The Familiars review: Trials and tribulations in a bewitching debut novel
Dark arts and a dark patriarchy in 17th-century Lancashire from Stacey Halls
Stacey Halls: ‘The Familiars’ was the subject of a nine-way bidding auction won by Bonnier Zaffre
A debut novel, The Familiars by Stacey Halls, cast a spell over the publishing world in November 2017. At a time when the #MeToo movement was beginning to gather momentum, it is easy to see why its subject matter, a fictionalised account of the Pendle witch trials in 17th-century Lancashire, might garner such interest, culminating in a nine-way bidding auction won by Bonnier Zaffre.
The Familiars is an incisive account of the brutal way women were treated by a patriarchal society in thrall to magic and the supernatural. From the king down, a fear of the unknown, of the dark arts, was used as a way to subjugate, villainise and murder women.
Halls, a journalist, grew up near Pendle Hill and was fascinated by the trials from a young age. Drawn from real-life figures, her novel tells the story of Fleetwood Shuttleworth, a 17-year-old pregnant noblewoman who finds herself caught up in the trials when her midwife, Alice Gray, is accused of witchcraft. Married at 13, and three miscarriages later, Fleetwood needs Alice to help her deliver a healthy baby.
Halls ramps up the stakes by having Fleetwood discover a letter from a doctor advising her husband Richard that she will die if she tries to conceive again. Coupled with this is a shock discovery about Richard’s life outside the house that gives great momentum to the first half of the book. Characters are well drawn – particularly Fleetwood’s cold, overbearing mother – and rich historical detail is incorporated into the narrative with ease. Fleetwood’s voice is quaint but spirited and engaging, a centuries-old heroine with more than a touch of Jane Austen’s Catherine Morland to her impetuous nature.
There are also overtones of the second Mrs de Winter about Fleetwood, isolated in her big house with no one but her trusted mastiff Puck to turn to. Alice brings new possibilities to the narrative but her back story – and the story of the other local women on trial – is disappointingly underdeveloped, with Alice remaining an impenetrable character whose sullenness and pain are only ever related.
As Fleetwood races around the countryside on horseback while heavily pregnant, the mystery of Alice’s history, or indeed the outcome of the trials, are secondary to the reader’s fear for Fleetwood’s safety and the safety of her unborn child.
There is none of the harrowing detail of the trial itself, none of the historical violence or threat of violence so prevalent in Sarah Moss’s wonderful Ghost Wall, for example, or Martina Devlin’s The House Where it Happened, an evocative reimagining of the Armagh witch trials.
It is a shame, as the ingredients are there: a group of women rounded up and imprisoned; the lack of any material evidence; the Abigail-like figure of Jennet Device, a young girl manipulated or manipulating and the ludicrous accusations that emerge in the community – “They added wood to the fire to warm the milk pan, and when Mrs Booth removed it, a toad – or a spirit disguised as a toad – came out of the fire.’”
The trials, for all the talk they create in the book, remain oddly flat. The vibrancy instead comes from Fleetwood herself. Shocking details of her past – a first marriage to a potential abuser at four years of age, a mother who had similarly constrained options in life – combine with a present dominated by macho, misogynistic attitudes and Fleetwood’s attempts to outwit them. It is impossible not to get behind her efforts to secure for herself and her child some sort of sanctuary. Fleetwood knows that her position in the house is only safe as long as she produces an heir.
Halls is clear on her message – a woman is not an end in herself – and finds inventive ways to get it across. At times, she even manages to get it through with humour: “I was seventeen now, but for all I’d been through I might have been twice or three times that. My husband already had a lover, but I was no old matron, with greying hair and wrinkles at my eyes.”
The writing is strong throughout, with descriptions appropriate to milieu and era: “The baby was fattening like a conker in a spiked green shell, and eventually would split me open.” Back in her ancestral home, Fleetwood feels ill at ease: “There was a mildly unpleasant smell, cloying and meaty, and it took me a moment to realise the candles here were tallow, not wax.”
Halls is also good in the moment, allowing the details of scenes and the wider environment to emerge through the characters’ eyes: “I went to what seemed to be the entrance: a large, thick door at the bottom. Arrow slits in the walls would be the only source of light, and probably a hole in the roof for the smoke to get out. I climbed off the horse and walked once around the base of the tower.” Come for the draw of the witch trials, stay for the story of a noblewoman in a prison that was England in the 17th century.