In 1612 Lancashire, Fleetwood Shuttleworth lives a privileged life in the vast country estate of Gawthorpe Hall. But a recent letter has Fleetwood worrying about her pregnancy and the dangers that exist in “matters of the childbed.” Another surge of sickness comes over her as well as nightmarish visions of the child inside her, which she thinks is “trying to escape through her throat instead of between her legs.”
Then Fleetwood meets flaxen-haired Alice, an illiterate beggar with a gift for healing. At first, Fleetwood accuses Alice of poaching rabbits, but when she learns of the girl’s talents, she invites her to Gawthorpe, desperate for the young girl to help her through her impending birth. Fleetwood tries to settle her grieving heart as she sits with Alice in her bedroom--with its pleasant view of the rushing River Calder and the notorious Pendle Hill--and with Puck, her great French mastiff, by her side. Fleetwood's husband, Richard, has given her happiness, but the recent loss of three unborn children has shaken her confidence in motherhood. Fleetwood aches for her stomach to grow for Richard so that she can fill the house with stocky hands and dusty knees: “while we had no children, we were not a family.”
Convinced that next time she will die, it is natural for Fleetwood to turn to sympathetic Alice, a poor unmarried girl who “has two jobs and no horse.” The arrival of Roger Nowell changes the dynamic. Roger has known the Shuttleworths for years, but as he settles into the household “like an inherited piece of furniture,” Roger's goal is to find out whether the family are loyal to the crown, here in this corner of the kingdom where Catholic heritage is causing anxiety for King James. At dinner, Roger sees Alice in a different light. He tells the Shutteworths about Elizabeth Device, who lives just outside of Colne in a horrible, damp hovel called Malkin Tower. Elizabeth has been arrested for witchcraft, as well as a child named Jennet Device whose family is awaiting trial in Lancaster.
Alice sits upstairs, terrified that Roger’s preposterous accusations against the Pendle witches will drag her kicking and screaming from Gawthorpe Hall. Roger has got it wrong; Fleetwood decides she cannot let her new friend down. The women have made a promise to each other. Alice is arrested, even though there’s no substantial evidence against her. Fleetwood pleads with Roger’s wife for Alice’s release. Back at Malkin Tower, “like a finger from the grave,” Fleetwood attempts to free Alice but is blindsided by Roger’s cruel force and Richard’s lethal personal and political game.
An “ornament, a wife in name only,” Fleetwood knows she has to give Richard a child in order to secure her future: “for if it died, I may as well die with it.” Throughout, the bond between Fleetwood and Alice remains inviolate, their shared experiences setting the scene for the novel’s climax where devotion, love, and motherhood come full circle. As the “witches” are rounded up and placed on trial, the talk is of Alice’s hidden life, of secrets whispered and nefarious deeds involving potions and spells, and the dark arts: “spirits disguised as toads."
Building from the ground up, Halls bases her gothic tale on the real Pendle Hill witch trials but channels her unique vision of Fleetwood, a rather flighty woman of leisure who breaks from convention when her heart calls to her. Halls mixes it all up with a vibrant combination of good and bad characters, all shaped around the superstitious and fundamentalist nature of the era.