Lancashire, 1612: Fleetwood Shuttleworth is the seventeen-year-old bride of the master of Gawthorpe Hall.
Fleetwood is pregnant for the fourth time, yet she has no living child, and her husband Richard is evermore anxious for an heir. Can Fleetwood hold onto this child and become the wife and mother she yearns to be?
By chance, Fleetwood comes across a young woman called Alice Gray, who has become lost in the woods around Gawthorpe. Alice intrigues her and when she discovers that she is a midwife, Fleetwood is sure she will be the one to help her give birth to a healthy child.
But times in Lancashire are difficult for the local midwives and wise women. Accusations of witchcraft are sweeping the north-west and Alice has come under suspicion of being a witch too.
Fleetwood must risk everything to try to save her friend, the one woman who can help her, from a wrongful death. Time is running out and both their lives are at stake...
The Familiars is based upon the history of the famous large-scale Pendle witch trials of 1612.
Stacey Halls brilliantly weaves fact and fiction together here to make a compelling and magical tale about the suspicion that surrounded skilled women at the turn of the 17th century - bolstered by the ambitions of men who were keen to curry favour with the witchcraft obsessed James I.
I loved that the characters in the book were based upon real people, for the most part. Fleetwood and Richard did indeed live at Gawthrope at the time. The names of the accused witches and magistrates are likewise fact, and Alice Gray was among those accused. This serves to really bring the story alive.
Yes, this story is based upon fact. Local wise women did find themselves wrongfully accused of evil intent, but witches were an accepted part of the local landscape for centuries. People were comfortable with living near them, for the most part, and were happy to use their services.
Suspicion and accusations seem to have come about when there were scores to be settled - or an in the case here, due to the dubious ambitions of others - whether this was trying to catch the eye of the King, or in-fighting between families who saw themselves as the rightful local "witches".
Interestingly, it has been estimated that the witch trials between the early 15th and 18th centuries resulted in fewer than about 500 deaths, so executions for witchcraft were not a frequent occurrence. The Pendle with trials where as many as twelve were accused of being witches at one time, were therefore, highly unusual, so something else must have been in play here. I can see why Stacey Halls was inspired to use the Pendle witches as the basis for her novel.
Lancashire was certainly an unruly and wild place at this time. Many local people were still secretly following their catholic faith, which would have made them prime targets, and it seems that there was rivalry between the families accused, but we will never know for sure why things happened they way they did here.
One of the most intriguing threads running through The Familiars is that we never really know how much truth lies behind the labelling of these women as witches. There is an unmistakable whisper of magic in this story that I could not ignore. The title in itself makes us question the relationships between some of the characters and their animal companions - even Fleetwood and her mastiff, Puck - and what of the mysterious red fox, keeping a watchful eye on Fleetwood? This serves to raise the story way above your usual historical fiction tale and give it a complexity that is both rich and deep.
The Familiars is a fabulous debut novel and I have thoroughly enjoyed immersing myself in its pages. It is out now in paperback, from your favourite book retailer. I cannot wait to read Stacey Halls' next novel, The Foundling, when is comes out in February 2020.
Thank you to Stacey Halls, Zaffre Books and Tracey Fenton for providing me with a copy of this book, in return for an honest review.
From the book cover:
'The new Hilary Mantel' Cosmopolitan
When she crosses paths by chance with Alice Gray, a young midwife, Alice promises to help her give birth to a healthy baby, and to prove the physician wrong.
When Alice is drawn into the witchcraft accusations that are sweeping the North-West, Fleetwood risks everything by trying to help her. But is there more to Alice than meets the eye?
As the two women's lives become inextricably bound together, the legendary trial at Lancaster approaches, and Fleetwood’s stomach continues to grow. Time is running out, and both their lives are at stake.
Only they know the truth. Only they can save each other.
Stacey Halls grew up in Rossendale, Lancashire, as the daughter of market traders. She has always been fascinated by the Pendle witches. She studied journalism at the University of Central Lancashire and moved to London aged 21. She was media editor at The Bookseller and books editor at Stylist magazine, and has also worked as a journalist for Psychologies, the Independent and Fabulous magazine. TV rights have been sold to The Bureau production company.
Themes include women and power, social history of witches. Stacey has done huge amounts of research and can speak eloquently on Gawthorpe Manor and her real life heroine Fleetwood.
Stacey Halls is available for interview, to write features and speak at events.