Fleetwood Shuttleworth is 17 years old, married, and pregnant for the fourth time. But as the mistress at Gawthorpe Hall, she still has no living child, and her husband Richard is anxious for an heir. When Fleetwood finds a letter she isn¹t supposed to read from the doctor who delivered her third stillbirth, she is dealt the crushing blow that she will not survive another pregnancy.
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 Fleetwood¹s stomach continues to grow. Time is running out, and both their lives are at stake.
The Familiars is a fictionalised account of the famous Pendle witches trial which took place in August 1612 and resulted in the execution of ten people. The majority of the characters in this book are based on real characters which is always a danger but Halls handles their stories with a great deal of respect and the gaps in their stories are fleshed out plausibly.
The story is told from the point of view from the strangely named Fleetwood Shuttleworth, a young woman who has suffered multiple miscarriages in her quest to bear her husband an heir. Pregnant again, Fleetwood is anxious to do everything she can to carry her child to term and that brings her into contact with Alice Grey, a young woman skilled in the healing arts. Alice Grey, also a real person, was tried for witchcraft at the Lancaster Assizes along with the other Pendle women but she was later released after being found not guilty. In the book version, Alice and Fleetwood form a strong bond with each other and it is Fleetwood who is instrumental in having Alice freed just in time to deliver her child.
The book has been classified as an historical fantasy because Halls chooses to portray these women as having magical powers, although we don’t meet all the Pendle witches. While Alice is a trained midwife with a great deal of knowledge about how herbs can be used to heal or harm, there are significant hints Alice is also skilled in spells and is using them to help Fleetwood. Since Fleetwood has no knowledge of how witchcraft works, her thoughts on Alice’s actions are deliberately kept vague but the reader is left with a definite impression all is not as it seems. At the same time, Fleetwood grows to trust Alice and although the young woman keeps her secrets to herself, I never doubted for an instant she used her skills for anything other than good.
By the time James I succeeded to the throne of England in 1603, he had developed an irrational fear of witches as he had long been convinced Scottish witches were plotting to kill him. The king was compelled to write Daemonologie, a book which denounced witches and called upon any practitioners to be prosecuted. James also had a particular fear of the northern parts of England, seeing them as wild and lawless, so lists were compiled of those who failed to attend church. The king’s fear would cultivate an atmosphere of paranoia which would turn villagers against cunning women and fingers would soon be pointing in accusation if someone died unexpectedly. It would also give men the ammunition they needed to keep women in line as inappropriate behaviour could easily be interpreted as witchcraft.
The Device family had been regarded as practitioners of witchcraft for many years in Pendle Hill, that is to say they were healers and midwives who practiced their skills in return for payment, however an incident involving Alizon Device would lead to the entire family being arrested and tried for witchcraft. The Chattox family, regarded as rivals of the Device family, were also implicated, along with eight other people who were known acquaintances, including Alice Grey. Ten of the twelve accused were later hanged, while another died in custody and Alice Grey was found not guilty. The account of Alice’s trial was never recorded so the reasons for her being freed remain a mystery and are the basis for The Familiars. The background to the Pendle Hill witches is far more complex than I’ve described here, as much of it seems to have stemmed from the bad blood between the Device and Chattox families who ended up accusing each other of all sorts of wicked deeds.
Halls has woven Alice’s story into that of Fleetwood Barton who married Sir Richard Shuttleworth of Gawthorpe Hall. The marriage was a union of convenience rather than love but they have grown to care for each other and Fleetwood is anxious to provide an heir so her family can prosper. However, Richard’s ambition brings him into the sphere of Roger Nowell and Fleetwood becomes increasingly suspicious of her husband’s activities. As her friendship with Alice deepens, Fleetwood is convinced the fate of her unborn child is tied to Alice in some way and if that means exposing her husband’s secrets, then so be it. As the novel progresses, Fleetwood becomes increasingly outspoken to the point she makes an enemy of Roger Nowell and she is warned about her “unwomanly” behaviour.
Fleetwood is an interesting character but I do wish we had been able to see things from Alice’s point of view as well as she is far more enigmatic, although I suppose Alice was kept mysterious on purpose. Fleetwood frequently puts herself into situations which place her life and that of her unborn child in danger and this becomes increasingly irritating as she constantly maintains how the child is the most important thing to her. The only one endangering the child here is Fleetwood herself. There is no evidence Fleetwood and Alice ever met but in the story Alice is instrumental in saving the life of Fleetwood and her eldest son, Richard, before disappearing. In the epilogue, we discover Fleetwood has a second son, Nicholas, and Alice’s whereabouts is still unknown. Sir Richard had numerous other children and was said to have married Judith Thorpe after Fleetwood’s death, however Judith is portrayed in the novel as Sir Richard’s mistress who bears him a child around the same time as Fleetwood gives birth to Richard.