BEWITCHING DEBUT NOVEL
Best-selling author Stacey Halls, who recently featured on BBC Radio 4, explains the inspiration behind her novel, The Familiars, described as the biggest debut fiction launch of 2019
As a schoolgirl author Stacey Halls recalls practically living in her local library and it was there where she first discovered the Pendle witches – the inspiration behind her bestselling debut novel, The Familiars.
“I remember taking out a library book about the witches and being so chilled by the first page, which told of a witch who could turn at will into a hare, that I put it back,” recalls Stacey.
Stacey’s novel is an intriguing story that has captured the nation’s imagination – it follows two women, Fleetwood, a young gentry wife, who is desperate for a baby, and her midwife Alice, who is caught up in the accusations of witchcraft sweeping Pendle at that time.
“All the characters were real people, and it’s based on the real events of 1612, that began with a pedlar being cursed by a young woman in a forest, and ended with the execution of 10 people,” explains Stacey, who recently featured on Radio 4’s Open Book with Mariella Frostrup and whose book hit number two in the Sunday Times Bestsellers list.
Stacey’s book was also inspired by a trip to Gawthorpe Hall in Padiham a number of years ago: “I realised that from the back of the hall you can see Pendle Hill. That’s when I thought about writing a story about the Pendle witch trials, told from the point of view of someone living in the house, who is connected to one of the accused and wants to save her.
“I plotted the story around the historical timeline of events that led up to the trials in August 1612, and my research led me to Fleetwood Shuttleworth – a 17-year-old wife living in Gawthorpe Hall at the time. That’s when I decided to base the whole novel on real people, though I invented Fleetwood’s friendship with Alice Gray, who was accused of witchcraft.”
Having done the majority of research at the British Library, which holds the Shuttleworth family accounts, Stacey discovered that the Shuttleworths of Gawthorpe, kept rigorous records of everything they bought, sold, wore and ate in the time the book was set.
“The records were invaluable in building up a picture of their wealth and how they lived. What struck me was how self-sufficient an estate like Gawthorpe was – I imagined men and women of the gentry just sitting in their houses not doing much at all.”
“But Richard Shuttleworth was a young entrepreneur – he had many businesses, and employed dozens of local people, and gave back to the community. They had farms, a coal pit, cattle to sell at market, rent from the tenant farmers. It really was like a Jacobean start-up.”
Now living in London, Stacey wrote the first draft of The Familiars over a period of two months: “Sometimes I would look up from my desk and be genuinely surprised to find myself in 21st century London and not 17th century Lancashire. I spent most of my time envisioning the landscape, the grey skies and green hills. In some ways I imagine it hasn’t changed much in 400 years.”
The novel has been reviewed as a ‘a feminist tour-de-force’, but Stacey acknowledges that she didn’t initially set out to write a book around feminism.
“Essentially, it’s about womanhood, and the roles forced upon women and how we try them on for size and cast them off or mould them to fit us. Not much was expected of women in those days apart from having children – fertility was their currency and Fleetwood is failing at the one thing she is expected to do – have a child. In Alice she finds a kindred spirit – a familiar spirit – and although there is this void of power and privilege between them, they are true equals in many ways.”
“Women helping women is a theme that’s more prescient than ever, and I think there will always be a demand for stories about the struggles that women have faced historically, whether that’s being accused of witchcraft 400 years ago or more recently with #MeToo. So in that sense it is a feminist novel because it’s about two females trying to have more agency in their lives and in the world – or their small corner of it.”
Stacey, who was brought up in Rawtenstall, was educated at grammar school and never envisaged becoming a writer: “My parents had market stalls at Bolton and Halifax selling shoes and slippers, and later a shop in Bury. I didn’t really consider writing an option as most of my family were shopkeepers, teachers and nurses – I didn’t know any writers.”
However, she went on to study journalism at the University of Central Lancashire and moved to London where she now works.
“I think being a journalist has prepared me well for being an author in terms of discipline and focus and trying to tell a story in a straightforward manner.”
“I can still picture my journalism tutor telling us to get to the point, so there’s an element of that in my fiction. Historical novels don’t always have to be full of flowery, descriptive writing. I did probably four drafts of the book before I submitted it to agents, and after I signed with my literary agent, I did a couple more drafts then we sent the book out to publishers.”
The Familiars has been described as ‘assured and alluring’ and ‘the biggest debut fiction launch of 2019’. “It’s been a huge surprise to me how well the book has been received – but in the best possible way. I wasn’t nervous when it came out because I’d sold it such a long time ago in November 2017, so I was ready to set it free,” concludes Stacey, whose second novel is set in Georgian London. The Foundling will be published in February 2020.