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Daughters of the Witching Hill
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Daughters of the Witching Hill

4.2 56
by Mary Sharratt

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Daughters of theWitching Hill brings history to life in a vivid and wrenching account of a family sustained by love as they try to survive the hysteria of a witch-hunt.

Bess Southerns, an impoverished widow living in Pendle Forest, is haunted by visions and gains a reputation as a cunning woman. Drawing on the Catholic folk magic of her youth, Bess heals


Daughters of theWitching Hill brings history to life in a vivid and wrenching account of a family sustained by love as they try to survive the hysteria of a witch-hunt.

Bess Southerns, an impoverished widow living in Pendle Forest, is haunted by visions and gains a reputation as a cunning woman. Drawing on the Catholic folk magic of her youth, Bess heals the sick and foretells the future. As she ages, she instructs her granddaughter, Alizon, in her craft, as well as her best friend, who ultimately turns to dark magic.

When a peddler suffers a stroke after exchanging harsh words with Alizon, a local magistrate, eager to make his name as a witch finder, plays neighbors and family members against one another until suspicion and paranoia reach frenzied heights.

Sharratt interweaves well-researched historical details of the 1612 Pendle witch-hunt with a beautifully imagined story of strong women, family, and betrayal. Daughters of the Witching Hill is a powerful novel of intrigue and revelation.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Library Journal
In this slow-burning tale, author Sharratt (The Vanishing Point) gives voice to two prominent victims of the Pendle, England witch hunt of 1612, Bess "Demdike" Southerns and her 15-year-old granddaughter, Alizon. Living in poverty and illegitimacy, without the protection of men, the Southerns and their community gain some relief from powerlessness by harnessing a combination of Catholic and pagan magic: Demdike is a renowned "blesser," and Alizon may be even more adept than she. While Sharratt shows understanding for these women, her intent to present them sympathetically is undermined by her decision to portray their powers as real; healings, fortune-telling, and curses are recounted through a subjective, first-person account, but seem unambiguously actual. The waters are further muddied by awkward narration, which too often reads like bad Renaissance Faire dialogue. Though Sharratt successfully evokes the economic and social factors that marginalized these women and their fellows, as well as the paradoxical power they held over the community that feared them, one longs for Sharratt to commit either to a supernatural explanation of events, or a thoroughly realistic approach.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Publishers Weekly
The 1612 Lancashire, England, witch trials that resulted in nine executions inspires Sharratt’s gorgeously imagined novel that wonders if some of the accusations of witchcraft might be true. Sharratt (The Vanishing Point) focuses on the Southerns family of Pendle Forest. Widowed mother Bess Southerns tries to save her family from bleakest poverty by healing the sick, telling fortunes, and blessing those facing misfortune, conjuring “charmes” that combine forbidden Catholic ritual, medicinal herbs, and guidance provided by her spirit-friend, Tibb. Though Bess compassionately uses her powers, her granddaughter, Alizon, unwittingly endangers her family while under the interrogation of a conniving local magistrate. Sharratt crafts her complex yet credible account by seamlessly blending historical fact, modern psychology, and vivid evocations of the daily life of the poor whose only hope of empowerment lay in the black arts. Set in forests and towers, farms and villages, deep in a dungeon and on the gallows, this novel grows darker as it approaches its inevitable conclusion, but proves uplifting in its portrayal of women who persevere, and mothers and daughters who forgive. (Apr.)
Library Journal
Based on the infamous 1612 Lancashire witch trials, Sharratt's (The Vanishing Point) latest novel vividly portrays the religious turmoil and hardscrabble life of 17th-century rural England. It's a familiar premise: an old beggar woman accused of witchcraft is sentenced to hang, along with others of her ilk. What makes this story stand out are the strong voices of the two main characters, stalwart Bess Southerns (aka Demdike) and her feisty granddaughter Alizon Device. Demdike is a cunning woman, able to heal animals and people with herbal folk magic. She strives to do only good, but when she teaches her dear friend the craft, she releases a Pandora's box of resentment, revenge, and evil. Years later, Alizon comes into the power herself but denies it, and this leads to tragedy. VERDICT While not a quick read, this is a fascinating tale. The story unfolds without melodrama and is therefore all the more powerful. Recommended for fans of Katherine Howe's The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane.—Jamie Kallio, Thomas Ford Memorial Lib., Western Springs, IL
Kirkus Reviews
The Pendle witches' story, retold as a passionate saga of female friendship and a cautionary tale of feuding within a superstitious community. According to Bess Demdike's definition, she's not a witch because she uses her powers for good, not evil. Either way, in this latest version of a famous English historical episode, Sharratt (The Real Minerva, 2004, etc.) credits Bess with actual powers to charm and heal, courtesy of her familiar spirit Tibb, a shape-shifter linked to the leader of the fairy folk. The era is the late-16th and early-17th century, a time when the old Catholic faith is still being ruthlessly eradicated. The first portion of the text is narrated by widowed Bess, who describes how at age 50 she became "cunning," able to heal a sick child via inherited herbal wisdom, common sense, Catholic blessings and some help from Tibb. Soon she and her daughter have a reputation for sorcery, a hanging offence, and later Bess shares her knowledge with friend Anne Whittle, a generosity she will regret when the two become enemies. Bess's 17-year-old granddaughter Alizon takes over the story to describe the family's downfall. Arrested, shaved, examined and tried, Bess dies in prison, while her daughter, granddaughter and some unfortunate neighbors are subsequently hanged. Committed storytelling and visual detail mark this overlong but tightly wound historical.

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.20(d)

Read an Excerpt

See us gathered here, three women stood at Richard
Baldwin's gate. I bide with my daughter, Liza of the squinteye,
and with my granddaughter, Alizon, just fifteen and dazzling
as the noontide sun, so bright that she lights up the murk of
my dim sight. Demdike, folk call me, after the dammed stream
near my dwelling place where the farmers wash their sheep before
shearing. When I was younger and stronger, I used to help
with the sheepwash. Wasn't afraid of the fiercest rams. I'd always
had a way of gentling creatures by speaking to them low and
soft. Though I'm old now, crabbed and near-blind, my memory
is long as a midsummer's day and with my inner eye, I see clear.
 We three wait till Baldwin catches a glimpse of us and out
he storms. Through the clouded caul that age has cast over my
eyes, I catch his form. Thin as a brittle, dead stalk, he is, his face
pinched, and he's clad in the dour black weeds of a Puritan. Fancies
himself a godly man, does our Dick Baldwin. A loud crack
strikes the earth - it's a horsewhip he carries. My daughter fair
leaps as he lashes it against the drought-hard dirt.
 “Whores and witches,” he rails, shrill enough to set the crows
to flight. “Get out of my ground.”
Slashes of air hit my face as he brandishes his whip, seeking
to strike fear into us, but it's his terror I taste as I let go of Alizon's
guiding hand and step forward, fi rm and square on my ragbundled
feet. We've only come to claim what is ours by right.
 “Whores and witches,” he taunts again, yelling with such bile
that his spit sprays me. “I will burn the one of you and hang the
 He speaks to Liza and me, ignoring young Alizon, for he
doesn't trust himself to even look at this girl whose beauty and
sore hunger would be enough to make him sink to his knobbly
 I take another step forward, forcing him to back away. The
man's a-fright that I'll so much as breathe on him. “I care not for
you,” I tell him. “Hang yourself.”
 Our Master Baldwin will play the righteous churchman, but
what I know of him would besmirch his good name forevermore.
He can spout his psalms till he's hoarse, but heaven's gates
will never open to him. I know this and he knows I know this,
and for my knowing, he fears and hates me. Beneath his black
clothes beats an even blacker heart. Hired my Liza to card wool,
did Baldwin, and then refused to pay her. What's more, our Liza
has done much dearer things for him than carding. Puritan or
no, he's taken his pleasure of her and, lost and grieving her poor
murdered husband, ten years dead, our Liza was soft enough to
let him. Fool girl.
 “Enough of this,” I say. “Liza carded your wool. Where's her
payment? We're poor, hungry folk. Would you let us starve for
your meanness?”
 I speak in a low, warning tone, not unlike the growl of a dog
before it bites. Man like him should know better than to cross
the likes of me. Throughout Pendle Forest I'm known as a cunning
woman, and she who has the power to bless may also curse.
 Our Master Baldwin blames me because his daughter Ellen
is too poorly to rise from her bed. The girl was a pale, consumptive
thing from the day she was born, never hale in all her nine
years. Once he called on me to heal her. Mopped her brow, I did.
Brewed her feverfew and lungwort, but still she ailed and shivered.
Tried my best with her, but some who are sick cannot be
mended. Yet Baldwin thinks I bewitched the lass out of malice.
Why would I seek to harm a hair on the poor girl's head when his
other daughter, the one he won't name or even look at, is my own
youngest granddaughter, seven-year-old Jennet?
 “Richard.” My Liza makes bold to step toward him. She
stretches out a beseeching hand. “Have a heart. For our Jennet's
sake. We've nothing more to eat in the house.”
 But he twists away from her in cold dread and still won't pay
her for her honest work, won't grant us so much as a penny. So
what can I do but promise that I'll pray for him till he comes to
be of a better mind? Soft under my breath, masked from his Puritan
ears, I murmur the Latin refrains of the old religion. How
my whispered words make him pale and quake - does he believe
they will strike him dead? Off to his house he scarpers. Behind
his bolted door he'll cower till we're well gone.
 “Come, Gran.” Alizon takes my arm to lead me home. Can't
make my way round without her in this dark ebb of my years.
But with my inner eye I see Tibb sat there on the drystone wall.
Sun breaks through the clouds to golden-wash his guilesome
face. Dick Baldwin would call him a devil, or even the Devil, but
I know better. Beautiful Tibb, his form invisible to all but me.
 “Now I don't generally stand by woe-working,” says my Tibb,
stretching out his long legs. “But if you forespoke Master Baldwin,
who could blame you, after all the ill he's done to you and
yours?” He cracks a smile. “Is revenge what you want?”
 “No, Tibb. Only justice.” I speak with my inner voice that
none but Tibb can hear. If Baldwin fell ill and died, what would
happen to his lawful daughter, Ellen? Her mother's long dead.
Another poor lass to live off the alms of the parish. No, I'll not
have that burden on my soul.
 “Justice!” Tibb laughs, then shakes his head. “Off the likes of
Dick Baldwin? Oh, you do set your sights high.”
 Tibb's laughter makes the years melt away, drawing me back
to the old days, when I could see far with my own two eyes and
walk on my own two legs, with none to guide me.

Meet the Author

MARY SHARRATT is the author of five critically acclaimed novels, including the Nautilus award-winning Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen. She is an American who has lived in Germany and England for more than two decades.

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Daughters of the Witching Hill 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 56 reviews.
Mountain_Muse More than 1 year ago
Mary Sharratt has succeeded in doing more than just writing another historical novel. She has wipe the grime from the window of time and set the reader back into the rural setting of Northern England during the midst of the religious and political upheaval that came at the end of the 16th and early 17th centuries as England pulled away from the Catholic Church. The reader can feel the character's breath coming off the very pages of the story as the pages turn in eagerness to see what the next page will bring to the plot of the story. This is a book worth adding to your permanent library.
literatissima More than 1 year ago
Based on the historical Pendle witch-hunt that took place in Lancashire, England in 1612, Daughters of the Witching Hill is a historical fiction work that kept me completely spellbound. The story mainly takes place in the time of the Reformation, a period where European religion was overtaken by Protestantism, replacing the predominant Catholic religion. The events unfold at a time when King James I has recently published his witch-hunters handbook, called Daemonologie. This, combined with other unfortunate events of the surrounding area, leads to the witch-hunt and trial of three generations of 'cunning women.' Told from the perspective of the accused, this well-written account is literary alchemy and well-worth the read for those who enjoy historical fiction, stories of witchcraft, religion or women's issues
Diane_Saarinen More than 1 year ago
Daughters of the Witching Hill's strong female characters show family ties and bonds of friendship to be far stronger than the iron shackles of witch hunt hysteria. Mary Sharratt portrays the Pendle witches as loyal, inspiring and, above all, human with vulnerabilities that eventually lead to their undoing. But as heartbreaking as the story is, this is not a dark read. Narrated by both Mother Demdike, the matriarch crone, and Alizon, the magically precocious granddaughter, the story is well-balanced and satisfying. While outwardly these women live in harsh poverty, their inner lives are rich not just in their relationships but also the occasional forays into the fairy realm which leave the reader wondering if the magic of Pendle forest just might be real after all.
VampireVixen More than 1 year ago
A good story telling how people became known as witches and the consequences that occurred when they were charged as a witch. The story follows Elizabeth Southerns, known as Demdike, and her daughter and gradnchildren and the hard life that they lead just to survive. The plot revolves around the family and the many things they do to survive on a dily basis culminating into the charges of being witches and the subsequent trials. Anyone interested in the stories of witchcraft or just a great Halloween read would enjoy this book. I would definately consider other books by this author and would recommend it for a book club discussion. I give it a 3.5 out of 5 stars.
meg820 More than 1 year ago
This was an amazing book. I read it for a book club and wasn't certain of it at first. It started out kind of slow, but halfway through it picked up so quickly that I HAD to finish it in two evening. It's based on a true historical event and the author does a wonderful job of portraying the events from the perspective of the the victims of this event.
Jasmyn9 More than 1 year ago
Bess Southerns is a charmer, a wise woman, a healer - trained in the forbidden folk magic of the Catholic church. By helping her neighbors she risks bringing the law down on not only herself, but her family and friends. We watch as she has a family, some that stand by her and some that leave because they fear her skills. We follow the family through her daughter and her granddaughter. When a neighbor accuses someone of witchcraft, however, the hunt for witches begins and Bess finds her family under scrutiny. This was an interesting look into not only the way the lower class lived, but also how the fear of witches could be contagious, drawing many innocents in along with the guilty. The book could have been a tad bit shorter. There were a few times I had to set it down because I felt that it had stalled and I needed a break from it. 3.5/5
dhaupt More than 1 year ago
A blend of fact and fiction that will leave you wondering how humanity has survived with all the inhumanity that it's been plagued with. Ms. Sharratt's tale of these men and women of Pendle Hill is bewitching in it's telling. We start with the matriarch Bess Southerns who is a local cunning woman who for a simple bag of oats or a laying hen will cure ills of man and beast alike. She remembers vividly the times when she was a young girl, before the papists were forbidden to worship and she's seen the times changing. She only uses her talent for good, never for evil for she never wants the badge of witch, she's very careful to teach her family the same. But sometimes fate can be a hard task master and loyalty can turn to betrayal. Mary brings us a haunting tale that will stay with you long after the last page has been turned. Her story line is unique giving her readers an authentic look at England at the height of Reformation where long after Henry VIII's death the Stuart King of James puts his own mark upon it. His mark was a stain that was smeared all across England. It was dark days and times for the simple folk and Mary stresses that with her wonderful dialogue, dialogue that can take us to the hills of England of the middle ages where we visualize the settings, people and doings. Her starring characters Bess Southerns and her family are all imaginatively portrayed, her supporting characters are as well, especially during the trial when the antiheros show their true colors. You will laugh, you will cry, you will empathize and sympathize, you will abhor, but most of all you will feel, feel for these amazing people and what they lived for and some died for. It will make you learn the history of the times without even knowing your actually learning because she makes it so entertaining. This is a definite must read for any lover of history, any lover of literary fiction, any lover of a great read.
goldlute More than 1 year ago
Based on a true story, I found this book to be wonderfully written, detailed and I felt I could relate to the characters. Being a lace maker, my favorite the Buckingshire Point lace, I had read many tales about this era of English history. I found that I could not put the book down and I was so happy to find a book that told a story of the herbwomen of that time. I hope Ms. Sharratt will write another wonderful tale maybe this one about the poor lacemakers of Devon, Buckinghamshire, Malmsbury regions.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I bought this book only because I had done a paper on European witch trials, and while this was fiction, it seemed to be pretty accurate on how life was. It took a bit to get used to the vernacular as well as how life was - I think we forget that families weren't always how they are now. I enjoyed the book quite a bit, and I knew what was going to happen, but I kept hoping.... I like some historical fiction, except I have to be in a mindset to deal with the difference between our lives and the characters lives - Sharratt did a good job in getting the atmosphere and the world in sync, and I did find myself rather lost in the story, and the characters. I would recommend this book, particularly for a reader that likes historical fiction.
59skh More than 1 year ago
A very interesting book but not for those who want happy endings.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Historically factual, engrossing, vividly written characters that the reader becomes invested in. Those readers complaining of the periodic slow pacing of the story are entitled to their opinions, but I was absolutely enchanted. Brilliant.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very good!
ladyhawke28 More than 1 year ago
This novel is by far one of my favorites in a long time! Starts off a little slow, but keep reading because it picks up fast and keeps moving until the end. I love the way it is narrated by 2 different characters to get the perspective from each one. The history revolving around the time of the salem witch trials is an interest of mine and the information for this novel was well researched and well written in my opinion. If you are looking for a story narrated by the characters and it being about a family that practiced healing magic but eventually became wrongfully accused of witchcraft and murder this is the book for you. You won't be disappointed; this was exactly what I was hoping it would be!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
absolutely loved it
candace knight More than 1 year ago
JConMartin More than 1 year ago
Bravo to Mary Sharratt for this wickedly witchy tale. Based on actual records from the 1600s in England, the story startles, sizzles, and comes to shine with solid characterization where there had been names and few details. Highly Recommended. James Conroyd Martin, Author of Push Not the River & Against a Crimson Sky
coffee_luvr More than 1 year ago
Really enjoyed the historical perspective on the subject of "cunning folk" and the subsequent witch trial based in England. Although the first third of the book was slower, it laid good ground work for the rest of the novel. If you like historical novels this one will not disappoint.
FeatheredQuillBookReviews More than 1 year ago
Daughters of the Witching Hill, which is based on the true account of a witch hunt and trial conducted in 1612 in the Pendle region of Lancashire, England, has a large cast of characters, many of whom were real people. As we read this gripping narrative, told first by Bess Southerns, called Mother Demdike, and then by her granddaughter, Alizon, we cannot help but sense the forces of doom approaching the family. These impoverished, unlucky people cannot escape their fate. All it takes is one misstep, one foolish word overheard by the wrong person, and paranoia explodes around them. Bess, a poor but optimistic widow, lives in Malkin Tower with her daughter, Liza, and Liza's children, Jamie (who would today probably be diagnosed with Down syndrome) and Alizon. Bess's best friend is Anne Whittle, called Chattox. Bess has another friend, too, a magical being (or familiar) called Tibb, who teaches her to use her powers of healing. For awhile Bess is successful and highly regarded, but when Chattox's daughter is nearly raped, Bess reluctantly teaches her friend to make "clay pictures" (which are kind of like voodoo dolls) to punish the rapist. Chattox now turns to dark magic. Next, Jamie fancies that he, too, has a familiar and begins to make clay pictures to punish people who are unkind to him. Bess's granddaughter, the beautiful Alizon, denies that she has any of her grandmother's power, but when she meets a peddler in the forest and he refuses to sell her any pins, she loses her temper. She curses him, he has a stroke . and a dozen people are arrested by an ambitious Puritan magistrate who believes every word of James I's witch hunting book, Daemonologie. (King James, who authorized the 1611 translation of the Bible that so many people still today believe is inerrant, was convinced of the reality of a grand witch conspiracy in the British Isles.) A dozen people, including Bess, Liza, Alizon, Jamie, Chattox, and her daughter, are tricked, arrested, held for several months in an underground jail, and then forced to walk for thirty miles in iron shackles to the site of their trial, where Liza's nine-year-old bastard daughter becomes the prosecution's star witness. Nine so-called witches are hanged. As modern scholarship is proving, however, most of the women (and men) tried in the infamous witch trials of Renaissance Europe weren't witches at all, at least not in the sense that modern American neopagans call themselves witches and speak of reclaiming the word "witch" as someone who "worships the ground we walk on." In this novel, as in history, some so-called witches were stubborn Catholics in newly Reformed (Protestant) lands, others were countryfolk who missed the old Catholic festivals and still believed in the land of faery, some were midwives who healed with herbs in a period when the male physicians still used leeches and never washed their hands, others were starving souls who would do anything to get something to eat. The so-called witches in Mary Sharratt's awe-full novel-in which the reader is filled with awe at the courage of Mother Demdike and her family and neighbors-are cunning women who have the misfortune to live in the Protestant police state that we know as Elizabethan and Jacobean England. Quill says: Heartbreaking and inspiring at the same time, Daughters of the Witching Hill is a book you won't soon forget.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A good interesting novel base on factual events.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Ripped through history and plunged into deep secrets, the reader falls in love with the wise and cunning women of Pendleton Forrest!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A heartrending journey through a troubled time, I loved it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book will not disappoint
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago