On Hist Fic Saturday
Let's go back to...1620
22 April 2021
My thanks to the publishers for my copy of this book
Spring of 1620 in a Lancashire fishing community and the memory of the slaughter at Pendle is tight around the neck of Sarah Haworth. A birthmark reveals that Sarah, like her mother, is a witch. Torn between yearning for an ordinary life and desire to discover what dark power she might possess, Sarah’s one hope is that her young sister Annie will be spared this fate.
The Haworth family eke out a meagre existence in the old plague village adjoining a God-fearing community presided over by a seedy magistrate. A society built upon looking the other way, the villagers’ godliness is merely a veneer. But the Haworth women, with their salves and poultices, are judged the real threat to morality.
When Sarah meets lonely farmer’s son Daniel, she begins to dream of a better future. Daniel is in thrall to the wild girl with storms in her eyes, but their bond is tested when a zealous new magistrate vows to root out sins and sinners. In a frenzy of fear and fury, the community begins to turn on one another, and it’s not long before they direct their gaze towards the old plague village … and does Daniel trust that the power Sarah wields over him is truly love, or could it be mere sorcery?
📖 My Thoughts..
In rural Lancashire memories of the Pendle witch trial still run deep and in isolated villages which thrive on superstition, and scurrilous gossip, it is not a good time to be known locally as a cunning woman.
The Haworth family eke out a meagre existence on the periphery of village life living in an abandoned hovel which once housed plague victims. Known locally as the cunning women, Sarah Haworth and her mother are considered to be useful for their salves, and potions, but if provoked they can utter a stream of well aimed curses at whoever causes them displeasure. Money is always scarce, hunger is ever present, and the Howarth's uneasy relationship with the villagers means that charity is scarce.
Daniel Taylor is a timid young man who lives with his domineering father on the only farm in the village. Bullied, and often made to feel worthless, Daniel lives his life in an unassuming sort of way, that is, until he meets Sarah Haworth, and is enthralled both by the wildness of her spirit and the plight of her poverty. Whilst Daniel and Sarah's burgeoning relationship is crucial to the story, it is played out against the backdrop of a village which has its own deadly secrets.
What then follows is an atmospheric story about living life in rural Lancashire when memories of the 1612 Pendle witch trial, just eight years before, still runs deep, and with the arrival, in the village, of an over zealous magistrate, who is determined to root out the very presence of evil, life is not safe for anyone but especially not for the cunning women. The story starts slowly as we get to know the characters, we learn their place in this superstitious community, we walk with Sarah as she takes her little sister Annie into the village to sell scraps of potions, we hurt when life goes badly for them, rejoice in their small mercies and are thankful for the innocent pleasure they get in having food in their stomachs.
Cunning Women is an authentic and beautifully described historical novel which brings this shadowy corner of Lancashire to life in a thought provoking way. The author has captured the superstitious mood well and whilst there is an undeniable slowness to the narrative this only helps to build up the tension and creates a sense of stillness which enhances the hidden cruelty of living in this time of superstitious dread.
About the Author
Elizabeth Lee won the Curtis Brown Creative Marian Keyes Scholarship, and her work has been selected for the Womentoring Project and Penguin’s WriteNow Live. She lives in Warwickshire.
Watch a YouTube video of the author talking about Cunning Women.