Catherine Dunlop cosies up to review the debut book from a local author
Stacey Halls’ debut novel The Familiars was written after she stayed at Gawthorpe Hall in Padiham and became interested by its 17th century inhabitants. As with any fiction based on real people, places and events, this adds to the intrigue and authenticity and results in a beautifully written historical drama. 17-year-old Fleetwood Shuttleworth enjoys life as a member of the gentry, with a handsome, rich husband and a baby on the way but after three losses and the discovery of a worrying letter from a doctor, she becomes desperate to protect her unborn child and future heir. After they cross paths, the wild and mysterious Alice Gray offers her services as a midwife who will help Fleetwood keep and deliver the much longed for child. But when Alice becomes implicated in the famous witch trials, Fleetwood is determined to help and protect her new friend, no matter what.
During a dangerous time to be a woman who did not conform to their allocated role in life, Fleetwood is feisty and courageous, often behaving recklessly in order to help her friend but refusing to be completely tamed and controlled by the men around her, particularly after they betray her. Whilst some females believed to be witches are physically unattractive or antisocial, Alice is calm and kind, a woman in touch with nature and the old ways of healing and medicine, who becomes embroiled after trying to help others. Money and power affect everyone; the rich by the desire for social standing and reputation, the poor by the need for escape and a better life. There doesn’t appear to have been much community spirit as people quickly turned on each other and accusations were based on jealousy, petty arguments and manipulation but also against those (mainly women) who were a bit different, a bit more in touch with the old ways and with a bit more spirit.
The writing is highly detailed and transports the reader back in time with clever use of language and descriptive imagery. You can visualise the rich furnishings and ornate carvings of Gawthorpe Hall, feel the dense, thick woodland paths under your feet and smell the overpowering stench of fear as the prisoners awaited their fate at Lancaster Prison. Highly researched, the book is set during one of the most political, tumultuous and terrifying times of Lancashire history but the women are at the core of the plot and you really invest in them, willing them to succeed.
It’s sumptuous and engrossing, highlighting the absurdity of the witch trials and the vulnerability of women at the time but also the strength of friendship and belief. A fascinating and spellbinding debut.
Stacey’s latest book Mrs England – has just published in paperback.