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Sunday, 10 July 2011

Daughters of The Witching Hill by Mary Sharratt

How I Became a Daughter of the Witching Hill by Mary Sharratt

In midwinter 2002, I moved from the Bay Area in California to Lancashire, England. I’ve traveled around the world and lived in many different places, from Germany to Belgium. But what ensued from this relocation was the biggest culture and climate shock of my life. In Northern England, the winters are so dark and oppressive—I felt as though I were trapped inside some claustrophobic gothic novel. My husband and I moved to an old industrial town, our newly built house on the site of a demolished factory. Surrounding all this post-industrial bleakness was a landscape straight out of a fairy tale. In spring the hedges were lacy with hawthorn. Ewes birthed their lambs in the meadow behind our house.

Our house looks out on Pendle Hill, famous throughout the world as the place where George Fox received his vision that moved him to found the Quaker religion in 1652. But Pendle is also steeped in its legends of the Lancashire Witches.

In 1612, nine people from Pendle Forest were executed for witchcraft. The most notorious of the accused, Bess Southerns, aka Mother Demdike, cheated the hangman by dying in prison. This is how Thomas Potts describes her in The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster:

She was a very old woman, about the age of Foure-score yeares, and had been a Witch for fiftie yeares. Shee dwelt in the Forrest of Pendle, a vast place, fitte for her profession: What shee committed in her time, no man knowes. . . . no man escaped her, or her Furies.

Once I read this, I fell in love. Reading the trial transcripts against the grain, I was astounded how her strength of character blazed forth in the document written to vilify her. She freely admitted to being a healer and a cunning woman, and she instructed her daughter and granddaughter in the ways of magic. Her neighbors called on her to cure their children and their cattle. What fascinated me was not that Bess was arrested on witchcraft charges but that the authorities turned on her only near the end of her long, productive career. She practiced her craft for decades before anybody dared to interfere with her.

Bess’s life unfolded almost literally in my backyard. Using the Ordinance Survey Map, I located the site of Malkin Tower, once her home. Now only the foundations remain. I board my beautiful Welsh mare at a stable near Read Hall, once home to Roger Nowell, the magistrate responsible for sending Bess and the other Pendle Witches to their deaths. Every weekend, I walked or rode my mare down the tracks of Pendle Forest. Quietening myself, I learned to listen, to allow Bess’s voice to well up from the land. Her passion, her tale enveloped me.

I’m often asked if it was a depressing experience, writing about Bess and her family when I knew very well how their tale ended—on the gallows of Lancaster Castle. Although it was harrowing to write of the injustice they suffered, it was my duty as a novelist to serve their memory and bear witness. And not just that—to me, their story is transcendent rather than purely tragic, and I do hope that comes across in the novel. Death was not the end of these women. The original title of the book was A Light Far-Shining and I believe that theirs was an inner radiance and power that death could not extinguish.

History is a fluid thing that continually shapes the present. As a writer, I am obsessed with how the true stories of our ancestors haunt the land. Long after her demise, Bess and her fellow witches of Pendle Forest endure. This is their home, their seat of power, and they shall never be banished. By delving into Bess’s story, I have become an adopted daughter of her living landscape, one of many tellers who spin her unending tale.

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Danielle Thorne said...

What an excellent post. Your book sounds wonderful and the research as enticing as can be. Lovely.

Mary Sharratt said...

Thank you, Danielle!

Anna Dean said...

The book sounds fascinating. My family come from the Pendle area and I've always liked to think that I might have a bit of witch blood in my veins. Look forward to reading it.

Teresa said...

Wonderful post full of inspiration. I had the honor of receiving a copy of Daughters of the Witching Hill at the Historical Novel Society conference. I can't wait to read it.

judith said...

Your description of how you came to write your book is both beautiful and moving! I love the way you tell us about becoming part of the landscape where your story happened. I look forward to reading the book!

Judith Rock