A bewitching tale

Winter on Pendle Hill
Robert Neill was a Lancastrian writer of historical novels. I know nothing further about him, and judging by what I've found on the web neither does anyone else (for a very funny discussion on his provenance see The Motley Fool), I do know however that Mist over Pendle is an eminently readable historical novel, with a real sense of place.

Set in 1611, the novel follows the events leading up to the Pendle witch trials - for more information on that see The Pendle witches. Margery, a young woman brought up in a Puritan family, is exiled to Pendle to be brought up by her cousin Roger Nowell, a local Justice of the Peace. Margery has alienated her family by her forthright ways and an ability to think for herself. Roger, however, is of the same mould as Margery and the two quickly become friends. Margery discovers that Pendle is very different from London - for a start it is surprisingly tolerant. Here although officially Roman Catholicism is illegal there are many fairly openly Catholic families, there are also many Puritan ones, and both are united by a fear of witchcraft. A series of allegations are laid against a local family of witchcraft resulting in death. Although Roger is convinced that there is malice at work, he is also sure that the deaths were natural - many of them by stroke (ironically this originally got its name from the belief that it was caused by a fairy or evil spirit "stroking" the sick person). However as the allegations escalate it becomes clear that there truly is evil at work in Pendle, with a master manipulator pulling the strings of the alleged witches for her own ends.

This is a clever tale of superstition and murder with a very modern heroine at the centre of events. There's a wonderful sense of place: early seventeenth century Lancashire comes leaping to life, as does the period itself with all its difficulties and prejudices. I found myself, throughout the novel, wondering what would have happened to these characters just a few years later during the English Civil War. How would their loyalties and beliefs have survived through that turbulent time?

There's not a great deal of sympathy for the alleged witches; Neill comes down firmly on the side that they are guilty not of witchcraft but certainly of evil intent, and in the case of some of them a very unsupernatural murder. This novel doesn't attempt to re-examine the case in, say, the way Arthur Miller does the Salem witch trials in The Crucible, but it's eminently readable, a true page-turner, and well worth curling up with in front of a fire on a winter's night.


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