T.K.'s Review: "The Familiars" by Stacey Halls

Published 10th August 2021

The early 17th century Pendle witch trials have provided a backdrop for numerous writers of both fiction and non-fiction; one particular original work is that of Thomas Potts the court clerk: The Wonderful Discoverie Of Witches In The County Of Lancaster. So, is Halls’ The Familiars’ just another attempt to highlight witchcraft’s historical prominence or is it more to do with her -albeit somewhat obscure, perspective of sociocultural evolutionism?

 Fleetwood Shuttleworth, barely seventeen, is struggling with her fourth pregnancy, having miscarried the previous three; her husband Richard requires her to produce an heir - her duty as his wife. The story opens with her discovery of a letter addressed to him from her physician; it warns of death if she should become pregnant again. Fleeing to the woods in her distress, she stumbles upon a trespasser collecting dead rabbits; Fleetwood's reaction to the lifeless rabbits serves as an introduction to the pervasive sense of loss, suspicion, fear and betrayal that echoes throughout this sinister foray into witchcraft, persecution, and a beautiful and most powerful friendship. This is a friendship that could result in the death of Fleetwood and her child as well as the mysterious woman in the woods; it is an inter-dependent friendship founded in fear-shrouded trust. Will such trust be rewarded or thwarted?

Uncertainty and conjecture permeate every aspect of the narrative. King James I is fearful of being overthrown either by witchcraft or conspirators; he has survived a tempest at sea for which he blamed witches, and the notorious gunpowder plot orchestrated by Guy Fawkes. He rules on the premise of absolutism; he is obsessed with power and the control it provides, demonstrating his dominance further by penning a treatise condemning witchcraft -‘Daemonologie’, and commanding an English translation of the Holy Bible known as the King James version. He appears determined to annihilate all who contravene his statutes, particularly targeting lower class women.

Narcissistic Roger Nowell, the magistrate, is a key male character who seeks power through any means at his disposal; he yearns for affirmation from the king and a wider audience as he strives to eradicate witches from the northwest. He grooms and cajoles a young child related to the witches to deliver the evidence he needs to convict his prey, even arranging for her to lodge with him and his wife Katherine. He fears Fleetwood's strength and determination as she seeks to prove the innocence of Alice her midwife who has latterly been accused of the murder of a child in her care, and witchcraft.

The narrative flows easily and appears quite unremarkable in places with its bleak journalistic style; however, there are many jewels of rich, atmospheric detail scattered within. Fleetwood’s trauma of pain and loss is beautifully and empathically portrayed as she experiences regular and evocative flashbacks of her miscarriages. A glass of ruby red wine reminds her of “…the same colour that had leaked from me three times”, in conjunction with memories of “…a small cold body, two tiny rows of eyelashes that would never open”. Similarly, her plaintive scourge of an agonising labour, and her intuitive fear of death for both her and her child, is tangible. The lingering words paint a dark hue-filled portrait of a pitiful human being in distress -her heartrending petitions for Alice to save her echoing like anguished souls.

Halls almost covertly sculptures Fleetwood the heroine as the story unfolds, allowing the reader glimpses of her metamorphosis as she is transformed from obedient, subservient wife to powerful activist; in finding voice, she follows an overwhelming need and desire to rescue her trusted friend - Alice the simple, illiterate healer. She risks her own life and that of her unborn child as she abandons the restraining cloak of upper-class gentlewoman to don the armour of Prudence and Justice -the Shuttleworth family motto.

The witch trials dominate at times, almost overshadowing the brutal reality of 17th century England under the reign of King James I. Baseline themes of gender inequity, persecution and discrimination of marginalised minorities, the eternal class divide and poverty, patriarchal societies and feminism provide substance and soul to what is at times a predictable read. Previous knowledge of the Pendle witch trials perhaps dimmed the lustre of the narrative for me personally; however, I found much to maintain my interest in both the main plot and affiliated cultural aspects. Thus, the great Bard, William Shakespeare, published Macbeth during this period; he is said to have sought inspiration from the Scottish North Berwick witch trials of the late 16th century; witchcraft also features in some of his other major works such as Hamlet and The Tempest.

Halls’ characters are wholesome, authentic, credible and complex, each with their inner conflicts and personal agendas; the reader’s initial assumptions are slowly transformed as each responds according to the evolving scenarios. Jealousies, suspicions, falsehoods and betrayals serve to gently manoeuvre the reader into considering such alternative perspectives. Indeed, all is not what it at first appears to be which magnetises the reader into a more intimate relationship with each character and their way of being.

Growing up without a loving and nurturing caregiver and having been infantilised throughout her life by her domineering, austere mother, Fleetwood emerges with immense trust issues. She is 17 and still a novice in the ways of the world, and yet, she feels an intense fascination towards Alice -a total stranger. Despite her suspicions and fears, she does not experience her as a threat but grows to trust her implicitly; it is this intense bond that propels her towards questioning the highest of authorities. She matures swiftly, recognising the wrongs in others and gaining in strength as she strives to rescue the innocent. She learns to recognise that despite her ‘favoured’ life as a gentle woman, she has never had the luxury of making her own choices - until now.

Alice presents as something of an enigma from the outset, prompting doubt as to her instinctive motives; her true calling, be it simple healer or witch, is never totally clarified but as such serves to augment her credibility as a positive role model for Fleetwood. She becomes just as much a heroine as her mistress, fighting for justice in her own simple way. There isn't even a hint of malice in this young girl who has the knowledge and expertise of one more senior to her young years. She has lived in poverty, endured persecution, suffered at the hands of a drunken husband, never enjoyed the security of wealth and social standing, and yet, she is the richer for it.

Richard’s initial immaturity is evident in his desire to conform to the expectations of society but particularly his peer Roger the magistrate; he is portrayed as being the flamboyant country gentleman discussing matters of law, hunting, taking a mistress and humiliating his long suffering wife relentlessly. However, as Roger gradually presents as a cruel, arrogant tyrant in managing the witch trials, Richard entertains doubts as to his true motives. Hitherto, he has treated Fleetwood merely as a wife who exists to provide an heir; however, he mellows somewhat as he nurses her in labour, perhaps finally able to acknowledge his true feelings for her. It is here that the reader has to decide whether he is a total bounder for taking a mistress, or, whether he did so truly in order to protect Fleetwood from further harm in pregnancy.

Such powerful characters fill Halls’ stage but what of the master puppeteer King James I? Ironically, he remains almost anonymous - a shadow in the clouds overlooking the scenes below; we hear of him via his publications and edicts but he employs minions to conduct the unsavoury aspects of trial and punishment. So, is he the true perpetrator of evil as he responds to his personal inner conflicts? A brief glance into his history reveals his terrors and paranoia: he became fatherless at 8 months old; his mother’s abdication following her defeat by rebel Scottish Lords resulted in him becoming King James VI of Scotland at the age of one, and his adolescent years spent ruling Scotland as a ‘puppet king’ would have been truly traumatic. No wonder then that he resorts to absolutism when crowned the king of England; he is weak but by assuming total control and attacking the weakest of societies simple, illiterate women making a meagre living by healing, he presents as a powerful and successful monarch.

There is indeed much to applaud in ‘The Familiars’ but the final chapter was weak and disappointing; the ‘five years later’ section was almost superfluous, unless of course it was intended to link with a sequel. Fleetwood's poignant words, “Alice Grey was the only friend I ever had. I saved her life. And she saved mine” would surely have offered a more pertinent conclusion, and, a commemoration of a deep and trusting friendship between two individuals finding themselves at opposite ends of the socio-economic scale. I found the happily ever after finale almost twee and amateurish and in total opposition to what had preceded it. Judith and her new-born are sent to live far away but this remains as unfinished business, leaving us to question whether Fleetwood will ever truly be free of her and Richard’s betrayal.

Written by T.K.

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