The first part of a two-part series, Widdershins is inspired by the Newcastle witch trials, where 16 people were hanged. Despite being the largest mass execution of witches on a single day in England, these trials are not widely known about. In August 1650, 15 women and one man were hanged as witches after a Scottish witchfinder found them guilty of consorting with the devil. This notorious man was hired by the Puritan authorities in response to a petition from the Newcastle townsfolk who wanted to be rid of their witches.
I am a massive audiobook fan because of the ability it gives me to multitask. I can make food and not have to stop reading. I can get up and go to the bathroom and not have to stop reading. I no longer have to choose whether to do chores or read, because I can do both… okay, maybe there are some downsides!
This book has two main characters, Jane and John. Jane is an apprentice healer, her mother is teaching her the uses of herbs to heal the unwell and how to help those in pain. John had a difficult start in life, his mother dying giving birth to him and his father blaming his mother’s death on him. We follow both characters from childhood to adulthood, as they learn about the world they are living in, and how it can be kind, but it can also be bitterly cruel.
I absolutely adored Jane. She is the kind of person you just want to be friends with. In her world people are kind and some have love to spare. She is not one to keep the spare love for herself, but would rather spread it on, and give love to others. I loved learning about the herbs she and her mother use to help people, but at times, I found myself wishing they had access to the medicine we have nowadays. Childbirth was a particularly dangerous thing, and while it is difficult today, it was seriously life-threatening in the period that this book is set in. And with the midwives being treated terribly, and being accused of witchcraft, those giving birth had a very high chance of not surviving the birth.
My feelings towards John is a different matter entirely. He has a very hard start in life, and the lack of love in his life turns him bitter and hardens him against the world. He is cruel to his wife, blaming her for not bearing a child and abusing her, all while claiming to be a God-fearing man, and doing what God would want. Corrupted Religion corrupts him, and he becomes a cold man, quick to anger and even quicker to accuse. My initial feeling of sympathy for his plight was quickly quashed as I began to despise him.
The blurb of this novel is a little misleading, which is why this was not a five star read for me. The burb suggested I would be thrown right into the action, but that is not the case. Instead, it is about the character’s lives, their whole lives, leading up to this one point. Every time my husband or I walked into the same room as the other while I was listening to this story, I would announce ‘she hasn’t been accused of witchcraft yet’ and I actually celebrated when I reached that point in the story — I know it sounds odd, and maybe even a little disturbing, but I felt like this novel was building up to this moment, and it was a very, very, very long build up. I will not lie, she is not accused until the last hour of the audiobook.
The narration in this novel is wonderful, and Christine Mackie has a lovely voice to listen to. In particular, I loved that she didn’t just read the book, but she gave the characters accents, and I could easily tell them all apart. This made the characters jump out of the story even more, and I loved that the extra effort was taken to do this.
I thought this novel was incredibly interesting, especially in how quickly and easily people would jump to accuse those who they had known for a very long time, and who had helped them and possibly saved their lives before. The brutality of this period in history isn’t brushed over, and the setting has been depicted wonderfully. It is just a shame that it took so long to get to the part of the story I was looking forward to reading.
I received my copy from The Coffee Pot Book Club but you can grab yours from Amazon UK • Amazon US • Amazon CA • Amazon Au • Audible • Blackwells • Waterstones • Kobo • iBooks • iTunes • Foyles • Book Depository
Dr Helen Steadman is a historical novelist. Her first novel, Widdershins and its sequel, Sunwise were inspired by the Newcastle witch trials. Her third novel, The Running Wolf was inspired by a group of Lutheran swordmakers who defected from Germany to England in 1687.Christine Mackie has worked extensively in TV over the last thirty years in well-known TV series such as Downton Abbey, Wire in the Blood, Coronation Street, French & Saunders and The Grand. Theatre work includes numerous productions in new writing as well as classics, such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Comedy of Errors, Richard III, An Inspector Calls, and the Railway Children. In a recent all women version of Whisky Galore, Christine played three men, three women and a Red Setter dog!