Stacey Halls’ debut novel The Familiars is a treat for any reader who enjoys a story about witchcraft, history and womanhood. The book is set in the early 17th century and revolves around a real life event, the Pendle witch trial that took place in Lancaster in 1612. The witch trial found ten women guilty of witchcraft and all of the defendants were hanged save but one Alice Gray, who is one of the two main protagonists of Halls’ story. Alice Gray is of low social status but she is a gifted midwife having learnt the secrets of the profession from her mother. Alice’s life completely changes when she meets the other protagonist of the story, the wealthy and soon to be a mother Fleetwood Shuttleworth. Initially Fleetwood seems to have it all, wealth, a good husband, a lovely home but she has had a number of miscarriages and it is the chance encounter with Alice that giver her hope for the future.
Motherhood is one of the main themes of the book and its importance is highlighted again and again in order to show the role and position of a woman in the 17th century. Fleetwood’s husband, Richard, loves his wife but he wants an heir and when Fleetwood fails to deliver it is deemed natural for a man to find himself a mistress capable of securing an heir. This betrayal of trust and marriage plays a huge role in the book and although the reader is left somewhat shocked by Richard’s actions Halls portrays a society that not only supports such an act but also deems it most normal. The fleeting dialogue regarding Richard’s cheating reveals a society in which the woman’s role is to birth children and look after a household and not much else. At one point of the book Alice wonders why women write only letters and not big book volumes only to find Fleetwood shocked by the idea of women writers as writing is the job of a man. Most readers are probably aware of the inequality and mistreatment of women throughout history but The Familiars portrays the woman condition by light brushstrokes using the daily lives of two very different women, from very different backgrounds to emphasise the position and role a woman had at this time of history. Halls uses small everyday details, passing remarks and inner monologue to push the boundaries of the reader’s knowledge and provide an in-depth understanding of this era and the place of women within it.
The role of the woman in early 17th century Britain is further highlighted by the background story of the witch trials happening around the two female protagonists. Halls masterfully portrays the ignorance of people in power who are scared of women with knowledge and see magic and witchcraft when there is only skill and experience. Alice’s midwife knowledge and her use of different herbs and potions are seen as malevolent magic rather than a useful skill. The ways witches are treated in the book is based on history and Halls’ work brings this period to life depicting the atrocities and poor treatment of the women found guilty of witchcraft. The ignorance and hatred towards women of knowledge and skill are conveyed through the character of Roger who is hungry for power and seeks it through manipulating the witch trials. The trials once again emphasize the place of a woman in this society and the way the rich and powerful male can shape the future of a woman in such way that he can leave her happy and wealthy or poor and destitute regardless of the truth behind her actions. Halls is a gifted narrator and brings this period to life through her setting and characters and tells a story that lets the reader take a peek into a world of magic, and wonder, and witchcraft and female friendship that survives despite the obstacles that the society of the 17th century presents. There is a happy ending but in its background the reader sees ten women hanging for sins they have not committed and this picture summarises not only the book but also this period of history.
The Familiars by Stacey Halls is a debut to look out for, one of these books that once you start reading, you cannot put down.
The Familiars is out on 7th February 2019 via Bonnier Zaffre.