Our Book of the Month for October is The Familiars by Stacey Halls. Can Fleetwood Shuttleworth survive her pregnancy and save her midwife Alice from being tried as a witch?
The Familiars – the blurb
Fleetwood Shuttleworth is 17 years old, married, and pregnant for the fourth time. But as the mistress at Gawthorpe Hall, she still has no living child, and her husband Richard is anxious for an heir. When Fleetwood finds a letter she isn’t supposed to read from the doctor who delivered her third stillbirth, she is dealt the crushing blow that she will not survive another pregnancy.
Then she crosses paths by chance with Alice Gray, a young midwife. Alice promises to help her give birth to a healthy baby, and to prove the physician wrong.
As Alice is drawn into the witchcraft accusations that are sweeping the north-west, Fleetwood risks everything by trying to help her. But is there more to Alice than meets the eye?
Soon the two women’s lives will become inextricably bound together as the legendary trial at Lancaster approaches, and Fleetwood’s stomach continues to grow. Time is running out, and both their lives are at stake.
The Familiars – our review
This review is written with the expectation you have read The Familiars. If that’s not you yet, bookmark the page and come back.
I’m going to ask that you stop reading this review, just for a moment, and really study the cover of The Familiars. At first glance you may think ‘ooh nice cover’, ‘very autumnal’ but just look at the content included. The ruby necklace, the fox, the letter, even the rattle Richard bought for the baby. All sewn together by a noose that’s never too far away from Alice’s (and even Fleetwood’s) neck. How very clever of Alexandra Allden and Lucy Rose Cartwright.
It’s dangerous to be a woman
In terms of the book, I thought initially that the story was going to be all about witches. It is afterall set in 1612 and within spitting distance of Pendle Hill. Yet whilst Halls expertly shows how dangerous it was for a woman in those ages, it’s not just the risk of being labelled a witch where the danger lies. Inheritance, marriage, class divide, even the dangers of being pregnant are all highlighted. I loved that Halls steered away from the obvious. You may have known the outcome of the witch trials, but you didn’t know the ending of this story beforehand.
I was very surprised when reading the Historical Note to find out the characters are all real people! The book is a work of fiction but there really was a Fleetwood Shuttleworth living across the way from the Pendle Hill. Gowthorpe Hall is a real place that you can look around and Alice Gray was the only woman to be acquitted in the Pendle witch trials. How fascinating!
I really enjoyed reading the book and loved how perspectives changed as you continued reading. ‘No she isn’t a witch, yes she is’. ‘Yes she’s happily married, no she isn’t’. The tensions behind the women being arrested for witch craft were ever present and at times I genuinely feared for Fleetwood. I was certain she was either going to be accused of witchcraft or die in childbed. I can’t imagine how hard it must have been for women living back then in amongst the witch hunts.
Given the above, I did find Fleetwood’s constant gallavanting around the countryside whilst pregnant and alone slightly irritating. It just seemed to lack a certain authenticness. Now I’m no historical expert and there was much reference to Turkey carpets and oyster pies, but would Fleetwood really have been allowed to do what she did?
Book of the Month
The Familiars makes a good autumn read, especially if you are into historical fiction. The cover is beautiful and a trip to Gawthorpe Hall would make a great #IReadItInABook challenge. What more can you ask for from an October Book of the Month?
If you would like to get involved with our book of the month try answering our book club questions published every month. Just search in our footnotes section for the Get Involved articles. We will also be reviewing a new book in November so keep an eye out for the Lowdown on it soon.