancies have borne fruit and her husband, Richard, is anxious for an heir. Fleetwood discovers a hidden doctor’s letter that carries a dire prediction: she will not survive another birth. By chance, she meets a midwife named Alice Grey, who promises to help deliver her baby. But Alice soon stands accused of witchcraft. Is there more to Alice than meets the eye?

We all know witches are My Shit. I love reading about them. I like to see how witches are characterised throughout history, which literature luckily documents. From a 21st-century perspective, with movements like #MeToo in mind, writers take on the image of the witch in a very different way than their ancestors. Stacey Halls questions how we view the witch.

Just because a woman is skilled, bold and authoritative, does that mean she is a witch?

Does an unorthodox woman – one who does not adhere to patriarchal standards and who actively defies their husband – count as a witch? Should she be punished?

Halls, from both a historical and modern perspective, tackles the ever-present debate that surrounds the image of the witch. Are they supernatural or elemental? Are they just working-class women, or can they also be middle-class? Is witchcraft just a woman’s craft? Does deformity equal witchery?

Alice Grey, for the most part, is a normal woman. The only thing that sets her apart from Fleetwood is her social background and her craft. As a working-class woman, from Lancashire in the 1600s, Alice is limited to how she makes a living. Why, then, does that make her suspicious in the eyes of King James? Halls really makes you think about how the witch has transformed, both literary and historically.

On a very general note, I think Hall chose such an appropriate name for this book, in my case anyway. The Pendle Witches are familiar to me. I am from Lancashire, I have visited Gawthorpe Hall, have heard the history of Pendle Witches, and have even studied them for my Masters dissertation. This book felt like home to me. I knew every reference to a city or town, I knew who Roger Nowell was or Thomas Potts, I knew the story of Alice Grey.

But Halls told it in her own way.

She combined history with fiction. We don’t know why Alice was the only accused witch to be freed, whilst the other thirteen hung. Halls found her opportunity to add to history, and try and make sense of something that can never be known. It was so believable, especially considering Fleetwood was a real person, and her husband did attend the trials. It’s not far-fetched.

It was just *SO GOOD*. Halls reflected on how important female relationships are; how important honesty and integrity is in the face of such extremities; and how the unfair prejudices against the working-class and women can lead to such devastating events. The Pendle Witches is a story of mass hysteria, stemming from King James’ suspicion of being murdered, and his hatred of the Catholics, but it is the women (mainly, considering two men were also hung for witchcraft) who were scorned and punished.

Halls not only provides an entertaining story, that enchants you the whole way through, but she asks questions that have always been there but have always been pushed to the side. Mainly: what is a witch?

Does The Familiars sound like your kind of thing? It’s definitely become a new favourite of mine – I’m eager to re-read it already. Have you any favourite witchy books? Let’s discuss it!

Thanks for reading, Lauren X



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