I was intrigued by the premise and setting of this historical fiction novel, set in 1612 England at the time of the Pendle Witch Trials, in which ten people (eight women and two men) were executed for witchcraft. The story follows a young noblewoman, Fleetwood Shuttleworth, who is pregnant for the fourth time, after three previous devastating losses. She now fears for both her own and the child's life and enlists the help of a young midwife named Alice Grey, who has associations with some families who have been accused of witchcraft. Soon Alice herself is caught up in the accusations, and Fleetwood must save Alice to save herself.
I was not familiar with the Pendle Witch Trials before reading this book, and a dive down a Wikipedia wormhole assures me that the major events and people in this book were all real--including Fleetwood Shuttleworth and Alice Grey. Grey's story is not well-documented, and this is where Hall imagined her friendship with Fleetwood and the events surrounding her arrest and trial.
I have to admit that this deft imagining of events around Alice Grey inserted into the larger factual narrative improves my view of this book--it was quite skillfully done. I also appreciated the various ways that women's powerlessness were portrayed--and how these accusations played into keeping them subservient. However, The Familiars was a slow read for me, and the overall story of the witchcraft accusations was hard to follow when most of the main accused and accusers were not characters in the book--they were just names, and there were a lot of them. A few odd turns of phrase were distracting (some felt too modern, others felt dropped in because they were fitting to the period), giving the writing an uneven feel. An interesting read for the history, but I wished for a closer look at more of the women affected.
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To save her unborn child, she will trust a stranger.
To protect her secret, she must risk her life.
1612 Pendle Hill, England
Young Fleetwood Shuttleworth is with child again. As the mistress of Gawthorpe Hall, she is anxious to provide her husband with an heir. But none of her previous pregnancies have come to term. Then she discovers a hidden letter from her physician that warns her husband that she will not survive another pregnancy.
Distraught over the frightening revelation, Fleetwood wanders the woods of Pendle Hill, where she comes across a young local woman named Alice Gray who is gathering herbs. A midwife, Alice promises Fleetwood she can help her deliver a healthy baby. But soon Alice is drawn into the frenzied accusations of witchcraft sweeping the countryside. Even the woodland creatures, the “familiars,” are suspected of practicing the dark arts. Can Fleetwood trust that Alice is really who she says she is?
As the two women’s lives become intertwined, Fleetwood must risk everything to prove Alice’s innocence in order to save her own unborn child. The hunt for witches reaches fever pitch. Time is running out. The trials are about to begin. Both their lives are at stake. Only they know the truth. Only they can save each other.
Set against the Pendle Witch Trials of 1612, this rich and compelling novel draws its characters from historical figures as it explores the lives and rights of seventeenth-century women, ultimately raising the question: Is witch-hunting really just women-hunting?