Book Review: The Familiars by Stacey Halls

The 1612 Pendle witch trials in Lancashire began when the peddler, John Law, refused to sell his pins to Alizon Device. Following the encounter, Law was stricken with a sickness that was attributed to Alizon’s malefic witchcraft. From here, accusations of witchcraft abounded, bringing many other members of the Device family, the Chattox family, and others into the hunt. One of the most intriguing aspects of the evidence gathered was the account given by Jennet Device, the nine-year-old daughter of the Device family, incriminating many of her relatives and neighbours. With accusations supported, and elaborated upon, by a young family member of some of the accused, the Pendle witch hunt – which resulted in eleven trials and ten deaths by hanging – serves as a fascinating example of the complex interrelations that sometimes existed at the heart of such trials.

The animal familiars of the Pendle witches feature throughout Thomas Potts’s 1613 pamphlet The wonderfull discoverie of witches in the countie of Lancaster, where we can read reproductions of the examinations taken during these trials. These accounts tell us about the furred imps of the accused witches: Alice Whittle alias Chattox’s dog familiar, named Tibbe; Elizabeth Device’s dog, Ball; James Device’s dog, Dandy; Jennet Preston’s unnamed foal; and the unnamed dog of Alizon Device. These familiars were said to have helped the accused witches harm and even kill their enemies, in exchange for which the witches were told to give their soul to the devil and turn against Christ. Part of what made these creatures so fearsome were their unnatural abilities to cause harm paired with an innocuous appearance that allowed them to extend the witch’s harm beyond her own physical reach.

Jarmara, a canine familiar on the frontispiece of Matthew Hopkins’s The Discovery of Witches (London, 1647). Several of those accused during the Pendle witch trials were claimed to possess supernatural dogs.

Set during these notorious trials, and taking its name from their mammalian demons, The Familiars by debut novelist Stacey Halls follows the life of the young gentry woman, Fleetwood Shuttleworth. Tensions begin from the outset, when Fleetwood discovers a doctor’s letter written to her husband but kept from her, telling him that a further pregnancy would surely kill her. We follow Fleetwood navigating the repercussions of this letter, her eventual pregnancy, and her marriage to a man who would keep such secrets from her. Meanwhile, the Lancashire witch hunt gains pace. Fleetwood’s life brushes up against these events, both with those accused of witchcraft and those who hunt the witches. It’s one of several recent novels inspired by imagined or real-life supernatural events, including Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent (and more recently Melmoth), Imogen Hermes Gowar’s The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, and Beth Underdown’s The Witchfinder’s Sister, the latter set during the East Anglian trials of the 1640s orchestrated by Matthew Hopkins.

Pendle Hill, the ominous knuckle of landscape at the geographical heart of the trials. Photo: James Brown.

Much of Halls’s novel focuses on Fleetwood’s relationship with Alice Gray, who acts as her midwife. Alice, as we know, was one of the witches accused during the Pendle trials but was acquitted and survived. We know little else about this mysterious woman, and why she was able to escape this brutal case alive. Getting to know this fictional representation of Alice is one of the really satisfying aspects of this novel, alongside our meetings with the young Jennet Device. Encountering the hunt through Fleetwood brings it to life. Her questions about these crimes, and her reactions to them and the people involved, provides a relatable touchstone. She asks the same questions we would about Jennet, wishing to understand the motivations of a young girl who seems willing to testify against her own family. We also, of course, encounter animals throughout the narrative, with a particularly convincing evocation of how the fear of witches and their familiars influences how the characters perceive the creatures around them. The descriptions of these beastly helpmeets are true to the many accounts generated by early modern trials; it’s this level of research and understanding by Halls that makes this such an easy novel to get swept away in.

A ceramic plaque on the Pendle Sculpture Trail in Aitken Wood, commemorating Elizabeth Device by means of the paw prints of her alleged spirit hound, Ball. Photo: James Brown.

An early modern witch hunt seems like an obvious backdrop for an exciting historical novel, but it can be difficult to achieve the right balance between history, relatability, and an exciting read. With The Familiars, Halls achieves all three. Fleetwood provides an engaging viewpoint from which to watch these accusations of witchcraft unfold. Her scepticism, uncertainty, and sense of injustice, alongside her concerns about her own mortality, all mean that the reader is with her on her personal journey; Fleetwood’s viewpoint is not alien, even though the world around her often is. Though set during the Pendle witch trials, it’s Fleetwood’s own personal ordeal of navigating womanhood in the seventeenth century that’s at the forefront of The Familiars. We want her to fight against a life that entraps her, but also for her to stay safe and distant from a witchcraft trial by witch she also threatens to be enveloped. This tension helps to create a compelling sense of foreboding throughout, making this a difficult novel to put down.

Further Reading

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