Monday, April 05, 2010

An interview with Mary Sharratt, author of Daughters of the Witching Hill

I'm so pleased to be presenting this interview with Mary Sharratt. Her fourth novel, Daughters of the Witching Hill, takes readers to the Pendle region of Lancashire, England, in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. In this land of rolling hills and ancient forests, the Reformation has not yet fully taken hold. Beliefs in Catholicism remain deeply entrenched in its people's hearts, mingling with an even older form of worship.

Daughters of the Witching Hill
gives voice to two strong-minded women, Bess Southerns, called Mother Demdike, and her teenage granddaughter, Alizon Device. Keepers of their family's legacy of healing craft and folk magic at a dangerous time in history, Bess and Alizon react in different ways to the fear and paranoia that sweeps through the countryside, turning neighbors and relatives against one another as accusations of witchcraft begin flying. It is a wonderful novel, made even more heart-wrenching by the knowledge that all of its major characters are based on people who once lived.

I've gotten to know Mary through our involvement with the Historical Novel Society (she wrote a fantastic cover story on "magic gone mainstream" for February's magazine) and have become a big fan of her work. Her novels (Summit Avenue, The Real Minerva, The Vanishing Point, and now Daughters) convey a vivid sense of place and time as they explore different aspects of women's power through history. An American writer, Mary makes her home in Lancashire, where the story of the Pendle witches unfolded nearly 400 years ago; the haunting atmosphere of Pendle's rich and traumatic past comes through strongly in Daughters of the Witching Hill. I hope you enjoy this interview, and please read to the end for a chance to win a copy of Mary's novel for yourself.

This is your first novel to incorporate elements of the fantastic into the main narrative. Did you find it was an adjustment for you, as a historical fiction writer, to write about supernatural creatures and happenings as if they were real? At what point did you realize that the novel had to be written this way?

I knew from the beginning that this was a story crying out to be told from Mother Demdike’s point of view, in her own first person voice.

The supernatural elements are drawn directly from the primary source, Thomas Potts’s A Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster, the official transcripts of the 1612 Lancashire Witch Trials. When examined by the prosecuting magistrate, Mother Demdike, called Bess in my novel, goes into such rich detail describing Tibb, her familiar spirit. She first met him when walking past a quarry at twilight. Stepping out of the stone pit, he appeared to her in the guise of beautiful young man, his coat half black-half brown. He promised to teach her all she needed to know about magic. Their partnership would endure for decades. For her, Tibb was not something fantastic, but an absolute reality in her life, and it was my task as an author to bring her worldview across as organically as possible.

Bess’s belief in this world of spirits and wonders colors everything she told the magistrate. They were speaking at cross-purposes. Magistrate Roger Nowell was investigating her on charges of satanic witchcraft while she was speaking with pride of her lifelong career as a cunning woman, or traditional healer. To be taken seriously as a cunning woman, she had to convince others that she had a familiar helping her. The familiar spirit was the bedrock of traditional English folk magic—cunning folk couldn’t work their charms without their magical ally.

The original title of my novel was A Light Far-Shining, and that was how I perceived the magical elements of the book—the light of the otherworld illuminating this one.

Before I read Daughters of the Witching Hill, I hadn't associated the witch hunts of the 17th century with repression of people's beliefs in Catholic folk magic. The similarities between Bess's beliefs, skills, and prayers with traditional pagan practices were remarkable to me, as I wouldn't have thought that "cunning craft" had anything to do with a branch of Christianity. How did you uncover this connection?

The conflation of witchcraft and Catholicism in Early Modern England was indeed the most surprising thing I discovered in my research. This was especially pertinent in Lancashire where the Reformation was so slow to take root and where fervent Protestants had such a struggle asserting their new order in the face of staunch resistance as rebel gentry and commonfolk alike clung to the old ways. “No part of England hath so many witches,” Edward Fleetwood stated in his 1645 pamphlet describing Lancashire, “none fuller of Papists.”

Mother Demdike’s spells recorded in the trial transcripts were, in fact, Roman Catholic prayer charms. Her incantation to cure a bewitched person, quoted by the prosecution as evidence of diabolical magic, is a moving and poetic depiction of the passion of Christ as witnessed by the Virgin Mary. This text is very similar to the White Pater Noster, an Elizabethan prayer charm Eamon Duffy discusses in his landmark book, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England: 1400-1580.

It appears that Mother Demdike, born in Henry VIII’s reign, at the cusp of the Reformation, was a practitioner of the kind of quasi-Catholic folk magic that would have been fairly common in earlier generations. The Old Church embraced many practices that seemed magical and mystical. People believed in miracles. They used holy water and communion bread for healing. Candles blessed at the Feast of Candlemas warded the faithful from demons and disease. People left offerings at holy wells and invoked the saints in their folk charms. Some rituals such as the blessing of wells and fields may have Pagan origins. Indeed, looking at pre-Reformation folk magic, it seems difficult to untangle the strands of Catholicism from the remnants of Pagan belief which had become so tightly interwoven. Keith Thomas’s social history Religion and the Decline of Magic is an excellent study on how the Reformation literally took the magic out of Christianity.

But it would be an oversimplification to state that Mother Demdike was merely a misunderstood practitioner of Catholic folk magic. Her lifelong partnership with Tibb seems to reveal beliefs far older than Christianity.

Bess Southerns and her granddaughter, Alizon Device, are given the opportunity to tell their stories in the first person, while their daughter and mother respectively, Liza Device, is seen only through their eyes. Why did you decide to structure the viewpoints as you did?

I choose to narrate the novel from Bess and Alizon’s point of view because these very different characters provide a wonderful study on how different women deal with power.

Bess had the most infamous reputation. In The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster, Thomas Potts claimed that she was the ringleader, the one who initiated all the others into witchcraft. “No man escaped her, or her Furies,” he wrote. Bess was so frightening to her foes because she was a woman who embraced her powers wholeheartedly. She freely admitted to being a healer and a cunning woman. What fascinated me was not that Bess was arrested on witchcraft charges but that the authorities only turned on her near the end of her long, productive career. She practiced her craft for decades before anybody dared to interfere with her.

In contrast her granddaughter Alizon, who appeared to be a teenager at the time of the trial, seemed to view her own powers with a mixture of bewilderment and terror. Her misadventures in struggling to come to terms with this troubling birthright unleashed the tragedy which led to her arrest and the downfall of her entire family. Although the first to be accused of witchcraft, Alizon was the last to be tried at Lancaster. Her final recorded words on the day before she was hanged were a passionate vindication of her grandmother’s legacy as a healer.

Liza Device is a fascinating character in her own right, marked by an eye deformity and renowned for her temper, but also a strong woman who raised three children on her own after her husband’s untimely death. However, as a potential narrator, she did not hook me the way Bess and Alizon did.

The unusual nicknames attached to some of the older women characters living around Pendle are intriguing - Mother Demdike, her once-close friend Chattox, and their neighbor Mouldheels, for example. Demdike tells us that her nickname came from the dammed stream where she used to wash sheep, and the names don't seem to be derogatory because they're used even by those close to them. Can you tell me any more about this curious practice?

In small, tight knit communities where everyone shared a handful of first and last names, nicknames were essential to tell people apart. Demdike’s real name was Elizabeth. Her daughter and daughter-in-law were also named Elizabeth. Chattox’s real name was Anne and so was that of her daughter, accused witch Anne Redfearn. In writing the book, I used all the historical nicknames in the trial records. And I also had to take liberties in changing names or inventing new nicknames as there were so many Johns, Jameses, Richards, Katherines, Annes, and Alices. Even surnames, like Nutter, were so common that I had to change some family names to keep both myself and the reader from becoming hopelessly confused.

Your characters' dialogue always seems so authentic to the place and time. How did you go about re-creating it?

I used as many historical dialect terms as I could glean from the confessions in the trial records. Both Bess and her grandson James Device refer to twilight as “daylight gate.” Bess calls the shift worn under her garments a “smock.” James complains of a noise that sounds like the “skriking,” or shrieking, of a great number of cats. The clay dolls Chattox and her daughter Anne Redfearn made to curse and bind their landlord’s abusive son were referred to as “clay pictures.” And so on.

It was also a great inspiration to live in the Lancashire, which still has a very rich dialect, drawing on ancient grammar patterns—for example, “he weren’t ready” instead of “he wasn’t ready,” and also the use of thou: “Th’art nobbut a slip of a lass.”

The dialect in the book is watered down and I used conventional modern grammar because I didn’t know if I could sustain a truly authentic rendition of the dialect for 352 pages.

What is it like to live in a place where the beautiful landscape is so haunted by tragic history? How does it affect your view of your surroundings as you proceed with your day-to-day life there?

It meant a great deal to me to inhabit the same landscape as my characters. As a writer I am fascinated with how the true stories of our ancestors haunt the land for generations afterward.

Bess’s life unfolded almost literally in my backyard. To do justice to her story, I had to go out into the land, walk in her footsteps. I board my horse (who makes a cameo appearance in the book as accused witch Alice Nutter’s horse) at a stable near Read Hall, once home to Roger Nowell, the witchfinder and prosecuting magistrate responsible for sending Bess and the other Pendle Witches to their deaths. Every weekend, I walked or rode my chestnut mare down the tracks of Pendle Forest. Quietening myself, I learned to listen, to allow Bess and Alizon’s voices to well up from the land. Their passion, their tale enveloped me.

Learning their story and connecting to the land became completely intertwined for me.

I understand that you lived around Pendle Hill in Lancashire for some time before you began work on this novel. Did you feel that the topic had to settle in for a while before you were able to take it on, or was it more that other tales took precedence?

I moved to the Pendle region in 2002 but didn’t start working on the book until 2007. Before that I was always intrigued by the witches’ legends but I didn’t yet know the facts. I made the false assumption that their story was folklore. But once I took the time to read their actual history and learned that they were real people, I became completely caught up in their tragedy.

Given the subjects of Daughters of the Witching Hill and your previous three novels, is it a goal of yours to explore the family relationships between women in history?

My focus on women’s history is the guiding thread. My new novel in progress is based on the life of Hildegard von Bingen, mystic nun and polymath, whose family washed their hands of her, tithing her to the Church at the age of eight. The abandoned child was bricked into an anchorage with the fanatical fourteen year old ascetic, Jutta von Sponheim, who would be regarded as an anorexic if she lived today. Faced with such isolation and privation, Hildegard had to escape into a rich life of the mind in order to keep her sanity intact. The fact that Hildegard triumphed to break out of the anchorage, found two abbeys, and become one of the greatest voices of her age attests to her resolve and strength of character.

I saw that you dedicated the novel to Bess Southerns and her fellow accused Pendle witches, from which I gather that you developed a personal relationship with your subjects. Did you feel you owed it to them to reveal the truth about their stories? More broadly, what responsibilities do you think a novelist has toward her historical characters?

Unfortunately a lot of the tourism in Pendle seems to revolve around exploiting the ghoulish aspects of the witch trials, forgetting the fact that they were real people who lost their lives on account of persecution and hysteria. Writing this book, I felt that Bess and Alizon became my adopted ancestors and it was my duty as a writer to serve their memory and tell their story as authentically and sympathetically as I could. I wanted to champion their legacy and to take a stand against the astounding ignorance regarding historical witchcraft that persists to this day.

Many books have been written about the Pendle Witches, both fiction and nonfiction, and some of them have been quite lurid. Even the better ones, such as Robert O’Neill’s delightful novel Mist Over Pendle, tend to portray Mother Demdike and her family as sad, pathetic, ignorant misfits.

As a writer, it was my desire to turn the tables and give Bess and Alizon what their world denied them—their own voice. Four hundred years on, their voices deserve to finally be heard.

I think all historical novelists, on some level or other, serve ancestral memory. It is through storytellers like us that those wronged in ages past can finally have their say.

Thank you, Mary, for taking the time to participate in this interview!


Daughters of the Witching Hill is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt this month ($24.00, 978-0-547-06967-8). I have three copies to give away to blog readers. To enter, please leave a comment on this post by the end of the day Sunday, April 11th, mentioning why you'd be interested in reading it. Good luck to all entrants! Thanks to HMH for providing me with an ARC for the interview and for supplying copies for the contest.


  1. Very interesting interview. I've read and enjoyed the author's Vanishing Point, and I've been fascinated by the distressing stories of women accused of being "witches" ever since reading the Crucible in high school. I would love to read this book. Thanks for the giveaway.

  2. I read The Vanishing Point and enjoyed it very mch. I am interested in reading Daughters of Witching Hill because I not only enjoy reading about witches in history but I love to read detailed historical descriptions of time eras. Sharratt brings the period she writes about to life thanks to her exhaustive research.
    Please enter me to win.



  3. I find this time in our country's history fascinating. It is amazing what fear will do to the collective mind. I would love to read this author's take on the tale.
    thank you
    kaiminani at gmail dot com

  4. This sounds like a great read! Though it is sad to read of the persecution that people have suffered in the past for being different in appearance or in beliefs.

  5. I've been wanting to read this ever since I first set eyes on that gorgeous cover. The combination of history and the supernatural really appeals.

    Thanks for the opportunity.


  6. I read Sharon Kay Penman's interview with Mary, and now, after reading your's, this book has really piqued my interest. I've never read anything about witches back in the medieval days, so this book sounds like a great opportunity for me!


  7. Thank you so much, Sarah, for posting the interview, and thank you, everyone, for your kind comments!

  8. Anonymous11:05 AM

    I am hearing such good things about this book! I am fascinated to learn about the currents of history that concern the old traditional religion, Catholicism, and Protestantism. I've been surprised to learn that cultural icons in our own culture, such as Santa and even the groundhog, have their roots in ancient belief. I would love to read this book.

  9. I am definitely interested in reading the book! Please count me in. I would like to learn more about the topic of the witches and the history behind it, politically and emotionally. I have read so much of England's history and I look forward to traveling to my own country in my reading as well!
    marieburton2004 at yahoo

  10. After winning this book in the giveaway, I had it, for some unknown reason, on my TBR pile for the longest time. I decided to read it while I was waiting for Susan Fraser King's Queen Hereafter to be released, and I don't know why I waited so long to read it! I loved it...the pages just flew by! But I did think the last half of the book was so very sad, I wished it had a different ending.