Monday, 22 May 2017
#Review of #Widdershins by Helen Steadman - a scary tale of witchcraft trials
Widdershins by Helen Steadman
‘Did all women have something of the witch about them?’
Jane Chandler is an apprentice healer. From childhood, she and her mother have used herbs to cure the sick. But Jane will soon learn that her sheltered life in a small village is not safe from the troubles of the wider world.
From his father’s beatings to his uncle’s raging sermons, John Sharpe is beset by bad fortune. Fighting through personal tragedy, he finds his purpose: to become a witch-finder and save innocents from the scourge of witchcraft.
Inspired by true events, Widdershins tells the story of the women who were persecuted and the men who condemned them.
I am inexorably drawn to stories of witchcraft and the notorious Witch trials of the 17th century and this one in particular called out loudly to me, especially as it is set in the North East of England, as am I. It is based on factual events that will quite frankly make any womans blood run cold!
Narrated in 2 very different first person voices, one to whom I really warmed and one who was so loathsome and despicable I found it quite difficult being placed inside his warped mind.
The first voice is that of Jane Chandler a young woman raised by her Mother Annie and Grandma Meg - both cunning women with a great knowledge of nature and the uses of herbs as treatments for common folk with all manner of ailments from the pains of childbirth to a winter cough and Jane is following in their footsteps and learning the womens family trade.
Meanwhile we have John Sharpe, whom we meet as a small child and I thought I was going to like this little lad who is cruelly mistreated by his father, partly blamed for his Mothers death in his own birth, triggering a deep mistrust and loathing for the midwives who attended his Mothers confinement. As a child accompanying his uncle to a witch trial he grows so utterly hell bent on naming and shaming and denouncing almost any woman as a witch his mind warps and he becomes a violent mysogynist, for whom I was unable to have one shred of sympathy.
Janes story flows beautifully and when tragedy first strikes this carefree young woman I ached for her. but her knowledge as a herbalist inevitably draws her closer to the dangers of being accused of witchcraft and I really began to appreciate just how difficult it must have been back then, for ordinary women in small communities, where any news that filters through is days old and third hand, when a rare visit to Newcastle city centre means a 15 mile walk in either direction, where jobs are almost non existent and women are regarded as little more than livestock by many menfolk.
John Sharpe grows older and more vile, his treatment of his wife and attitude towards women in general made me want to scream. I found it impossible to accept the way he thought that many of the warped ways he behaves are acceptable and his attempts to justify them sickened me.
He follows the nastiest and cruellest path possible and sets himself up to become a witchfinder, performing witch trials and manhandling, testing and pricking innocent women until he could prove them innocent or denounce them as witches and send them to their deaths. Oh Cruel John and innocent Jane lets just hope their paths never meet!
It took me a little while to get into the book but once I did I couldn't put it down. The characters and storytelling are wonderful. The North East of today is so very different to the bustling region of today. Yet because I know the North East region so well I felt right at home in the dark and distant past.
A wonderful scary, very atmospheric, and emotional book which serves as a lesson to all women of today not to be too complacent and trusting and a reminder that some men are just pure evil through and through.