This dark story is all the more disturbing for Sharratt couching her tale in the voices of two women accused of witchcraft in Pendle Forest in 1612 during the reign of James I. Bess Southerns is a cunning woman with intimate knowledge of the dark arts, clinging to her reputation as a “healing woman” and often referred to as Demdike. Her granddaughter, Alizon, comes to knowledge of her powers more slowly
and with resistance; she would have a normal life, a simple one not afforded to such as her Gran and the others.
Deeply steeped in the lore of the forest pre-Reformation, such women are sought out for their ability to alleviate illness of the body and spirit. Bess’s childhood friend Anne Whittle doesn’t fare as well with the villagers, earning for herself the fear and enmity of neighbors all too willing to blame her for their misfortune. But the drama comes full circle with the hanging of a number of so-called Witches of Pendle Forest, the testimony of others and a sly Puritan judge condemning the women to hang.
Southerns and her family exist in grinding poverty, never able to earn more than a few meals through day labor and the sale of healing herbs. When the old religion is driven underground by the stultifying spirit of the English Reformation, it is easy to imagine old Bess chanting snippets of long-remembered Latin prayers, calling upon the kindness of God through the language of the Catholic Church. But it is these very words that will lead to her condemnation.
Such destitute women and their families are social outcasts, living by their wits and on the scraps of others, their meager homes as filthy as the people who inhabit the oft-cold hearths and lice-riddled mattresses. The bounty of a full stomach is foreign to such creatures, their comforts so few and so pitiful that they barely survive from one day to another. It is not surprising, then, that enmity should grow among them, often resentful and jealous for the very scraps of food they feed their starving families.
As the years pass, the celebrations of the old religion are replaced by the austerity of Puritanism. Society’s pitiful rejects become easy targets, Bess’s activities casting a pall on her children - all condemned, including her beautiful granddaughter, Alizon, who is too immature to fear the consequences of her rage and so brings tragedy upon them all. While Bess begs the girl to keep a low profile and hold her temper, Alizon gives in to her rage and frustration once too often, accused of witchcraft.
Sharratt’s portrait of poverty and ignorance is a vivid reminder of the dangers of otherness and the power of godly men to inflict their beliefs on those who look to them for guidance. It is an era of stunning ignorance and religious persecution, from the days of Henry VIII to his progeny and later James I, who sees witches everywhere and lives in terror of the superstitions of the old ways. The undercurrent of warring religious factions is unceasing in England during these years, fueling the need to accuse, to make examples of those who are difficult to look upon.
Through their stories, peppered with fear and years of abuse, we follow these tortured, desperate lives, from Bess’s early days as a cunning woman to her granddaughter’s death by hanging, a terrible reminder of the sordid history of the powerless and the real danger to life and limb from those who speak of God and render His justice with a heavy hand. The result is not a comfortable read, despair leaking through the pages like the moans of the damned.